Articles Posted in Auto Accidents

Late last year, an appellate court in New York issued a written opinion in a bicycle accident case, affirming a lower court’s decision not to apply governmental immunity. In the case, Turturro v. City of New York, the court determined that the alleged negligence was regarding a “proprietary function,” rather than a governmental one, and therefore government immunity was not appropriate.

City IntersectionThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff, a 12-year-old boy, was riding his bike on a four-lane New York street at 6:30 in the evening when he was struck by a vehicle traveling at an estimated speed of 54 miles per hour. The speed limit was 30 miles per hour. The driver was cited for reckless driving in a criminal case, and he pleaded guilty.

The plaintiff then filed a civil lawsuit against the driver as well as the City of New York. Evidence was presented that several citizens and lawmakers had written to the Department of Transportation, asking the city to do something about the dangerous road. Specifically, citizens were concerned that drivers were speeding and drag-racing. The city presented evidence that in response to the letters, it had commissioned a study on motorists’ speed and notified the police of the findings. However, the plaintiff pointed out that no traffic-calming measures – such as road bumps, rumble strips, or raised crosswalks – were implemented. After a jury trial, a verdict was issued in favor of the plaintiff. Specifically, the jury determined that the driver was 50% at fault, the city 40% at fault, and the plaintiff 10% at fault.

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One can easily imagine a world in which a defendant fearful of an upcoming lawsuit destroys internal company documents that the defendant knows may be harmful to its case. This fear of the destruction of evidence in anticipation of litigation gave rise to the doctrine of spoliation. Essentially, the doctrine of spoliation allows for a judge to impose sanctions on a party if they destroy or alter relevant evidence in anticipation of an upcoming case.

TireThere are several sanctions available to a court when it finds that a party has engaged in spoliation. Most commonly, the judge will prevent certain evidence from being admitted. Alternatively, the judge may provide the jury with an instruction regarding the missing evidence and how, if preserved, it would likely disfavor the party that was responsible for its destruction. Moreover, in some extreme circumstances, a court can enter judgment against the spoliating party.

Not all pre-trial destruction of evidence, however, will be considered a violation of the spoliation doctrine. As a recent case illustrates, sometimes a party destroys evidence without thinking about an upcoming case.

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Earlier this month, an appellate court in West Virginia issued a written opinion in a personal injury case filed against the state’s department of transportation by the son of a woman who was killed in a car accident. In the case, Department of Transportation v. King, the court determined that the Department of Transportation (“the Department”) was entitled to governmental immunity and reversed the lower court’s decision that had allowed the plaintiff’s case to proceed against the government agency.

Smashed CarThe Facts Giving Rise to the Case

The plaintiff’s mother was killed in a car accident that was caused by another driver. The at-fault driver possessed a valid license at the time of the accident that was issued by the Department. However, the driver’s license had been suspended several years prior and had only recently been reinstated.

Evidently, when the at-fault driver applied for reinstatement, the Department issued the license without submitting relevant medical forms to the Department’s medical advisory board. There were rules in place governing when a referral was proper, but those rules allowed for the Department to use its discretion in making referrals. The plaintiff’s claim was that the Department’s failure to refer the at-fault driver’s application to the review board was negligent.

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In early November, the Supreme Court of Connecticut heard oral arguments stemming from a governmental immunity matter. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff was hit by a vehicle near his school’s driveway. Through his parents, he brought a lawsuit against several defendants, including the superintendent and assistant principals of the school. The plaintiff argued that the named defendants negligently supervised the school’s staff and students, and as a result the plaintiff suffered injuries.

SchoolyardThe defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that they enjoyed governmental immunity and could not be held liable. The trial court agreed and found that the defendants’ duty to supervise the students and staff was considered discretionary, and as a result governmental immunity applied. The trial court also found that although the superintendent and principals had a ministerial duty to assign staff to guard the lot, these administrators were also entitled to summary judgment because they fulfilled their duty by creating a schedule of assigned staff to monitor the lot. However, on the day in question, there was no staff member monitoring the lot because the scheduled staff member was out sick.

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently released an opinion affirming a lower court’s decision that summary judgment should be granted in favor of a defendant in a product liability lawsuit. The case stems from a tragic traffic accident that occurred when a passenger died when he was traveling as a passenger in the back of a vehicle.

Road SignAccording to the court’s written opinion, the vehicle crashed into another vehicle and began spinning, colliding with many nearby objects. Unfortunately, a yield sign was one of the objects that was hit, and the stationary base of the sign was forced underneath the vehicle and cut through the fuel tank. At that point, the fuel tank began to leak. The driver and front passenger were able to safely exit the vehicle; however, the three passengers in the back were not able to escape because the doors would not open. As the passengers were trying to escape, the car became engulfed in flames.

The family of the three passengers killed brought a product liability lawsuit against the car’s manufacturer. They claimed that the design of the car’s fuel tank was faulty and that the company should have taken reasonable steps to design and manufacture a gas tank that would not be prone to explosions after this type of accident. The plaintiffs attempted to produce expert testimony, but the defendants successfully moved to exclude the testimony. As a result, it was determined that the plaintiffs did not have sufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact.

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All fatal traffic accidents are tragic. However, those that involve a drunk driver and a young victim feel particularly devastating. Lawmakers and police do everything they can to enact and enforce laws that deter drunk driving, but there is no substitute for good judgment. In fact, drunk driving is such a problem in New Mexico that between the years of 2002 and 2013, over 1,200 people lost their lives due to alcohol-related accidents. Furthermore, New Mexico’s per capita rate of death in drunk driving accidents is 30% higher than the national average.

CocktailSadly, nothing can be done to bring back someone who lost their life in a drunk driving accident. However, the family of the victim may be able to hold the responsible party accountable through a civil wrongful death lawsuit. Wrongful death cases in New Mexico are technically brought by the administrator of the deceased’s estate. However, they are brought for the benefit of the surviving family members, usually a spouse, children, or grandchildren. In order to prove a New Mexico wrongful death case, the person bringing the lawsuit must show that the defendant’s negligent act caused the death of their loved one. In the case of a drunk driving accident, this is often proven through evidence of the driver’s intoxication.

23-Year-Old Man Killed in Wrong-Way Drunk-Driving Accident

Earlier this month, a young man was killed in a drunk driving accident on Interstate 25. According to one local news report covering the tragic accident, the collision occurred at around 11:30 in the evening in Santa Fe.

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The Alaska Supreme Court recently rejected a plaintiff’s challenge to a jury’s verdict in a personal injury case that had denied the plaintiff relief and found the defendant was not operating his vehicle negligently when the accident occurred. The state high court ruled that the jury could have reasonably concluded that the accident was not the defendant’s fault and that he should not be held accountable for the injuries allegedly suffered by the plaintiff in the accident. Based on the latest appellate ruling, the plaintiff will most likely not be compensated for the injuries that she suffered in the crash.

Snowy RoadThe Defendant Slides on Ice and Crashes into the Plaintiff’s Vehicle at an Intersection

The plaintiff in the case of Marshall v. Peter was a woman who was struck from behind by the defendant’s vehicle while she was waiting to make a left-hand turn at an intersection. According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the parties agreed that the road conditions were icy at the time of the accident, and the police officers who responded to the crash cited the defendant for causing the accident by making an improper start. The plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against the defendant after the accident, alleging that he negligently failed to account for the road conditions and maintain a safe following distance from the plaintiff, causing the accident and her subsequent injuries.

The Jury Finds that the Defendant Was Not Negligent

After trial on the plaintiff’s claim, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant, finding that the defendant had operated his vehicle with due care considering the conditions at the time, and the accident was an unavoidable and minor result of uncontrollable conditions, rather than the defendant’s fault. In response to the verdict, the plaintiff asked the court to enter judgment in her favor notwithstanding the jury’s findings, but the trial court rejected her request. The plaintiff then appealed that ruling to the state supreme court, arguing that the defendant should be liable for the accident as a matter of law and that the jury’s verdict was unreasonable.

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A division of the Court of Appeal of the State of California recently published an opinion reversing a trial court ruling that had prevented an accident victim from pursuing a negligence claim arising from injuries he suffered in a crash allegedly caused by a paramedic who was responding to a medical emergency. The trial court previously rejected the plaintiff’s claim because it was not filed within California’s one-year statute of limitations for negligence claims against a medical professional. The appellate court determined that the plaintiff’s car accident claim should not be restricted by the statute of limitations for professional negligence and remanded the case back to the trial court to proceed toward a trial or settlement.

AmbulanceThe Defendant Ran a Red Light While Responding to an Emergency and Injured the Plaintiff

The plaintiff in the case of Aldana v. Stillwagon is a private citizen who was injured when his vehicle was struck by the defendant as he drove through an intersection. According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the defendant was a paramedic and was driving a standard pickup truck en route to a medical emergency when he failed to stop at a red light and crashed into the plaintiff, who had the right of way at the time of the accident. Based on the injuries suffered in the accident, the plaintiff filed a negligence lawsuit against the defendant approximately 17 months after the crash.

The Plaintiff’s Suit Is Dismissed Based on a Special Statute of Limitations

In response to the plaintiff’s lawsuit, the defendant argued that California’s Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act contained a statute of limitations that barred the plaintiff’s claim. Under California law, a victim of professional negligence by a medical provider must file a claim within one year from the date the injury was discovered. Since the defendant was working as a paramedic and responding to an emergency at the time of the crash, the trial court determined that the plaintiff’s claim was subject to the one-year statute of limitations and dismissed the case, resulting in the plaintiff’s appeal.

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A state appellate court recently decided that a personal injury case involving an underinsured motorist claim should be remanded back to the trial court, due to ambiguities in the insurance contract. The main issue that was being disputed was a clause in the insurer’s policy that required that an underinsured motorist claim must be brought within three years, although the policy also stated that the insured individual must first exhaust the underinsured’s insurance policy.

Signing a ContractIn this case, a mother and her two sons were involved in a serious car accident with an underinsured motorist. The mother filed a lawsuit against the other driver, and her own insurance company also filed a complaint against the driver. The insurance company was seeking damages for payments they made as a result of the accident. However, the other driver’s insurance policy coverage was minimal. The mother filed a claim with her own insurance company as well because the other driver’s policy was insufficient to cover her damages. However, since this was done more than three years after the accident, the insurance company filed a motion to dismiss and argued that the claim was barred by the requirement in the contract that all claims be brought within three years.

The trial court denied the insurance company’s motion, and they then appealed. The court affirmed the trial court’s decision and found that the policy was ambiguous and should be construed in favor of the plaintiff.

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In a recent opinion, a court held in favor of an injured driver who sued their insurance company after filing a claim with the company and receiving a very small amount of damages. The case stemmed from a 2007 accident in which the driver was rear-ended by another vehicle. Sadly, the accident caused serious harm to the driver’s back, and as a result, he filed a claim with his insurance company.

Wrecked CarThe driver brought the claim under the insurance company’s “uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage.” The insurance company and the driver had several months of back and forth until the insurance company finally paid a very small amount. The driver went on to sue the insurance company and claimed that the company breached their contract and caused an unreasonable delay. The jury found in favor of the driver, and the insurance company then appealed. The insurance company argued that the driver produced erroneous expert testimony and was unreasonable. However, the District Court ruled in the driver’s favor and affirmed the $2,250,000 damages award.

New Mexico Underinsured and Uninsured Motorist Insurance Policies

Although accidents are a natural risk that everyone takes when driving, it does not mean that the devastation is any less when it does occur. Drivers purchase insurance policies in order to mitigate the financial cost of an accident. However, frequently insurance does not cover all of the costs associated with an accident. A particularly difficult situation arises when the culpable party does not have insurance at all. In these situations, many drivers rely on their own insurance company’s under-insured or uninsured policy.

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