Articles Posted in Car Accidents

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Before any jury trial, the attorneys for the parties to the lawsuit can speak to, question, and make strikes of citizens within the jury pool to shape the eventual panel that hears the case and decides whether liability exists and which (if any) damages to award. This is known as voir dire. Like any part of a trial, voir dire must follow the guidelines established through statutes and case law. If not, a party has the right to appeal on this issue.

auto light A recent Appeals Court case case (15-P-1421) analyzes whether or not a ruling regarding voir dire was sufficient to warrant the dismissal of the injured party’s motion for a new trial.

The injured party was seriously injured as a passenger during a car accident involving two vehicles. She had left a social event with friends to go to a fast food restaurant. She was in the front passenger seat. The driver merged onto the road and intended to enter the left travel lane and cross the two opposite lanes to enter the parking lot. The driver saw the other defendant’s car’s headlights in the distance traveling toward them in the opposite lane, but she thought that she had enough time to turn. The oncoming driver hit the car and ejected the plaintiff from the vehicle, causing serious, permanent injuries to the plaintiff.

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When filing a lawsuit in Massachusetts’ civil court system, the alleged at-fault party must be notified properly. When the at-fault party is an employee of a company, notifying the right person can get complicated. A recent Appeals Court case reviews the notice requirement under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, G.L. c. 258. In this case, a woman was injured by a city bus as she was entering another vehicle. She filed suit two years after the accident, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) answered, raising the affirmative defense that she did not properly give notice under G.L. c. 258, § 4.  Busy Street The trial court overruled the second motion by the MBTA to grant summary judgment in its favor, and the MBTA appealed.

G.L. c. 258, § 4 requires that notice of any tort claim against a public employer be presented to its executive officer within two years after the cause of action arises. Under the MBTA, this would have been the general manager and the rail and transit administrator. In this case, the injured woman sent notice of her claim to the “Claims Department” but not to the executive officer. The MBTA appealed, arguing that the notice did not comply with G.L. c. 258, § 4. The trial judge disagreed. The motion was overruled, the judge determining that there was notice.

Both parties agreed on the occurrence of several events. They agreed that the injured person’s attorney at the time sent out timely notice of the claim and that the injured person didn’t attempt to personally communicate during the two-year period after the accident and didn’t know what other communication may have occurred between her attorney and the MBTA during this time. The MBTA agreed that it had made a settlement offer to the injured person and other plaintiffs and that the other plaintiffs accepted their offers and settled their cases. The court determined that the MBTA had actual notice, based on the actions of the claims department. The court ruled that it fell under the “actual notice” exception, which overlooks a deficiency when there’s evidence the executive officer did know, thus fulfilling the presentment requirement.

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Underinsured motorist benefits are designed to help pay for costs related to a car accident when the at-fault party’s insurance policy falls short. Underinsured coverage is generally elective, and several cases have looked at whether or not benefits were explicitly rejected. In Progressive Direct Ins. Co. v. Wilson (16-P-544), a mother and a son appealed a declaratory judgment entered in favor of the mother’s auto insurance company. The insurer claimed that the policy only provided underinsured benefits to members of the household, and the son was not a member of the household as defined by the policy.

The mother and son argued that the court erred by granting the insurer’s motion, and the insurer should be estopped from denying the son benefits based on a conversation the mother had with a representative.  Resting GavelThe appellate court looked first at the mother’s policy, which provides damages to “any household member…while occupying an auto not owned by you.” The household member must be related by blood, marriage, or adoption. To counter the mother and son’s claim, the insurer provided medical records, a driver’s license, and a lease to show that the son lived in Unit One of the building, rather than Unit Two, where his mother resided. The insurer also pointed to a conversation the mother held with an insurance representative prior to the purchase of her policy. In that conversation, the mother stressed that the son did not live in the unit with her and that he lived downstairs.

At the lower court, the mother and son insisted that they did live in the same household, pointing to all of the parties doing laundry in Unit One, the fact that both units were always accessible to the other members of the family through unlocked back doors, and the tradition of the mother cooking for the entire family. The mother viewed the conversation with the representative as proof that she relied on the representative in her understanding of the policy. The court disagreed, finding that estoppel was not applicable in this circumstance. For estoppel to occur, there must be a representation that is intended to induce reliance, an act or omission by the person because of the reliance, and a detriment as a consequence. The court did not think the mother could come away from the conversation with the mistaken understanding that her son was covered under the policy because the bulk of the conversation dealt with where he didn’t live. The representative did not make any statement or implication that the son did not need to be listed in order to receive underinsured benefits. There was no mention of underinsured motorist coverage. The lower court’s ruling was upheld, and the declaratory judgment against the insured and her son remained intact.

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Most would agree that it is challenging to deal with any type of car accident, regardless of the level of the injury. In Adams vs. Congress Auto Insurance Agency (15-P-452), the injured driver had to unfortunately deal with an at-fault party who not only struck his vehicle but also called posing as a state police officer, attempting to intimidate him. The at-fault driver was chased by the police while driving his girlfriend’s car, ultimately wrecking it.Wrecked car The girlfriend, when filing her claim for her wrecked vehicle, also looked at the private information of the injured driver and provided this information to her boyfriend, which allowed him to make this call.

Eventually, the girlfriend and the boyfriend both pled guilty to criminal charges, admitting that they attempted to intimidate the injured driver. The individual involved in the accident then pursued civil action against the girlfriend’s employer, claiming that they were liable for the misuse of her position. Three years before this accident, the girlfriend had an encounter with law enforcement in Iowa. Two loaded semi-atomic weapons were found in her purse. She was eventually released on bail and returned to work at the agency. Eventually, she was arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service at her workplace. Her manager advised the owner of the company of this arrest, but the owner conducted no independent examination of the arrest or the underlying case, figuring it did not have much to do with her employment. The girlfriend was allowed to continue work. Seven weeks later, the car accident that gave rise to this case occurred.

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Since insurance coverage is mandated by law, most car accident victims must deal with one or more insurance companies when seeking compensation for injuries to their person and property. An insurance company must follow certain settlement guidelines found within Massachusetts’ General Laws in order to ensure fair claims settlement practices. In a recent case, Villanueva vs. Commerce Insurance Company (15-P-697), the Appeals Court looked at whether or not the at-fault party’s insurance company offered a reasonable settlement prior to the trial to an injured pedestrian.

bicycle pedestrian signThe accident that forms the foundation of this action involved a woman who was seriously injured after she was struck by a motorist. The insurer of the driver independently determined that the injured woman was more than 50 percent negligent because she stepped out between two parked cars into traffic while wearing dark clothes on a dark morning. There was a witness to the accident who provided a statement that he saw a car driving too fast, leaving the scene of the accident right after the collision occurred. The driver stated that she circled the block after the impact because it was still dark, and she did not receive a citation from police when they arrived at the scene. The injured pedestrian had no memory of the accident.

After the accident, the plaintiff sought the limit of the driver’s policy, but only if the matter settled prior to filing suit. The at-fault driver’s insurer offered only $5,000 to settle the claim, instead of the $100,000 policy limit. The injured pedestrian then filed suit against the driver. The driver’s insurance company tried repeatedly to take testimony from the lone witness, but it was unsuccessful at reaching him until right before the scheduled date of trial. The jury awarded the injured pedestrian $414,500, reduced by the pedestrian’s comparative negligence of 35% in the accident. After the jury verdict, but before post-trial motions, the driver’s insurer paid the policy limit of $100,000.
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When an at-fault party is faced with a lawsuit, they will raise any and all legal defenses available to avoid liability. In all litigation, courts attempt to avoid duplicative processes to provide efficient and effective justice. The legal doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel bar re-litigating claims or issues that have been previously decided on the merits in a prior adjudication in a final judgment. pedestrian crossingIn complicated personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits with multiple parties, doctrines like res judicata and collateral estoppel are often utilized to bar or limit claims an injured party, estate, or family member may have.

In Resto vs. City of Lawrence (14-P-1711), an 11-year-old boy was hit by a car crossing a street undergoing a lot of construction. A motorist driving his car at a high rate of speed hit the child, who died as a result of his injuries. The administratrix of the estate filed suit against the driver of the car as well as companies that were hired by the city to perform construction work at the high school. The estate alleged in an amended complaint that the construction companies did not take proper steps to mitigate the intersection’s pedestrian safety issues. A year after the original complaint was filed, the estate filed to amend a second time and added the Massachusetts city as a defendant. The estate alleged the city failed to maintain signage about the increased pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

The trial court judge denied the amendment, determining that the city did not owe a duty to the deceased boy and that its negligence was not the proximate cause of the accident. The companies hired by the city later filed motions for summary judgment, arguing that the court’s reasoning in its prior refusal to allow the addition of the city applied to them. The companies felt this logic should extend to them – that no duty of care was owed to the child who died, and that their negligence was not the proximate cause of the child’s injuries. The judge agreed, and the claims against the companies were dismissed through the court’s entry of summary judgments.
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Recently, the Supreme Judicial Court weighed whether or not an affidavit submitted by an administrator of an estate had to be based on personal knowledge. In Bayless vs. T.T.S. Trio Corp., (474 Mass. 215), the estate filed suit for a man who died after a solo car accident, which occurred after he left a restaurant bar he often frequented. The estate sought to hold the restaurant liable under the Commonwealth’s Dram Shop Act, G. L. c. 231, § 60J, which holds establishments responsible if they continue to serve alcohol to patrons when they knew or should have known the patron was intoxicated. As part of any civil action, the Act requires an affidavit to be filed within 90 days of filing the complaint. bar sceneThe defendant restaurant appealed the decision of the trial court, which allowed an affidavit submitted by the administrator as part of the initial pleadings. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided to hear the case under an interlocutory petition for relief.

The affidavit described the deceased’s behavior throughout his patronage of the restaurant and the evening he died. The statement was made based on information gathered from several witnesses who had witnessed his excessive drinking, which often caused him to have impaired movement and speech. Witnesses also described conversations between the deceased person and an unnamed female bartender, who would continue to serve the decedent alcoholic drinks after he was clearly intoxicated.

On the evening of his death, the decedent was witnessed drinking at 4 P.M., when he proceeded to become drunk once again. He spoke to his daughter several times, who asked him to come home to a family barbecue. The daughter also spoke to the bartender mentioned above, who tried to assure her he was fine. This same bartender later told a different patron that she was concerned about the decedent because he hadn’t eaten anything. The bartender, as was her custom, continued to serve him alcohol, and he bought and drank 12 drinks while he was at the restaurant. The daughter, during her last call to him at 9 P.M., noticed his speech was slurred. Soon afterward, he died in a vehicle crash from multiple traumatic wounds.
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In urban environments, many modes of transportation are used to get from one place to another. Roadways are often shared by pedestrians, different sizes of vehicles, and bicycles. However, pedestrians and cyclists are the ones who have the greatest risk of a catastrophic injury if they are struck by a distracted or generally careless driver. bicycle-against-wall-1563544-640x480.jpgIn the event of such an accident, it is important to have experienced counsel at your side so that all options of financial and legal relief are available to you.

In Basiony v. City of Boston (15-P-98), the Appeals Court of Massachusetts reviewed a jury verdict awarding damages to a bicyclist struck by a police officer going the wrong way down a one-way street. The collision caused a physical injury to the man and property damage to the bike. The city appealed the trial court’s refusal to grant a new trial, arguing that the judge should have granted its requests for evidentiary rulings made throughout the trial.

The city objected during trial to the testimony of the patrol supervisor who was working during the officer’s shift. The supervisor conducted an investigation of the accident and wrote a report of his findings. The judge did not allow the introduction of the report itself but allowed the supervisor to provide testimony, overruling the objections of the city. The city felt this was improper, but the trial court and the Appeals Court disagreed. The court did not find any error regarding the testimony and pointed to the long history of broad discretion granted to trial judges. The court felt the supervisor was an appropriate witness to the accident, since he arrived on the scene soon after it occurred. The court also felt it was reasonable for him to testify about police department rules that dictate when police cruisers are allowed to disregard traffic signs and signals in an emergency.
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In a Massachusetts personal injury case, the injured party must meet his or her burden of proof in order to successfully obtain damages from the at-fault party or parties. Different court proceedings require different levels of proof. Criminal cases place a high burden on prosecutors to show the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In civil suits, the burden of proof is often met by a “preponderance of the evidence” or a “more likely than not” standard. green-red-yellow-1180925-639x426.jpgDepending on the case, presumptions created by statute may also exist, which increase the burden on a party to rebut a specific assumption within the suit.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court case of Markuns vs. Commerce Ins. Co. (15-P-335) demonstrates what must be done when facing a presumption created by a statute or regulation of the Commonwealth. This appeal, while rooted in a rear-end collision accident, did not stem from a personal injury action. Massachusetts allows insurance companies to add a surcharge following an accident, which can be appealed to the Board of Appeal on Motor Vehicle Liability Policies and Bonds (Board) and the civil appellate system. If a driver is on the Safe Driver Insurance Plan, certain accidents are presumed to be the driver’s fault unless the driver presents enough evidence to overcome it. In Markuns, the driver of the colliding car appealed the presumption that he was at fault because he struck the car in front of him.

The driver centered his argument on his testimony during the hearing in front of the Board. The driver felt that his testimony was not rebutted by the insurance company and was left uncredited by the Board and the Superior Court. The Appeals Court disagreed, pointing out that the record shows the driver’s testimony was considered by the Board, and it was ultimately within their discretion to apply or not apply the presumption to the facts before them, based on the totality of the circumstances. The Appeals Court also disagreed with the driver’s assertion that the prior ruling entities failed to apply a presumption to the other driver within 211 CMR 74.00, which assumes fault if you fail to signal at a turn. Again, the court felt the lower judicial bodies were within their discretion to credit or discredit the evidence before them. The lower court allowed the ruling against the driver to stand.
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Defense tactics in personal injury litigation in Massachusetts can get aggressive. In a recently issued Massachusetts Appeals Court opinion, Anderson v. Nat’l Union Fire Ins. Co. (14-P-1554), a severely injured man waited 10 years for an award of over $3 million. minibus-1448699-638x386.jpgEven after this delay and the subsequent payment, the defendants filed another appeal of the original jury verdict award and the additional interest granted by the judge after the first unsuccessful appeal. The injured man and has family also appealed, arguing the defendants failed to provide a prompt, fair, and equitable settlement from the 1998 accident.

The man was catastrophically injured while walking across an intersection when he was struck by a hospital shuttle bus owned and staffed by the hospital. Even after receiving immediate care from doctors riding the bus as passengers, the injured man endured several months of hospitalization and care for his numerous head injuries. Following the accident, an investigation took place at the behest of the automobile insurer used by the hospital shuttle bus. The investigation concluded that the accident happened due to the driver’s inattention, and the liability and exposure was clear and exceeded the policy’s limits. The investigator recommended negotiating an out-of-court settlement, but negotiations never took place.

Instead, the insurers took another path by using what the trial judge called “irresponsible and overly-aggressive defense work on the part of the [insurer].” Some of the insurance company’s actions included suppressing crucial evidence that went against their theory that the injured man ran in and out of traffic between parked cars and darted in front of the bus. The injured man and his family pursued evidence of the initial investigation throughout the trial, but they were repeatedly told that the investigation reports, witness interviews, and transcripts didn’t exist. It took an offhand comment from a reconstruction expert five years after the accident to reveal that there was additional material available.
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