Articles Posted in Car Accidents

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A Massachusetts car accident resulted in an estate filing suit against a convenience store chain after a speeding driver ran into the deceased as he crashed into the front of the store.  The deceased’s husband and executor alleged the company had experienced several front-of-store “car strikes” and knew of the risks cars had to its store.  The estate claimed bollards or other barriers could have been erected along the walkway and entrance to the parking lot.  The estate argued this would have prevented a car traveling at high speed from injuring anyone, particularly the deceased in this suit.  A jury agreed and awarded the estate over $32 Million in compensatory damages, eventually reduced by the court to $20 million; and $10 in punitive damages, which was waived since it did not meet the $5000 minimum.

The convenience store chain appealed, arguing it should have been granted a new trial after it improperly admitted an internal report about 485 prior car strikes at other stores.  The chain believed each accident referred to should have been subjected to a “rigorous” review to determine whether or not it was substantially similar to the accident in this suit.  At trial and during the appeal, the chain contended the accident was random and unforeseeable.  In response, the estate looked for reinstatement of the $32 million compensatory damages award, asserting the remittitur of the damages was improper. 

The location of the events was similar to other property owned by the chain gas station and convenience stores.  The store was surrounded by parking spaces for those stopping into the store as well as gas pumps.  No barriers or devices were set along the walkway.  The store was located at the “corner” of a three-way intersection that did not meet at 90 degree angles. Two of the three entrances to the property required drivers to slow down to make a turn and enter.  One did not.  This entrance allowed drivers to come straight from the apex of the intersection onto the property without reducing speed or turning.  The situation was dangerous enough for a store employee to complain to two separate managers, but nothing was done to alter the set-up of the property. 

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The Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed the dismissal of an injured person’s claim in a recent case. The injured person was rear-ended at a stoplight and later filed a Massachusetts car accident case, claiming the accident caused her pre-existing medical conditions to be aggravated, resulting in several medical bills. The trial had been rescheduled several times at the request of the injured person, but the injured person failed to show on the last scheduled trial date. The case was dismissed with prejudice for “want of prosecution,” even though the injured person’s attorney was present and ready for trial. The injured person appealed.

The plaintiff had asked and been granted three continuances for the scheduled date of trial. After the third continuance, the court indicated that would be the last one. The injured person still filed an emergency motion to continue the fourth date because her daughter was scheduled to give birth on or around the trial. This motion was denied, so the injured person’s attorney requested that if the client could not attend the trial, he’d be allowed to provide an explanation of her absence for her grandchild’s birth. The court advised this would be acceptable.

The injured person’s daughter did go into labor on the day before the trial, suffering complications. Despite the doctor’s note advising the daughter was in fact in the hospital and experiencing complications due to her high-risk pregnancy, the court denied the renewed request for another continuance. The court then dismissed the injured person’s complaint with prejudice, determining the injured person could not prove her case without providing testimony that she was the operator of one of the cars involved in the accident. The judge did not believe the injured person would show up for any part of the trial, and this would likely result in a directed verdict.

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Several things must be considered when a personal injury settlement is reached. One of these considerations is whether the injured person is required by law to notify and pay a portion of the settlement to a third party. Some entities, often health care providers, are allowed to place a lien on settlements or benefits so that they can be paid for the services previously rendered. The Appeals Court recently examined an appeal by the estate of a woman injured in a Massachusetts car accident, which was ordered to provide payment to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services (MassHealth).

The estate reached a settlement with the defendant driver who caused the car accident and subsequent injury. This accident aggravated the now-deceased plaintiff’s dementia prior to her death a year after the accident. The estate filed suit within two years after her passing and ultimately reached a settlement of $250,000. Before the injured person died, MassHealth provided over $18,000 worth of medical care and imposed a lien on the claim for reimbursement of expenses paid for the injured person’s care.

The estate and MassHealth conferred about the lien prior to the settlement, discussing the possibility to reduce the lien. However, nothing came of these discussions because the injured person’s attorney did not submit the forms that would reduce the lien. After the settlement was reached with the defendant driver, MassHealth issued demand letters to the estate for payment. Eventually, MassHealth learned it was not named on the settlement check. Initially, MassHealth attempted to discuss the matter with the estate’s attorney, but it eventually moved to intervene on the settlement. The lower court granted the motion for intervention and ordered payment of the medical expenses. The estate appealed.

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The injured party in this case was driving down the Massachusetts Turnpike in 2011 when a “classic car” transported on a flatbed trailer slid off and hit the plaintiff’s car. The injured man filed suit against the owner of the vintage car and three other men accompanying him in the transport of the car. The case against one of the defendants went to trial, where the jury returned a verdict for the defendant. The injured man appealed, arguing a mistrial should have been granted based on the defendant’s opening statement made by his attorney, a res ipsa loquitur jury instruction should have been given, and a new trial should have been awarded.

These types of appellate requests are typical, whether it is a slip-and-fall case or an auto accident case like this one. The civil court system acknowledges that mistakes can be made at the trial court level. A dissatisfied party can point to errors made by the trial court judge or jury in its ruling, finding, or award. A frustrated party can ask for the appellate court to alter the problematic ruling or award, or they can ask for an entirely new trial. The plaintiff-appellant in this case asked for the latter, arguing the errors made were so egregious the only solution was a new trial.

In its review, the appellate court first addressed the injured man’s argument that the defense counsel’s opening statement was incurably prejudicial. The defendant told the jury the injured man waited 19 months to file suit and did not readily produce his medical records. The Appeals Court determined the trial court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to declare a mistrial based on the defendant’s opening statements. The trial judge made spontaneous comments after comments made by counsel and did not officially provide a ruling on an objection. The plaintiff did not preserve the record for appeal through an objection. The trial judge did instruct the jury that opening statements are not evidence, and the discovery process was not essential for the jury’s consideration.

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Many obstacles arise in a negligence lawsuit, and defendants will try to use all of them to prevent or minimize liability. Injured parties face evidentiary challenges if witnesses are hard to locate, or physical evidence is compromised. Procedural hurdles also exist, from the timing of the filing to the way in which pleadings are written. In a recent decision, the federal First Circuit Court of Appeal addressed a summary judgment granted in favor of the defendants, based on issues with the injured person’s statement of facts and submitted reports.

The plaintiff was injured in a vehicle collision in 2014. He filed suit against the driver of the tractor trailer and the company that owned the trailer and hired the driver. The injured person alleged the trailer caused a rear-end collision, causing him to lose control of his own vehicle and strike a median. 

Upon review, the magistrate judge recommended granting the defendants’ motions to strike the plaintiff’s purported set of facts in his own motion and the opposition to the defendants’ motion. The injured man had included two expert reports attached as exhibits, which were also excluded. The grounds for this recommendation were based on the injured man’s failure to comply with Local Rule 56.1, which requires a filed opposition to motions for summary judgment to be a concise statement of material facts of record. The District Judge adopted the Magistrate Judge’s recommendations and report, entering summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The injured man appealed.

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In Massachusetts, even if you successfully settle or litigate a negligence action and are awarded damages, receiving the payment of damages can become challenging. This is demonstrated in a recent Massachusetts car accident decision (16-P-1623) that upheld a settlement agreement made between the owners of a farm, the driver of a car, and her husband. The driver was seriously injured after her vehicle collided with two cows from the defendants’ farm that had wandered into the road. The injured woman and her husband filed suit against the owners, which eventually led to mediation. A settlement agreement was reached between the injured couple and the defendant husband. The defendant wife was not present and did not sign the agreement afterward.

A settlement agreement is a contract between two or more parties to settle the pending litigation and release the defendant from future claims. A court ordering the enforcement of an agreement must be confident the parties actually came to an agreement over the essential terms of the settlement. Issues over minor, collateral matters are not detrimental to enforcement.  For example, even if there is no deadline specified for when the obligation is to begin, the agreement will remain intact, and a “reasonable” date can be used if it does not change the essence of the contract. Once a settlement agreement is reached, the agreement is reported to the court, which will then decide whether to enter an order to formalize the agreement. Once this occurs, unless there is a determination that the agreement was either unenforceable or materially breached, the parties must follow the terms within the document or face civil penalties for failing to uphold their obligation.

In this lawsuit, the defendants failed to perform their obligations under the agreement. The injured woman and her husband filed a motion requesting the trial court to enforce the agreement. The defendants were given proper notice but failed to attend the hearing to answer or contest the agreement. The judge signed an order formally adopting the agreement, entering a judgment against both defendants for $40,000 to the plaintiffs and $4,364.28 for attorney’s costs and fees, to be paid according to a payment schedule. The agreement also allowed the defendants to finalize a judgment against an unrelated party and for the plaintiffs to pursue the $40,000 from the same unrelated party.

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After a Massachusetts car accident, the costs can add up quickly. Even if the driver causing the accident has auto insurance, his policy limits can fall woefully short of covering medical bills stemming from the accident. Drivers and policy holders can then look to their own auto insurance policy for uninsured/underinsured coverage to make up the difference. Whether paying for an accident caused by an insured or paying for an injured party, insurers are ultimately interested in minimizing their costs and payouts. To mitigate this, the Commonwealth’s General Laws require an insurer to follow fair settlement practices. If an insurer fails to do so, the injured person can file suit, alleging the insurer committed an Unfair Claim Settlement Practice. A recent Appeals Court decision (16-P-509) addresses this type of lawsuit by assessing what an injured insured must produce for this claim to move forward against an auto insurer.

An injured Massachusetts resident filed suit against her auto insurance company following an accident with another vehicle. Liability was undisputed, and the injured woman accepted the $25,000 limit of that driver’s policy as a settlement of her claim. The injured woman also filed an underinsurance claim with her auto insurer, but no settlement was offered by her insurer. The injured driver ultimately filed suit to compel her insurer to arbitrate the dispute about the amount of damages she suffered from the accident, in addition to a claim for unfair settlement practices, based on the absence of any settlement offer. The injured woman was allowed to go to arbitration regarding the accident-related damages, which were assessed to be $50,000. The amount was confirmed by the presiding judge, who allowed the injured person to pursue the unfair settlement practices claim.

The trial court judge made several findings at the jury-waived trial, pointing out that the injured person offered a lot of proof regarding the damages related to the injury, but no evidence about the insurer’s investigation, nor evidence about which type of settlement negotiations occurred between herself and her insurer. The trial court found the woman also failed to show which damages she suffered as a result of the insurer’s failure to offer a prompt settlement of the claim. The injured woman argued the judge erred by allowing the insurer’s motion to exclude three of her witnesses, who were all the defendant’s employees. The Appeals Court found no abuse of discretion and affirmed the trial court’s refusal, based on the injured person’s late disclosure of witnesses.

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Auto insurance is designed to provide benefits after an accident to help streamline payments and help the injured parties heal. During a stressful, unusual time, an insured may not be in the state of mind to ensure the company has her or his best interests in mind. To protect consumers, the Massachusetts legislature prohibited insurance companies from participating in unfair claim settlement practices, delineated in G. L. c. 176D, § 3(9)(f) and G. L. c. 93A, § 2. A recently issued Massachusetts opinion (No. 16-P-927) reviews whether or not an insurance company committed unfair claim settlement practices when it conditioned the payment of the policy limit on the release of claims against its insured.

The Appeals Court ultimately held that it did not but gave insight into what does and does not qualify as an unfair settlement. The front-seat passenger was seriously injured after the driver crashed his rental car. The driver rented the car for work a few weeks before and was covered by his employer’s primary commercial automobile insurance policy, as well as two excess insurance policies. The primary coverage was $1 million, and the excess policies provided $5 million worth of coverage each. Following the accident, the passenger filed suit against the driver and his employer, alleging negligence.

The primary insurer, providing the defense for both the driver and the company, exchanged several letters discussing the settlement of the negligence claim with the injured party. In the initial demand letter, the injured passenger claimed the driver’s negligence was reasonably clear, and the parties were liable for his damages, totaling over $1 million. The letter offered that in exchange for the $1 million insurance policy limit, he would release the insurer from further claims of any kind. The passenger did not offer to release the driver or the employer, since he intended to pursue claims for additional damages. However, the injured person noted he was willing to enter into an agreement with the driver and the driver’s employer if the insurer met his demand for the $1 million policy limit.

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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.

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.  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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