Articles Posted in Legal Strategies

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Before participating in a higher-risk activity like skydiving, bungee jumping, or community sports, the company running the program may require a participant to sign a release form, which shows she or he understands the risks involved with the activity and agrees not to hold the owners of the company or the organizers of the event responsible for any injuries that may occur. These help immunize, or protect, a company from liability if an injury-causing accident occurs. Horse riderHowever, exceptions do exist, so a release does not provide a full shield from accountability in the civil court system.

In Markovitz vs. Cassette (15-P-1274), the Massachusetts Appeals Court looked at whether or not a trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of a horse farm. A student rider fell off a horse during a group riding lesson. She had ridden that particular horse three times before the accident, and she had taken classes on a regular basis at this location for over a year. Prior to the start of her classes, she signed a release that shielded the horse farm, including its owners, instructors, employees, and agents, from any and all responsibility for any injury sustained while on the premises. The release also contained notice of the applicable Massachusetts General Law that shields an equine professional from liability if there is an injury or death caused by an inherent risk of an equine activity.

The appellate court cited case law that regularly supported defendants’ use of release agreements and courts’ use of summary judgment to resolve cases with signed releases. The injured student claimed in her appeal that her injury was one of the exceptions to the statutory exemption. This exception removes immunity from suit when there was a failure to make a reasonable and prudent effort to determine the ability of the participant to safely manage the particular horse, based on the representations of the rider. The Court of Appeals disagreed with the injured person’s argument that the exception created a new duty of the horse farm in addition to those provided by common law. The court did not feel that the injured person’s circumstances rose above the bar to liability established by statute. Based on this, the lower court’s ruling was affirmed.
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In any civil lawsuit, the plaintiff must ensure the at-fault party or parties receive notice of the claim so that they can appropriately respond. In Massachusetts medical malpractice actions, the General Laws specifically require that an injured patient or estate give written notice to a provider of health care 182 days before the case begins. (See G. L. c. 231, § 60L.) notice boardThe claim must include the factual basis for the claim, the standard of care alleged by the claimant, the breach of the standard of care, the course of action that should have been taken, how the breach injured the patient, and the names of all the health care providers that the injured person intends to sue.

In the recent decision of Arsenault vs. Battacharya (15-P-197), the Massachusetts Appeals Court looked at whether or not dismissal without prejudice was too harsh a remedy when an injured party failed to provide notice in accordance with G. L. c. 231, § 60L. In this case, the injured patient went to her general practitioner, the defendant in this case, for carpal tunnel in her wrists. The primary care physician injected her wrists with cortisone, with two separate injections on each wrist over three visits. Later, after surgeries on both wrists, she discovered that the tendon ruptures were caused by cortisone injections.

The filed complaint alleged that the doctor should have known that multiple cortisone shots would increase the risk of rupture to her wrists. The knowledge this was a possibility can be seen in a letter written by the doctor for the injured person’s workers’ compensation claim. The injured patient alleged that she became totally and permanently injured as a result of the negligently administered cortisone shots. The claim was filed nearly six years after the first injection to one of her wrists but within three years of the start of the statute of limitations, which began when she was told by an Independent Medical Examiner that her ruptures were caused by the shots. The defendant doctor moved for dismissal, alleging non-compliance with G. L. c. 231, § 60L, and the motion was granted by the trial court.
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In Draper v. Francesco Demolition, Inc. (15-P-702), the Commonwealth’s Appeals Court reviewed a directed verdict made during trial in favor of the defendants in a personal injury action, determining whether an injured man contracted bacterial pneumonia as a result of the defendants’ negligence. In this case, the focus was whether the injured man presented enough proof to show his injury was caused by the defendants. In its analysis, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s determination that the injured man needed some sort of expert testimony to help the jury distinguish between his pre-existing condition and the injuries caused by the bacterial pneumonia alleged to have been caused by the standing water.

leaves puddleDraper centered around proof of causation, which is one of the four elements in any personal injury action. The four elements in a negligence lawsuit are commonly known as duty, breach, causation, and damages. A defendant cannot be held liable unless she or he owes some sort of duty under the law to the injured party. The injured party must then show that the duty was breached and that the breach was the cause of the injury. Proving causation at trial can be accomplished in many ways, depending on the situation. People who witnessed the scene can be called to testify. Professionals can be called to testify about their field of expertise to help the jury understand a complicated engineering or medical concept. Pictures and research can also be utilized to help illustrate certain ideas or a sense of the place where the injury occurred.

The appellate court in Draper looked at the injured man’s health and lifestyle, which included tobacco and alcohol use, prior lung disease, a pre-existing heart block, and a need for a pace-maker. During trial, the injured man chose not to introduce any medical records or expert testimony. He also chose to change the injury from pneumonia to an unidentified illness, even though the defendants used a medical expert who testified it was pneumonia and caused by his collection of pre-existing conditions. The injured man claimed he was going to rely on his own testimony, his wife’s testimony, and a witness, but that was not enough for the trial court or the Appeals Court.
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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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There are many documents you can and should use for your Massachusetts estate plan. Medical care considerations can become especially complicated as you weigh the resources available to help cover the cost. The recent Massachusetts Appeals Court case of Heyn vs. Dir. of the Ofc. of Medicaid (15-P-166) reinforces a grantor’s ability to create an irrevocable trust, which could then make him or her eligible for Medicaid benefits.

helping-the-elderly-1437135-639x738.jpgIn this case, the grantor, now deceased, created a self-settled irrevocable inter vivos trust, transferring the title to her home to the trust, while retaining a life estate interest that would not make her ineligible for Medicaid benefits. The grantor moved into a skilled nursing facility and applied for Masshealth benefits to pay for the cost of her care, which were originally approved. After a little over a year at the nursing facility, she was notified that her benefits were terminated based on the agency’s determination that the home held by the trust should be considered a countable asset, rendering her ineligible for benefits.

The grantor of the estate appealed, but she died before a decision was issued upholding the termination of benefits. The hearing officer determined that the trust allowed the trustee to sell the assets and invest the proceeds of the sale in other forms of investments, like an annuity. The officer reasoned that annuity payments can create income for the grantor, which should be considered a “countable asset” for determining Medicaid/Masshealth benefits eligibility. The Superior Court upheld the hearing officer’s ruling, and the case went on to the Appeals Court of Massachusetts.
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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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After a car accident happens, you want the at-fault party to be held responsible. During the civil litigation process, evidence of the at-fault party’s behavior and actions immediately preceding the accident are taken into consideration. Texting while driving, distracted driving, or careless behavior can help a jury or fact-finder conclude whether or not the defendant was responsible for the injuries you suffered. parked-cars-3-1535180-640x480.jpgOccasionally, your actions may also be assessed if there is the possibility that your actions contributed to the accident. Under Massachusetts law, recovery is still available to you if your fault is assessed at less than 51 percent, but the award will be reduced by the percentage of fault determined by the fact-finders.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts also has a process for determining fault when assessing an “At Fault Accident Surcharge.” This is issued to drivers who have been in an accident for which their insurance company has determined they are more than 50% at fault. If the person assessed the surcharge does not agree with this determination, they are able to appeal through Massachusetts’ Board of Appeals. Further appellate process is available if the driver assessed the surcharge loses their initial claim with the Board. A case like this was recently reviewed by the Commonwealth Appeals Court in Wheeland vs. Commerce Insurance Co. (14-P-1733).

In this case, the driver given the surcharge was in an accident with another parked vehicle after she was blinded by solar glare. The driver testified that she was blinded by the low, still rising sun that was right in her eyes as she approached the other vehicle. The driver felt the judge improperly upheld the Board of Appeals determination that she partially contributed to the accident by not taking any measures to compensate like wearing sunglasses or using the car’s solar visor. The Court of Appeals stated that while the judge provided additional, superfluous suggestions, the ultimate conclusion reached by the judge was supported by the facts in evidence.
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It can be difficult to get the money you deserve after suffering an injury from an accident. Drivers sometimes do not carry the statutorily required insurance or the insurance policy limits may not be enough coverage to cover all the medical expenses. A recent case, Boyle vs. Zurich American Ins. Co. (SJC-11791), illustrates how the pursuit of damages can become a complicated journey.

tires-lake-mohawk-1532726.jpgIn Boyle, a man was injured in an automobile shop. One of the owners revved the engine of a truck and a tire exploded, severely lacerating and fracturing the man’s left forearm and hand. He had to undergo several surgeries, suffering from permanent scarring and partial loss of function in his left arm and hand. The injured man incurred over $100,000 in medical expenses and was unable to work for a year. Even after he went back to work, he could only work at jobs that paid less and required less skill due to his injuries. The man and his wife filed suit for the bodily injury and loss of consortium.

Following the accident, the owner of the auto shop contacted his insurance agent. The agent provided written notice to the auto shop’s insurance company, which opened a claim file and began an investigation. Three months after the accident, the injured man and his wife hired an attorney who notified the owner of the automobile that they intended to assert a claim for bodily injury. This was given to the agent and then the insurance company. Seven months later, their attorney also notified the insurance company directly of the suit, following up with a “2nd Request” notice and letter at the end of the year. A year after this, the insurance company determined the auto shop was liable, and that the injuries were covered under the policy held by the auto shop. Soon after, even though the company did not estimate the liability the auto shop might face, it closed the case.
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The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently found for an injured woman and her husband after she was sexually violated by an interpreter employed by a hospital. In Doe vs. Boston Medical Center Corp. (13-P-1998), a woman appealed the summary judgment issued by the trial court in favor of the hospital. The trial court granted the judgment, reasoning that the harm was not foreseeable and therefore the hospital carried no duty or liability to the injured woman and her affected family.

In all negligence actions, certain elements must be met in order for a suit to proceed. The at-fault party must owe a duty to the injured person, or a responsibility to behave or maintain themselves or their premises according to established standards. If the at-fault party, or defendant, fails to do so, and an injury results, they are liable for the damages associated with that injury. 1342025_63300207.jpgIn considering whether a duty is owed, certain harms must be considered “foreseeable.” For example, if a hole forms in front of an entranceway from construction or weather in front of a storefront, it is foreseeable that someone entering the store could fall into the hole and harm themselves. It is therefore the store owner’s or manager’s responsibility to keep the premises safe and fill the hole.

In Doe, the hospital had performed a background check on the interpreter, which came back with no prior criminal history. This fact weighed heavily in the trial judge’s conclusion that the interpreter’s assault was not foreseeable, and the hospital could not be held liable for his actions. The woman was inappropriately touched by the interpreter after she was checked by several doctors and staff who exited the room, leaving her alone in the hospital bed attached to medical equipment. The interpreter also left the room with the staff but stayed behind outside her door. Since the door was unlocked, the interpreter came back into the room and claimed he needed to perform a physical exam, touching her abdomen and vagina. He left but stayed outside the room again until a nurse found him and made him leave. Soon after he left, another sexual assault was reported by a different patient in a different area of the hospital, indicating that the same interpreter was involved.
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