car accident, accident prevention, car accident lawyerVehicle safety has come a long way during the past 50 years. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration both conduct several safety tests for new vehicles every year. Their tests determine ratings, and safety ratings are a key role in many families’ buying decisions. However, these features are not enough to provide a 100 percent safety guarantee on the road.

Latest Crash Prevention Technologies

Auto manufacturers add very useful features to modern vehicles. Since the IIHS and NHTSA are continually tightening their safety requirements, newer vehicles must continually improve to keep up with them and earn the highest ratings. These are some of the latest safety features.

Forward Collision Warning

These collision warning systems use either a radar or camera to detect vehicles in front of a moving car. When the front of the car reaches a certain length of space between it and the rear of the vehicle ahead, an alert is initiated. Some vehicles also brake automatically when the gap closes in fast. However, they do not always brake fast enough, and drivers may still fail to manually brake in time to avoid a crash.

Blind Spot Detection

Using a sensor, this safety feature senses vehicles entering or lingering in a blind spot. When there is another vehicle in the blind spot, a warning light appears on the drivers side. It is typically on the door near within sight of the side mirror.

Lane Departure Warning

This safety feature uses a camera and software. When the vehicle comes too close to the lane markings from the camera’s perspective, the software initiates a warning to the driver. Depending on the vehicle or product, it may be a light or a verbal warning. The catch is that they usually only work when a turn signal is not on. If a driver leaves a turn signal on without realizing it and relies on this technology, a crash could still happen.

Lane Departure Prevention

Also called lane assist, this technology is similar to the aforementioned lane departure warning feature. However, it also manipulates the steering wheel to correct the vehicles’ position. However, these systems can have faults when there are improper road markings or the markings on the road are not visible. For example, when the roads are covered in snow or ice, these systems are not very useful.

Autobrake

This system automatically applies the brakes when a vehicle approaches another vehicle or object ahead. It may also brake in a variety of other situations with certain safety features.

Adaptive Headlights

Many crashes happen at night because drivers cannot see properly. Adaptive headlights automatically adjust the brightness based on the surrounding darkness and approaching vehicles. This eliminates the need to flick brights on and off, and some vehicles reposition the lights to enhance visibility. This may not always be enough to prevent collisions with deer, objects in the road or even other vehicles.

Adaptive Cruise Control

This type of cruise control combines crash avoidance technology with the benefit of maintaining a safe speed. In the past, drivers had to brake when approaching the rear end of a vehicle ahead. This technology automatically slows down and speeds up based on the distance of the vehicle ahead, which greatly reduces the chances of a rear-end accident. However, it may not prevent an accident if the driver does not manually brake and the vehicle ahead brakes too fast.

Crash Prevention Technology Statistics

While several vehicles earn Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ awards from the IIHS, there are still many vehicles that do not. Experts at the IIHS point out that these safety features help, but statistics show they do not always prevent crashes. It is best to think of them as assistance but not rely on them completely. Also, the IIHS recommends understanding limitations and vehicle-specific statistics.

Crash Victims Are Hardest Hit

Keep in mind that practicing safe driving and having safety features does not prevent the irresponsible or negligent actions of other drivers. Car crash victims are always hardest hit, and the effects of being in an auto accident may be forever. Following a car crash, a person may be completely disabled or have permanent injuries. A traffic collision attorney can help. Only a car accident lawyer can recover the most money for damages, because auto insurance companies never offer enough money to victims to cover a lifetime of medical bills after an auto accident. A traffic collision attorney can also recommend doctors, assistance programs and much more for injured victims. When safety features do not make the cut and other drivers are at fault, always contact a car accident lawyer for help.

San Bernardino, Car Crash, Accident LawyerInterested jury verdict reported today regarding a San Bernardino County auto accident .  The claim was brought on behalf of two persons injured driving along a county road in the desert near Barstow in the case of Branson et. al, v. County of San Bernardino and County of San Bernardino v. James Schult (Case No: CIVBS1200331)  My summary and analysis as a San Bernardino traffic collision lawyer is as follows:

Facts of the Case: This case arose out of a single vehicle accident which occurred on a dirt road near Barstow.  The driver, James Schult, was traveling down the towards a bridge over the Mojave river.  Unbeknownst to him, the bridge had been washed out by a flood and there were no warning signs or other indication not to proceed and no berms or barriers that kept cars from traveling towards the washed out bridge.  He crashed his truck in the ravine and both he and his passenger, Loren Branson, suffered serious bodily injury as a result.

Plaintiffs contended that the washed out bridge with no warning constituted a “dangerous condition of public property” for which the County of San Bernardino knew or should have known.  The County contended that the condition was not “dangerous” and/or  that they had taken sufficient measures to ensure the safety of travelers on the road.

Injuries Sustained: Plaintiff Schultz suffered several injuries including a fractured sternum and plaintiff Branson sustained orthopedic damage to her lower spine.  They submitted into evidence medical expenses approximating $125,000 to $140,000 each.

Verdict Result: After a seven day jury trial, the plaintiffs were awarded a total of $396,000.  This was comprised of economic damages (medical expenses) for Mr. Schultz at $141,228 and both economic and non-economic damages for both medical costs and pain and suffering for plaintiff Branson in the amount of approximately $240,000.  Apparently, the best offer for settlement from the county prior to trial was $10,000 for Mr. Schultz and $30,000 for Ms. Branson.

My Analysis of this Verdict: Dangerous roadway claims against government entities contending that they failed to design or maintain a thoroughfare in a safe condition are very tough cases from a liability standpoint.  Public entities like the County of San Bernardino are afforded a lot of leeway in how they maintain their infrastructure.  However, just like any other entity, they can be found negligent if the condition of public property is dangerous and they had notice in time to fix it or prevent harm.  From the summary, it appears that the county had a “technical” expert regarding the roadway but, the plaintiffs only hired medical experts. This would tend to show that the plaintiffs felt that the fact that a bridge was washed out and no warnings or barriers were placed was an obviously dangerous condition.  The jury clearly sided with this argument.  It should be noted that plaintiff Schultz had not auto insurance coverage at the time of the incident, thereby precluding any claim for “physical pain” or “emotional stress” under California’s “Prop. 213″ (now codified as California Civil Code 3333.3).  No such restriction applies to passengers in the vehicle of an uninsured driver, therefore, plaintiff Branson was entitled to full recovery including pain and suffering.

Elder Abuse, Nursing Home Abuse, California Laws, Los Angeles Nursing Home Abuse AttorneyIn a recent California Court of Appeal decision, Lemaire v. Covenant Care California, LLCthe court struck down a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiffs in a blow to patient’s rights.  My insight in this decision is as follows:

Facts of the Case: 

Patient, Laura Clausen, suffered a stroke and was admitted to a skilled nursing facility in California run by Coventant Care.  While in their care, she later died.  Her daughter brought an action against the nursing home alleging chronic understaffing causing substandard medical care.  She further alleged in the lawsuit that the nursing facility was in violation of California Health and Safety Code 1430(b) in failing to maintain clear and legible notes in the patient history records including notes of “how the patient responds, eats, drinks, looks feels and reacts.”  Plaintiff was awarded $270,000 as statutory damages under 1430(b)) and $841,842 in attorney fees along with $26,327.45 in costs.  Covenant Care California, LLC appealed this award.

Ruling:

The Court of Appeal rejected the award and ruled that statutory claims under CA H&S Code 1430(b) are limited to a “maximum of $500″ and that the court had discretion to redetermine the award of attorney’s fees and costs after the case was remanded back to the trial court.

My Analysis of this Ruling As A California Nursing Home Abuse Claims Attorney:

Thankfully, we live in a state that has many laws on the books that protect the elderly and the infirm.  As I have pointed out in other blogs summarizing the elder abuse laws in California, there are numerous provisions of law that require both skilled nursing facilities and assisted living institutions to provide and comply with a patient’s bill of rights, which includes the right to be provided with adequate health care and be treated with dignity and respect.  Principally, these laws are found in California Welfare and Institutions Code 15600 and following.  One of the requirements of these laws is that a patient be provided with a “bill of rights”.  The statute in play in this particular case was another law on the books in the Golden State that is meant to prevent elder abuse and neglect, namely, CA Health and Safety Code 1430(b), which is meant to provide some “teeth” to the requirement and enforcement of patient’s bills of rights and states, in pertinent part, as follows:

“A current or former resident or patient of a skilled nursing facility, as defined in subdivision (c) of Section 1250, or intermediate care facility, as defined in subdivision (d) of Section 1250, may bring a civil action against the licensee of a facility who violates any rights of the resident or patient as set forth in the Patients Bill of Rights in Section 72527 of Title 22 of the California Code of Regulations, or any other right provided for by federal or state law or regulation. The suit shall be brought in a court of competent jurisdiction. The licensee shall be liable for the acts of the licensee’s employees. The licensee shall be liable for up to five hundred dollars ($500), and for costs and attorney fees, and may be enjoined from permitting the violation to continue. An agreement by a resident or patient of a skilled nursing facility or intermediate care facility to waive his or her rights to sue pursuant to this subdivision shall be void as contrary to public policy.”

Fortunately, this provision does provide for a so-called “private right of action” (i.e. if the state entities and Attorney General are not taking action to enforce compliance of elder abuse laws, a private citizen may bring such a lawsuit).  Unfortunately, if such a “private action” is filed in civil court, the “statutory” damages are limited to a mere $500.  This alone would provide little, if any, incentive for a private attorney to take on such a case.  Therefore, the right to attorney’s fees and costs provides an additional incentive for a lawyer to take on this type of case on a “contingency basis”, with the hopes of prevailing and being awarded reasonable attorney’s fees for at a rate based upon the lawyer’s level of experience and amount of hours worked.  The ruling goes to show that even with all of the laws protecting elders in California, there are still limitations on what can be recovered.  This is why it is always best to consult with an attorney that handles nursing home and elder abuse claims to understand the various statutes and how they may be used if you believe that a loved one has been abused or neglected in a California nursing home or other elder-care facility.

Trucking Accidents in Kern County CAThe Los Angeles Daily Journal this week reported a $1 Million jury verdict out of Kern County CA involving an traffic collision between tractor trailer and a passenger automobile (Cardenas v. Hettinga Transportation, Inc.; Freddy Garcia and California Department of Transportation, Case No. S-1500-CV-279).  My analysis of the verdict, pre-trial settlement discussions, and post trial motions is as follows:

Facts of The Case: The plaintiff was the mother of the decedent, who died instantly when her vehicle broad sided a semi truck.  The plaintiff contended that the truck driver negligently operated his vehicle by running a stop sign.  The truck driver and trucking company Defendant appeared to concede liability but, disputed the amount of claimed damages.  The plaintiff also asserted a claim against CALTRANS for an alleged dangerous condition of public property.  The claim against the State of California was resolved for a nominal sum ($10,000) and the case proceeded to a jury trial against the trucker and his freight carrier employer.

Damages and Settlement Discussions: In California wrongful death civil actions , the plaintiff may claim both out of pocket losses such as lost income the decedent was contributing to the family for financial support, funeral and burial expenses, and other similar losses.  In this case, it would appear (although not stated in the reported verdict) that plaintiff either did not have such damages or waived them off and simply claimed “general damages” in the lawsuit.  So-called “general” or “non-economic” damages in civil claims where someone is killed are awarded based upon California Civil Jury Instruction 3921, which states that a jury must come up with a dollar figure value for the loss of, “love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support.”  The second half of this jury instruction states that, in determining this value, the jury is specifically not to consider the plaintiff’s “grief, sorrow, or mental anguish, the decedent’s pain and suffering, or the poverty or wealth of the plaintiff.”

According to the reported verdict, the plaintiff claimed that her last settlement offer prior to trial was $2.5 Million.  Defense counsel claimed that it was $6 Million.  Ultimately, the jury awarded an even $1 Million and the plaintiff was able to obtain an additional $25,000 in “awardable costs” with a post trial motion.

My Analysis of this Verdict As A California Wrongful Death Lawyer: Damages in a wrongful death claim based upon the state of the law in CA are very difficult to place a dollar figure on and even more difficult to argue to a jury!  This would be my main take on this verdict.  Telling a jury, on the one hand, that they are to award money based upon such general concepts as the  “loss of love, society and companionship” on the one hand but, that they should not consider “grief” or “mental anguish” on the other hand gives a jury a very vague notion of how to calculate such damages.  In my opinion, this leads to a lot of verdicts where: (1) a nice round number is awarded; and (2) the number is based upon underlying jury bias or notions of what is “enough” and what is “too much”.  In this case, the barrier was hit, in my opinion, at seven figures (i.e. one millions dollars).  The plaintiff, through their attorney, clearly argued that a life lost was worth more than this amount but, the defense clearly argued to limit the damages to this barrier amount or less.

Having done a jury trial in Kern County, I know that the jury pool is conservative.  Kern County is a fairly rural county with the economics based heavily on agriculture and oil and gas production.  There are a lot of truck accidents and, unfortunately, people are struck and killed or seriously by tractor trailers hauling produce and other goods many times a year.  I applaud the efforts of plaintiff’s counsel in this case to put on the testimony of the decedent’s mother as to what the loss of her son meant to her and to argue to the jury that this should have significant value.  The ultimate question is very difficult to answer, though:  What is the value of one human life!

 

Additional Resources:

Big Rig Tractor Trailer Accident Claims in California Including Kern County

 

Bike Intersection Crash, California Personal Injury LawAs reported by the various local news stations, a jury in San Francisco California last week awarded the family of a bicyclist killed by a commercial truck a verdict of $4 Million.  While this may seem like a lot to many, I’m sure it is a paltry sum for the loss of a daughter to the two plaintiffs (the cyclists’ mother and father).  The victim was Amelie Le Moullac, a 24 year old woman who was riding as her normal commute to work and was struck and killed when a large truck made an abrupt right hand turn in front of her on a busy intersection in downtown San Francisco.  As a California bicycle rider’s attorney and advocate, I thought I would try to find some lessons out of this terrible tragedy that may be of use for persons like Amelie who use busy city streets in California for cycling.  My thoughts are as follows:

  • Intersection Collisions Between Motor Vehicles and Bikes Are The Most Common Type of Accident Scenario: In urban areas like S.F., Los Angeles, San Diego or other large cities in California or the U.S. as a whole, more bicycle accidents occur in and around busy intersections than just about anywhere else.  This makes is extremely important to be extra cautious and “defensive” as a cyclist approaching or traveling through an intersection of any type but, especially one where there is a high volume of vehicular traffic.  The scenario in this particular case is all too common.  A cyclist is traveling straight along the ride hand edge of the roadway as proscribed and allowed by the California Vehicle Code, a larger vehicle fails to observe the cyclist and makes an abrupt right hand turn and a collision occurs.   At a minimum, this results in a broadside collision and can result in the biker being dragged underneath the vehicle and crushed.  There are several Cal. Vehicle Code (“CVC”) sections that come into play here including the following: (1) CVC 21200 and following, defines a bicycle as a ‘vehicle’ with the rights to use the roadway like any other; (2) CVC 22107, provides a duty on the part of a driver attempting to turn right to make sure that traffic traveling in the same direction of travel is a safe enough distance away to make the turn without coming into contact with any other vehicles.
  • Inability/Unwillingness of Criminal Justice System to Deal With Bicycle Crashes: In this case, like many others, the local District Attorney’s office and police were reluctant to charge the driver with any type of criminal offense including but, not limited to reckless driving or vehicular manslaughter.  They initially stated there was not enough “evidence” against the driver.  The attorney for the victim’s family had to obtain footage from a local surveillance camera to show that the truck never even slowed down and never appeared to look in its side view mirrors prior to turning in front of the cyclist.  This was impactful evidence that was very effective in the civil trial for wrongful death and could have certainly been used in a criminal prosecution of the driver.
  • The Ability of the Civil Justice System to Compensate The Victim and Serve As A Deterrent to Reckless Driving That Kills or Injures Cyclists: Clearly the criminal justice system in California is overburdened and underfunded and without resources to prosecute gross negligence claims like this one.  Except for the zealous representation of a personal injury attorney, evidence such as the surveillance footage referenced above would have never come to light.  While the verdict certainly could have and should have been higher for the loss of a life so young, a multi-million jury award against a commercial trucking company will almost certainly serve as a deterrent for their drivers and the operators of other motor vehicles to look twice and be more cautious in areas with a heavy mix of both motor vehicle and bicycle traffic.

Our deepest condolences go out to the family of the bike crash victim in this case.  We applaud the zealous efforts of her family’s civil justice attorney to conduct such a thorough investigation into the cause of the incident and to take this case to trial and obtain a verdict on their behalf!

Source:

Jury Awards $4 Million to Family of Bicyclist Killed by Turning Truck

Additional Resources:

California Law on Right Hand Turn Accidents Involving Bicycles and Pedestrians

Bicycle Commuter Accident Claims in California

 

California Driving Laws, Uninsured Motorist Accident Claims in CACalifornia has one of the highest populations of illegal immigrants residing in the state of any state in the Union.  In fact, it is estimated that the number of illegal aliens in California is somewhere between 2.5 and 3 Million (Reference: Los Angeles Almanac, 2011).  After decades of debating the issue, the California legislature has decided that it would be better to allow these persons to obtain a driver’s permit and be legally sanctioned to operate a motor vehicle on the roadways of the Golden State than to continue to have unlicensed persons driving cars on our roadways.   (See Los Angeles Times Article: “Historic Day as Immigrants in U.S Illegally Begin Getting Driver’s Licenses”).  The question becomes: Will this increase the number of uninsured motorists on our California freeways and roads?  Like any other driver, illegal immigrants are required to show proof of insurance as a pre-requisite to obtaining a driver’s license.  However, like many other drivers in California, some choose to buy auto insurance prior to applying for a license and then let the policies lapse later.  Whether this measure to allow licenses will increase the number of insured drivers or, by contrast, the number of persons who choose to operate without insurance or the number of people who choose low cost, low limits coverage is debatable.  Presently the minimum liability protection one must purchase to be “legal” in CA is $15,000 per person and $30,000 per occurrence for bodily injury!  This is hardly ever enough to cover the present and future medical expenses much less compensate for physical pain and mental anguish caused by any significant traffic collision.

What is the best way to protect yourself against uninsured motorists in California?

The answer to this question is simple: Make sure that your own auto insurance policy has uninsured motorist coverage!   As I have blogged about numerous times, California actually requires each and every auto insurance policy sold in the state to contain both uninsured and underinsured motorist protection.  UN-insured motorist (UM) provisions pay for personal injury (including medical expenses and pain and suffering) in the event you are involved in a collision with a driver operating completely without insurance.  UNDER-insured motorist (UIM) coverage applies when you are hit by a driver that has a low limits policy which is less than your own limits of coverage.  (For example: If the at fault driver has the state minimum of $15,000 for bodily harm and $5,000 for property damage and your own carrier has limits of $100,000 for injury and full repair or replacement value, you would be able to exhaust the $15,000 plus $5,000 limits and then seek the excess ($85,000 for personal injury and additional for car damage) from your own insurance carrier).  These coverages are mandatory in the Golden State BUT they can be waived at the time of the sale of the insurance policy.  Such waiver must be in writing and contain very specific language as required by the California Insurance Code.  In my opinion as an attorney that represents auto accident victims in CA, I think you should NEVER waive this coverage!  In fact, you should review your policy or at least the “declarations of coverage” information that is sent to you each year to make sure you have UM and UIM protection.   This was always essential and now that there will be thousands more motorists on the road with the potential to have limited or no coverage, it is even more crucial to have this auto insurance protection!

For more information on how uninsured and underinsured motorist claims are processed and what an experienced California auto collision attorney can do to assist in presenting these claims, click here .

ride share, injury claims, CaliforniaUber Technologies, Inc. has fast become the largest of a new breed of transportation companies commonly known as “ride-sharing” nationwide and especially in large urban areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Unfortunately, it appears that the growth of the company is outpacing the planning for safety and consumer protection.  One high profile incident in San Francisco involving an Uber driver who struck and killed a 6 year old girl has now spawned both criminal charges against the driver and a wrongful death lawsuit against Uber. (See discussion here: Insurance Journal).

How do ride sharing companies operate in California?

Ride sharing is a good concept in theory.  People “volunteer” to use their own vehicles to pick up and drop off passengers based through an app that is installed on a smart phone.  It tracks where drivers are in relationship to potential passengers and allows people to request a “ride” at a moments notice as an alternative to calling a taxi.  As I have discussed in other posts (see here), the California Public Utilities Commission (“PUC”) was one of the first public agencies to attempt to regulate these services and provide some basic requirements for operation.  They enacted provisions which require Uber, Lyft, SideCar and others to conduct background checks on drivers, to train drivers on safety and to provide insurance above and beyond the limits of the auto accident policy for the vehicle or the driver.

Potential legal issues that arise out of a ride share company accident claim in CA:

While I think, again, that this is a great concept, the legal issues that potentially come into play here are starting to show some “flies in the ointment” as follows:

  • When is an Uber Driver considered “On the Clock”: For legal purposes, an employer or “principal” is usually liable for the acts of its “agent” when that “employee” or “agent” is acting in the “course and scope” of their agency or employment relationship.  When it comes to ride share drivers, Uber and other companies call these drivers “partners” or “affiliates” and, at least in the San Francisco case, are trying to disavow liability unless the driver is actually going to an active call request at the time of the accident.  The plaintiffs in the case (parents of the child who was struck and killed) are arguing that if the app is on and the driver is ready to receive a request, it is the same as when a taxi has its light on and the driver is already in the “course and scope” at that time.
  • Insurance Issues: Individual drivers usually have insurance for their vehicle but, many carriers are trying to exclude coverage for people using their cars as ride share vehicles.  If the individual insurance policy refuses to pay and Uber, Lyft, Sidecar or one of the other ride share companies claim they are not liable because the driver wasn’t actively trying to pick someone up at the time, this would leave the injured party or wrongful death victim’s family without a “pocket to collect.”  In the case of the San Francisco wrongful death, this is precisely what appears to be happening.  The driver was clearly not only negligent but, engaged in vehicular manslaughter according to the District Attorney’s office.  In my mind, both he and his “employer” (Uber) should be held liable in a civil court for damages related to this incident.

Importance of seeking out legal advice when injured as a passenger in a ride share vehicle like Uber or Lyft:

The case clearly shows that there are tricky legal issues involved in the ride-share scenario.  It is important for persons suffering bodily injury or the family of someone killed in a traffic collision involving a ride share driver to know that these issues are complicated and subject to current litigation to ferret out what the rule are and what they should be.  Consulting with a lawyer familiar with these types of claims is crucial.  Glotzer & Sweat, LLP has free legal consultations on any ride-share incident in California including Los Angeles and can be reached anywhere in California at our toll free #866-229-0101.

Additional Resources:

Ride Share Injury Claims in California

personal injury, jury verdict, Los AngelesIn what will be a continuing series highlighting personal injury jury verdicts in Los Angeles, I wanted to discuss two cases were jury verdicts rendered in L.A. Superior Court were reported in November as follows:

Verdict of Almost $70,000 After State Farm Insurance Offers Only $30,000 for Settlement

Villalobos v. Aranda, Los Angeles Superior Court Case No. MC023611

Facts of the Case: Plaintiff was stopped at an intersection in Palmdale, CA and was rear-ended by defendant.  There was significant property damage evidencing a major impact.  Liability was conceded at the time of trial but, the defense attempted to claim that the plaintiff (an appliance repairman by trade), was suffering from injuries that were either “degenerative” (i.e. naturally caused by his age and physical condition) or were caused by a subsequent motor vehicle accident.

Settlement Discussions: The “best and final” settlement offer from the insurance defense carrier, State Farm, was $30,000.  This was, again, based upon the arguments regarding lack of causation on damages.  The plaintiff demanded the full policy limit of $250,000.

Result: After a 1 week trial by jury, a verdict was rendered in the amount of $57,327.93.  The plaintiff filed a motion for award of court costs and other expenses related to putting on the trial and the total approximated $70,000.

Things I Find Interesting About This Verdict in my Perspective as a Plaintiff’s Personal Injury Lawyer in Los Angeles: In full disclosure, my law firm (Glotzer & Sweat, LLP) was personally involved in the representation of the plaintiff in this case.  Therefore, I have some “personal” perspective on this one.  The argument that the back injuries suffered by the person filing an injury claim are “degenerative” is a very common argument made by insurance companies defending these claims.  In fact, I think it is used in just about every case I have prosecuted where the plaintiff is over the age of 40 (and, sometimes, even when the claimant is younger).  I don’t think this held much weight with the jury in this case as I don’t think it holds much weight with many juries unless there is some indication in the prior medical records that would indicate complaints of previous injuries to a same or similar body part.  A bigger issue, was the subsequent motor vehicle accident.  Unfortunately, it happens sometimes that a plaintiff is in the middle of a lawsuit over a personal injury claim and is then involved in a subsequent accident.  This is because, on average, it takes about 1-2 years at present to get a case processed by the courts and get a trial date in Los Angeles County.  When this does happen, the insurance company (in my experience) will naturally “latch on” to the second accident as the “sole” cause of injury.  As is generally the case, they use this as an excuse not to pay.  In this case, I believe that the jury bought their argument (somewhat) but, I think the adjuster still made a miscalculation as to the weight a jury would place on a second motor vehicle collision.  I think this is reflected in the final verdict amount.

Additional Resources: State Farm Auto Accident Claims in California (Los Angeles Injury Lawyer Blog)  

Jury Award of $113,000 After Farmers Insurance Group Settlement Offer of $4,000

Mego v. Stefanescu, Los Angeles Superior Court Case No. BC505051

Facts of the Case: The plaintiff (apparently a singer and dancer by profession) was attempting to back out of a driveway when he was “T-boned” by a driver coming down the street.  Liability was in dispute as were the claimed damages.  The defendant claimed that he was at a complete stop and that the plaintiff backed into his vehicle.  The defense also argued that the claimed injuries were suspect due to a delay of several months between the initial medical treatment and  subsequent treatment including epidural injections.  They also argued that the claim of a need for future treatment was unnecessary. (One interesting note about “pre-trial” procedures was that the plaintiff was able to have the defense medical expert’s testimony excluded by way of a “motion in limine” – a request to exclude evidence made to the judge).

Settlement Discussions: Farmers Auto Insurance offered a mere $4,000 to the plaintiff in this case.  The plaintiff made what appears to be a policy limits demand of $15,000 (Note: the amount is stated in the reported verdict but, I am guessing that this was the limit based upon the fact that $15,000 is the statutory minimum auto insurance limit in California).

Result: After a 4 day jury trial, the plaintiff was awarded $113,375 which broke down as $49,295 in “economic damages” (cost of medical treatment and other out of pocket expenses) and $64,080 in “non-economic” damages (i.e. for physical pain and mental distress caused by the incident).

Things I Find Interesting About This Verdict in my Perspective as a Plaintiff’s Personal Injury Lawyer in Los Angeles: I find several things interesting about this verdict.  (1) Delay in treatment is ALWAYS used as an excuse not to pay by auto insurance carriers like Farmers.  In my experience, this is one of the most common arguments made to avoid paying an auto insurance claim; (2) Completely excluding a expert’s testimony is rare.  There must have been either serious issues with the scope of his expertise vs. the opinions he intended to offer or there may have been a procedural violation such as a failure to timely designate the expert by the defense.

Additional Resources: Farmers Insurance Auto Accident Claims in California (Los Angeles Lawyer Blog)

 

mercury insurance, auto accident claims, CaliforniaMercury Insurance is one of California’s largest auto insurance carriers.  In a recent decision, Mercury Cas. Co. v. Chu, 229 Cal. App. 4th 1432, 178 Cal. Rptr. 3d 144 (2014) the Fourth District California Court of Appeal has upheld a $333,300 judgment despite protests by the insurance carrier that the claim was not covered.

Facts of The Case: 

Mercury Casualty issued an insurance policy to Hung Chu insuring his automobile. Chu was driving with his roommate, Tu Pham, when Chu collided with another vehicle, injuring Pham. Pham filed a personal injury action against both Chu and the driver of the other vehicle. Mercury agreed to provide Chu with a defense to the lawsuit under a “reservation of rights” but, asserted that Pham’s injuries were not covered because Pham qualified as an “insured” under the policy due to the fact that he resided with Chu at the same address. The policy broadly defined an “insured” to include “residents,” defined as, “an individual who inhabited the same dwelling as the insured.” According to Mercury, the permitted exclusion authorizing auto liability insurance to exclude coverage for bodily injury claims brought by an insured applied and they should not have to pay the judgment against Chu by Pham.

Legal Issues to Be Decided:

In California, auto insurance companies are free to draft “exclusions” to coverage for either classes of persons or types of situations.  One common exclusion is to exclude from coverage any accidents where a “resident” of the household is driving but, was not specifically included on the policy.  In this case, the “exclusion” argued was one of one “insured” trying to sue another “insured”.  Mercury argued that Pham, as Chu’s roommate, was a “resident” and an “insured” and should not be able to bring a claim against Chu.

Summary of Decision:

The trial court determined that the Mercury Insurance policy at issue did in fact exclude coverage for Pham’s personal injury lawsuit against Chu.  Chu and Pham appealed the trial court order granting summary adjudication in favor of Mercury and interpreting the policy as not providing coverage to Chu’s roommate.  The court of appeal reversed and remanded, concluding that the non-relative resident clause that defined the roommate as an “insured” was an overbroad extension of the statutory “insured” exclusion and was contrary to public policy. California Insurance Code § 11580.1(c)(5) authorized automobile liability insurance carriers to provide for exclusion of liability to either “an insured” or “an insured whenever the ultimate benefits of that indemnification accrue directly or indirectly to an insured.” In addition, cases like Farmers Ins. Exchange v. Cocking, 29 Cal.3d 383 (1981), where the court determined that a wife could not seek benefits from her husband’s automobile policy, upheld that a resident exclusion was consistent with public policy. Mercury relied on the statute and on Cocking and other case law to support expanding the exception to non-relatives residing together.  The Court of Appeal disagreed and held that, unlike relatives, mere “cohabitants” (like roommates) were transitory in nature and should not be considered in the same class as permanent residents of the household related by blood or marriage.
This decision is subject to appeal to the California Supreme Court, who could overrule the appellate court.  In addition, a request could be made to de-publish this decision which, if granted, would leave it without value as citable precedent to support future decisions.

My take on this decision as a California personal injury attorney:

In my representation of auto accident victims in the last 18 plus years in CA, I have found Mercury Casualty Insurance to be one of the more difficult carriers to deal with and obtain a fair and expeditious resolution on auto accident claims.  This appears to be yet another example.  Although, the case did present a novel legal argument that the appellate court admitted was one of “first impression” (i.e. had not been ruled upon before by another California appellate level court), it seems to be a “stretch” to try to exclude coverage for an accident involving a named insured driving and injuring a passenger in their vehicle simply because the passenger happens to also be the driver’s roommate.

Additional Resources:

Insurance Law Blog – Covering various topics related to auto and other insurance claims issues 

Hotel Accidents; California; Personal Injury LawI saw an interesting appellate decision out of the California Fourth District Court of Appeal (Southern California) regarding tort liability of hotel operators.  The case was Lawrence v. La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, Inc. – decision rendered October 31, 2014 (Reference Daily Appellate Report @ 14737).

Facts of the Case: On October 5, 2008, Jeff and Nan Lawrence checked into the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club Hotel with their three sons.  This was a family vacation and a celebration of the sixth birthday of their two twin boys.  Nan made a request to be placed on the first floor of the hotel but, at the time of check-in, was informed that there were no first floor rooms and was given a room on the second story of the building.  Nan opened the window in their room to hear the ocean.  The three boys were playing and eating grapes inside the room.  Jeff was working on his computer and Nan was planning a schedule when they heard a scream from one of the children.  They ran to the window to find that their son, Michael, had fallen out of the window and onto the concrete pavement below.  Michael suffered major head and brain injuries.

It appeared that when the little boy fell against the window, the screen popped out and fell to the ground.  The window sill was approximately 25 inches above the floor and about 4-6 inches deep.  The plaintiff testified in a deposition that he had placed his foot on the window screen and leaned forward to look out of the window just before falling out.

Legal Issues Raised by Defendant: The Hotel, through their attorneys, filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (a procedural request under California Law whereby a defendant argues that, even if all facts are true, there are no legal issues in dispute and defendant is entitled to a judgment in their favor “as a matter of law”).  The motion raised the following issues:

  1. Plaintiff’s parent’s own carelessness and failure to use precautions was the sole cause of the boy’s fall;
  2. Defendants were not negligent in the ownership and operation of the premises;
  3. The window complied with all applicable building codes;
  4. The screen through which plaintiff fell was not a safety device; and
  5. Plaintiff’s were never “guaranteed” a ground floor room.

A claim for negligence in California requires a showing of a duty on the part of a defendant (person or entity against whom a claim is brought); a breach of that duty; the breach being the legal and actual cause of damages to a plaintiff (person bringing the claim.  In essence, the legal arguments of the hotel was that they had no duty to protect against such an incident, that they did not breach any such duty and/or that any alleged breach of duty was not the cause of the injury.  The trial court agreed with their arguments and granted the motion to dismiss the case.  An appeal followed.

The Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s decision and reinstated the plaintiff’s case.  The reasoning on this issue was as follows:

  • On the Issue of Whether the Hotel Owed a Legal Duty to the Injury Victim: The appellate court found that the Hotel did, in fact, owe a legal duty to the plaintiff as a guest of their property.  Furthermore, they found that “a greater degree of care is generally owed to children because of their lack of capacity to appreciate risks and to avoid danger.” (citing McDaniel v. Sunset Manor Co. (1990) 220 Cal.App.3d 1, 7).  Citing to prior precedent, they found that a landlord was held to owe a duty to protect children from falling out of windows when the condition or design of the window increased the risk of small child falling out. (citing Amos v. Alpha Property Management (1999) 73 Cal.App.4th 895).  The Court further held that a parents’ failure to closely supervise a child may be a factor in determining causation but, not in determining whether a duty was owed. Finally, the Court further held that the owner’s compliance with applicable safety regulations or codes was relevant to show “due care” but, was not dispositive on these issues when the circumstances required a duty of care higher than just the safety standards.
  • Breach of Duty of Care by Hotel Owner: The court held that, while whether a legal “duty” exists is normally a question of law, the issue of whether a duty was breached in any particular factual scenario was usually reserved to the judgment of a jury.  The court held that plaintiff, through their expert witness, had presented triable issues of fact on whether a duty had been breached.  In opposition to the motion, plaintiff’s expert (a mechanical engineer) provided a sworn declaration noting that he had inspected the property and there were safety bars on two of the other windows in the hotel room and on ocean-facing windows in other rooms but, not on the window through which plaintiff fell.  The court also noted that the hotel representative, in his deposition, admitted that the bars were placed on the other windows to keep the screens from popping out.  There were also no restrictive devices placed upon the window to keep it from fully opening despite the fact that it was only 25 inches off the floor.   All of these facts created issues that the appellate court said should be presented to a jury to make up their own mind as to whether or not a duty had been breached by the hoteliers.
  • Causation of Injury: The appellate court noted that the “causation” standard in California was one of whether defendant’s negligence was a “substantial factor” (i.e. was one, but, not necessarily the ONLY) factor in causing injury and whether it contributed to the injury in more than just a trivial way.  The court ruled that the same evidence showing that there was a duty and breach supported allowing a jury to decide whether or not renting a hotel room to a family with young children knowing it had windows that could fully open and no safeguards to keep a small child from falling out was a “substantial factor” in causing the injury to the plaintiff.  The court noted that, “A defendant’s negligent conduct may combine with other factors to cause harm” but, the defendant should still be liable for contributing to the harm.  (i.e. even if the plaintiff’s parents were negligent, the hotel may still be held liable for their percentage of fault in causing the incident).

My “Take” On This Decision As A California Personal Injury Lawyer:  I believe that the appellate court got it right here.  Landlords, hotel operators, commercial businesses and any other person or entity that owns, occupies or leases property in California should be held to a standard of “reasonableness” in the construction, maintenance or control of the property. This is especially true when they are aware of the presence of children on the property who are not fully able to appreciate the dangers and risks associated with certain conditions.  Furthermore, California law is clear that even if one of several defendants has done or not done something that contributes to an incident in any way that is “not trivial or remote” and that it does not have to be the ONLY thing that caused harm but, can be one of several things. (See California Civil Jury Instruction 430).

 

Additional Resources:

Civil Claims Arising From Personal Injuries Sustained on Hotel Properties in California

Summary of California Law on Premises Accident Claims