Articles Posted in Car Accident

Sebring-Accident.jpgMany people believe that, in a rear-end collision, the rear driver is always at fault for accident. While this is very often true, it is not the case every time. The Tennessee Court of Appeals decision in Hicks v. Prahl illustrates one case where the rear driver was not liable, and serves as a reminder that, if you’re involved in a vehicle collision, do not assume you know the outcome regarding another driver’s legal liability (or lack thereof) just because of things you’ve heard frequently repeated by laypeople.

Marsha Hicks and Jennifer Prahl were driving on the entrance ramp to the Pellissippi Parkway in Knox County when Prahl rear-ended Hicks at a low speed. Hicks claimed that, at the time of the accident, she had slowed down to navigate the sharp curve in the ramp. Prahl asserted that, in fact, Hicks had totally stopped, despite a complete absence of vehicles in front of Hicks on the ramp.

Hicks sued Prahl for her medical injuries. Prahl argued that she was not negligent and that Hicks’s cell phone use at the time contributed to the wreck. The jury found Prahl not negligent and threw out Hicks’s case. Hicks appealed, attacking several aspects of the trial. She argued that the evidence could not allow a reasonable jury to determine that Prahl was not negligent and that the court never should have allowed Prahl to put forward evidence of Hicks’s contributing fault (by using her cell phone.) Even if she was talking on her cell phone and did stop her vehicle, Prahl was clearly negligent by following too closely and failing to operate her vehicle under control, Hicks maintained.

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car_accident.jpgA driver who was displeased with a jury verdict finding her 50% at fault for an auto accident where she was injured failed to achieve a better result on appeal. The Tennessee Court of Appeal stated that it can throw out jury verdicts only if they run contrary to all of the evidence at trial and that, in this driver’s case, both she and the other driver offered valid evidence of the opposing driver’s fault, which gave the jury ample grounds for finding the two drivers equally to blame for the accident.

Leona Salyer and Courtney Linnen were involved in an auto accident in Sullivan County when each driver attempted to turn onto a westbound road from opposite directions of Highway 11-E. Salyer was executing a right turn from the southbound direction, while Linnen was turning left from the northbound direction.

Salyer sued Linnen for her injuries. At trial, the Bluff City police chief testified that Linnen told him that she hit Salyer. Each driver testified that she never saw the other until the collision. Linnen denied telling the police chief that the accident was her fault. Salyer claimed she was in front of Linnen but could not explain how her car’s damage was in front while Linnen’s was in the back. The police chief’s report was excluded from evidence at trial.

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crashed-car.jpgA recent ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court has yielded an important victory for persons injured in accidents as they prepare for trial. The ruling in Becker v. Ford Motor Company allowed an auto accident victim to alter his civil lawsuit to pursue not only the manufacturer of the vehicle in which he was riding, but also the driver of his vehicle. The ruling clarifies that injured persons may seek to add any third party mentioned in the defense’s response filing, even if the statute of limitations has already run.

On July 28, 2012, Michael Becker was riding with his son, Phillip Becker, in Chattanooga, when their Ford F-150 pickup truck left the roadway and struck a light pole, significantly injuring the father. The father sued Ford Motor Company, claiming that the truck was defective and that the manufacturer breached a warranty to the man. Ford successfully transferred the case from state to federal court, and claimed, as part of its response, that the Beckers, including the son, caused the accident.

The father sought to amend his complaint to add the son to the case as a potentially liable party. The automaker fought the requested change, arguing that, because the statute of limitations had expired and the father knew the son’s identity and role in the accident prior to the statute’s expiration, the law barred him from adding the son. The U.S. District Court asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to resolve the dispute.

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In the recent opinion in Adams v. Leamon, the Court of Appeals discussed whether an award of damages for pain and suffering arising from injuries sustained in an auto accident was excessive. This opinion provides insight into how the Tennessee courts should address the “non-economic” components of an award for car accident victims.

In Adams, the plaintiff was injured when his motorcycle collided with a vehicle being driven by the defendant and he filed suit claiming that the defendant driver’s negligence caused the accident. After a trial, the jury found that both parties were somewhat at fault, but held the defendant more at fault and awarded damages of $317,000. The damages award raised some eyebrows, apparently, because the plaintiff’s medical expenses were only $14,731. The primary driver of the verdict was an award of future pain and suffering in excess of $120,000 and future loss of enjoyment of life of approximately $156,000. The trial court believed that award was excessive, and therefore ordered a remittitur to $90,320. The evidence had shown that although plaintiff had broken ribs and minor injuries to his neck, shoulder, and hand, he did not miss any work. His main complaints were some ongoing pain, restricted movement, and a reduced ability to ride his motorcycle.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed and ordered a new trial on damages only. The Court found that the trial court’s ordered reduction of the jury’s verdict from $317,000 to $90,320 essentially “destroyed” the verdict and could not be sustained. The Court of Appeals also agreed, though, that the award of $317,000 was excessive. In its opinion, the Court of Appeals quoted the Tennessee Supreme Court in discussing non-economic damages:

Damages for pain and suffering are awarded for the physical and mental suffering that accompany an injury. Damages awarded for loss of enjoyment of life are intended to compensate a plaintiff for the impairment of the ability to enjoy the normal pleasures of living. Assigning a compensable, monetary value to non-economic damages can be difficult. The assessment of non-economic damages is not an exact science, nor is there a precise mathematical formal to apply in determining the amount of damages an injured party has incurred. Thus, a plaintiff is generally not required to prove the monetary value of non-economic damages.

In pursuing injury claims in Tennessee, an injured victim and his or her attorney must at some point confront the difficult decision of how to value a claim for either settlement purposes or presentation to the jury. As the opinion above reveals, jury awards for non-economic damages are difficult to predict. A jury can award damages far in excess of the incurred medical expenses if the proof shows that the plaintiff’s life has been substantially affected. In our experience, one of the most important factors driving a jury’s determination will be the plaintiff — does the jury like the plaintiff? Is the plaintiff a deserving victim?

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In a recent opinion, Long v. Greyhound Lines, Inc., 203 Tenn.App. LEXIS 405 (Tenn.Ct.App. 2013), the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to two of the defendants involved in a multiple vehicle accident involving tractor trailers and a Greyhound bus. The decision is interesting to lawyers practicing in the area of personal injury, because of its strong affirmation of the legal principle that negligence (and causation) are not amenable to summary judgment. The decision should also be of some interest to lay persons, because, in essence, it puts the question to the jury of whether a motorist doing nothing more than “rubber necking” at the scene of a prior accident can or should be held liable for causing a subsequent accident.

In the Long case, the plaintiff (Ms. Long) was involved in a collision with an eighteen-wheeler truck on Interstate 40 in Tennessee. Ms. Long’s car was smashed and rendered inoperable in the left lane of the highway. Following that collision, another large truck stopped on the right shoulder (emergency lane) of the highway to render assistance. Ms. Long, at some point, crossed the road on foot (or was carried across) to wait for help in the emergency lane. Another car, shortly thereafter, came across the scene and — inexplicably — stopped in the right hand lane. Because there were only two lanes, the highway was now completely blocked. A Greyhound bus then came across the scene of the accident and, unable to stop in time, hit the car which had stopped in the right hand lane, pushing it into the truck parked in the emergency lane and pinning the driver and plaintiff (Ms. Long), causing severe spinal fractures.

The trial court had granted summary judgment to the driver of the late arriving car, finding that as a matter of law her actions in stopping her car were not negligent. It was this decision that the Court of Appeals reversed. In essence, the Court found that there was conflicting testimony in the record about where exactly each of the vehicles was stopped and why. There was evidence that this vehicle was not forced to stop at all, but could have continued traveling past the accident. Or, if they wanted to stop to render assistance, they should have pulled off on to the shoulder. The evidence, however, would support a finding that they stopped without regard to other traffic on the road and thus made a minor accident into a serious one, resulting in permanent and serious spinal injuries. Whether the driver of the second car should be held responsible was determined by the Tennessee Court of Appeals to be a question for the jury.

In an opinion released on May 30, 2013, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld the grant of summary judgment to a defendant driver who had unquestionably caused a car accident and injuries to another person. In Smith v. General Tire, the injured car accident victim sued the responsible driver and her employer, whose vehicle she was driving at the time of the accident, to recover for injuries he sustained. The facts of the case, however, showed the defendant driver had lost consciousness due to a sudden onset of hypoglycemia associated with her diabetes. The diabetic driver wore an insulin pump and also took additional shots of another medication to help control her blood sugar levels.

The trial court had granted summary judgment to the diabetic driver, however, on the basis that her loss of consciousness was unforeseeable and therefore that although she caused the accident she was not negligent. The attorneys for the injured victim had taken two depositions of the diabetic driver, and had retained a medical doctor to testify about the dangers of the medications she was taking, but were unable to establish that she should have foreseen a sudden loss of consciousness.

The outcome of this case is that an innocent injured car accident victim obtains no recovery. Of course, the ruling also essentially stands for the proposition that a driver who experiences a sudden, unforeseeable loss of consciousness is just as innocent as the person she hurt. I think this is, unfortunately for the innocent injured party, probably the right outcome. In a different case, the facts could lead to a different outcome. For instance, if more evidence could be developed that the diabetic (or epileptic, or cancer patient, or other person with any medical condition) had experienced similar episodes in the past, or had been instructed by a doctor not to drive, or was otherwise more aware of the dangers of their condition or side effects of their medication, the injured plaintiff would likely be able to establish a prima facie negligence case. Better testimony from a medical expert would also be of great assistance.

1102883_traffic_warning_sign_5.jpgThe Nashville-based Tennessee Supreme Court recently reversed an appeals’ court decision, which had ruled that federal law prevented a plaintiff-passenger from bringing a claim for disabling injuries sustained when thrown from a shuttle bus in Memphis. Bus accidents and any resulting injuries to passengers, other motorists or bystanders on the road can be particularly devastating, due to the size and weight of a bus. Injuries can range from minor scrapes and broken bones, to more serious matters such as brain trauma and even death.

In the above-mentioned court decision, a concrete truck collided with a shuttle bus transporting passengers between a rental car company and an airport. An injured passenger and his spouse filed a court action against a variety of defendants, including the bus owner, the bus manufacturer, the company that manufactured the windows, as well as the franchisor of the rental car company. Plaintiffs argued that the bus was unsafe because it did not have seatbelts for passengers, had windows made of tempered glass, and instead of forward-facing rows of seats, the bus provided perimeter seating. All of the allegations were based in negligence and product liability.

While a jury ruled in favor of plaintiffs in the amount of $8,543,630, it allocated 100 percent of the fault to the concrete truck owner, who had already settled claims with plaintiffs prior to trial. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing that they were entitled to a new trial. Defendants maintained their argument that federal law preempted plaintiffs’ claims. The appellate court agreed and held that the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards 205 and 208 did preempt the window-glass and seatbelt claims. The court further held that the trial court should have granted a directed verdict on the perimeter-seating claim because plaintiffs failed to provide sufficient evidence to prove causation. The Supreme Court found that 1) both the window-glass and seatbelt claims are not subject to preemption by federal law, and 2) the evidence sufficiently supported causation as to the perimeter-seating claim.

The Supreme Court’s decision is absolutely correct and reflects the proper interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s preemption analysis in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co. That Supreme Court decision was carefully tailored to address the adoption of airbags by Congress and NHTSA, in which specific decisions had been made to promote a variety of restraint devices. In other words, because Congress and NHTSA wanted auto manufacturers to experiment with different passive restraint devices, including airbags, a tort claim that alleged a vehicle should have had airbags when it did not would interfere with Congressional purpose and was therefore preempted. But Geier is the exception to the rule, not the other way around. Design defect claims are generally not preempted by the FMVSS, even if they impose requirements beyond federal law. The Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision in Lake gets that right.

According to the most recently maintained national statistics on bus accidents, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reported that in 2009, there was a total of 56,000 motor vehicle crashes involving buses. Of those accidents, 221 involved fatalities, 9,000 involved other injuries, and the remaining 47,000 caused damage to property.

Under the Lake decision, injured parties would not be preempted from bringing certain claims arising out of injuries sustained in bus accidents. It is important to sort through complicated state and federal laws to properly ascertain the extent of a victim’s right to recovery.

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In a recent opinion, Hardeman County v. McIntyre, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s award of damages to a driver injured when an ambulance collided into her while she was attempting to make a turn. At issue in the appellate court was whether the ambulance company had breached the standard of care applicable to emergency vehicles. In particular, Tennessee law, T.C.A. 55-8-108, exempts emergency responders from certain traffic laws when responding to emergency calls. Ambulance drivers may, for instance, proceed past a stop sign or red light, exceed speed limits, and disregard parking regulations, provided they do so with regard to the safety of others. The evidence admitted at trial showed that the ambulance had its sirens on and, at most, was exceeding the speed limit by fifteen miles per hour. In examining prior caselaw from Tennessee as well as other states, the Court of Appeals held that the evidence did not allow a finding of liability on the part of the Ambulance Service. Factors that the Court said would support such a verdict — such as substantially excessive speed, sharp, sudden lane changes, or, particularly, travelling without properly activating the emergency sirens were not present.

This appellate opinion demonstrates fairly clearly the legal and factual hurdles that are present in any action against an emergency responder. While as a society, I think we all want our emergency responders to be able to effectively respond to accidents, crimes, and threats, it is important that they do so in a prudent manner so as not to injure innocent bystanders. Several years ago, I successfully represented a family whose son had been unfortunately killed by a police officer involved in a high-speed chase. The young man who was killed was an innocent bystander, out running errands at the shopping mall, when the police officer drove his car at approximately 100 mph through the mall parking lot. It turned out that the reason for the high speed police chase was simply that the fleeing suspect had run a stop sign and not stopped for the police car’s sirens. That case was obviously a very different situation from the accident in the Hardeman case discussed by the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident involving emergency vehicles, you should be sure to speak to an attorney knowledgable and experienced in the area. If you have questions about potential claims arising from a an accident, call the Law Office of David S. Hagy, PLC at (615) 515-7774, or use our online form. We serve clients in Nashville and throughout Tennessee.

1131636_no_cells.jpgIn a recent blog post, we reported on the increase of distracted driving accidents in Nashville and throughout the country. Texting and talking on a cell phone while driving are two of the most widespread examples of distracted driving. According to a recent article, data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) reveals that in 2011 nearly 400,000 people were injured in accidents involving a distracted driver.

The American Automobile Association (“AAA”) reports that approximately 35 percent of drivers admitted to reading an email or text while driving and 26 percent say they have written a text or email while driving. These numbers are alarming. Driving a motor vehicle requires concentration and awareness, two things that are difficult to attain while texting, or making or receiving phone calls. The AAA is hoping that people observe the month of April as “Distracted Driving Awareness Month.” The alternative seems to be more crashes, injuries and fatalities on the roads.

Companies have developed new technologies aimed at decreasing the level of driver distraction — while still allowing motorists to send text messages. One item enables drivers to read and send text messages on an “in-car” touch screen. According to an article in the Tennessean, United States traffic safety regulators are requesting that automakers install tougher limits on the length of time drivers can use these touch screens. The NHTSA prepared voluntary guidelines that would serve to curb distracted driving. Some of the suggestions include: 1) limiting the amount of time to two seconds to perform one function on the car’s audio/visual system; 2) drivers would be limited to six screen touches in a time period of 12 seconds; 3) banning manual text entry and display of websites, books and social media (while the car is in motion).

Distracted driving is a particular problem in construction zones. An average of two people each day die in construction zone accidents. With the spring season comes an increase in the number of construction projects. Federal safety officials urge people to refrain from texting while driving through a construction zone.

Another item that is expected to reduce driver distraction is the use of a voice-activated text message system. But a new study conducted at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University revealed that sending text messages in this manner is just as dangerous as using your fingers. The idea is that texting, either by voice or with fingers, reduces a driver’s eye contact with the road and response times are greatly delayed.

Driver distraction has become an industry unto itself, with gadgets and new technology aimed at making driving while doing other tasks, safer. As we see from the voice-activated texting mechanism, drivers are no less distracted than using their fingers. The tragic part of all of this driver distraction is that innocent people are suffering severe injuries and in some cases dying as a result of driver multitasking.

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172434_accident_1.jpgThe Nashville-based newspaper, “The Tennessean,” recently reported that the state legislature is considering a new bill that would provide financial assistance to families of victims of certain categories of traffic accidents. As it stands now, the “Criminal Injuries Compensation Program” (the “CIC”) provides assistance to victims of crimes or, in the unfortunate circumstance of the victim’s death, to their dependent relatives. When a person is injured or killed as a result of a traffic accident, in addition to the devastation associated with such an event, there are often many unanticipated costs.

Some of the costs that payments under the CIC Program are intended to alleviate include loss of earnings, medical services, burial costs, and other financial losses sustained as a direct result of personal injuries caused by a criminal offense. Under the current statute (TCA Section 29-13-104), the list of eligible crimes includes homicide, robbery by force, sexual assault, aggravated assault, and drunk driving. The Victims’ Rights bill (H.B. 1117), as introduced by co-sponsors and Representatives Joe Pitts and Josh Evans, adds a litany of types of victims who would be entitled to relief under the CIC program. Such categories include victims of vehicular assault, vehicular homicide, criminally negligent homicide, reckless homicide, and aggravated vehicular homicide, where the injury or death was inflicted through the use of a motor vehicle or watercraft.

The new bill has been dubbed “Tyler’s Law” named after Tyler Head, a Springfield college student who was killed while driving to Austin Peay State University in February 2012. The person who was convicted of killing Head was sentenced to four years after pleading guilty to reckless homicide and an amended charge of reckless aggravated assault. Tyler’s mother sought financial help from the victim’s compensation office associated with the CIC Fund. She was denied assistance because the offenses that caused her son to die did not satisfy the criteria for the fund. Not only was Mrs. Head-Hieber facing the untimely, tragic death of her son, but she was also unable to pay for the funeral and burial expenses. Unfortunately, in this case, the man who killed Tyler Head had no insurance, so Mrs. Head-Hieber was left with no financial assistance at all. In circumstances in which the criminally at-fault driver has no insurance, and the injured victim or their family has insufficient uninsured (UM) insurance, the bill might provide some financial compensation
The legislators have indicated that the impetus for the bill was to help families like Tyler’s who have suffered tragic losses to be able to collect from the CIC Fund. Essentially, the new bill would be adding some eligible offenses to the ones that already exist. As of April 10, 2013, the bill has been placed behind the budget.

If the bill is enacted, victims of car accidents similar to Tyler’s will have an opportunity to pursue financial assistance for the various medical and other costs directly incurred. Victims and their family members should contact a Nashville personal injury attorney who is fully familiar with the local courts and current state of the law with respect to compensation alternatives.

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