Articles Posted in Car Accidents

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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.  tractor trailer

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.  Farm AnimalFor 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. Foggy viewA 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.Rental Cars

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.

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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