Articles Posted in Car Accident

calendarPursuing damages for the harm you suffer in a Tennessee auto accident can take many twists and turns. Sometimes, it may center solely on litigating against the driver who caused your accident. Other times, however, the case can be more complicated, involving legal action against insurance companies, including your own insurer. In a recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case the plainitff was able to defeat her insurance company’s claims that she waited too long to sue it. The ruling reaffirms that people injured in auto accidents who sue their insurers are asserting contract claims, rather than personal injury tort claims, which means that the law gives them a six-year, rather than a one-year, limitations period in which to act. However, despite this result which benefited the injured plaintiff, there are numerous pitfalls here.

The plaintiff in this case was injured in a May 2011 auto accident. The woman sued the other driver for his alleged negligence in causing the accident. Sometimes, in an auto accident case, the problem isn’t necessarily with the merits of the case or about marshaling the evidence needed to win; it is with simply locating and hauling into the court the defendant and then finding an applicable insurance policy.

That was the problem the plaintiff here faced. For 15 months, she tried to get the defendant served with the lawsuit. Eventually, the process server determined that the defendant could not be found. At that point, the plaintiff moved in a new direction, amending her lawsuit to add an additional defendant:  the auto insurance company with which she had uninsured motorist coverage. The plaintiff’s insurer was served on July 31, 2013.

Car crashIn auto accident cases, Tennessee law may allow you to recover damages for many different reasons. Damages can include medical expenses, past and future loss of wages or earning capacity, past and future pain and suffering, permanent impairment, and the loss of the ability to enjoy life, among other things. Understanding which types of damages may be available to you and which kinds of proof you need to secure such a damages award are just some of the many ways that an experienced Tennessee injury attorney can help you.

A case in which many of these types of damages were at issue was recently decided by the Tennessee Court of Appeals. The plaintiff was a Middle Tennessee driver who was injured in a June 2013 crash. The crash was a result of the other driver’s running a red light and T-boning the plaintiff’s car on the driver’s side; she was taken to a hospital and diagnosed with a strain of her thoracic spine and a knee contusion. Experiencing additional pain and muscle spasms, she went to another hospital and, later, began treatment with a chiropractor, from whom she received 39 treatments.

The following year, the woman sued the at-fault driver, and, since that driver was acting in the scope of his employment when he hit her, the woman also sued the employer. In this case, the employer admitted liability, and the trial revolved solely around the extent of the plaintiff’s damages. At the trial’s end, the judge awarded the plaintiff $271,378, making separate awards (as is permitted under Tennessee law) for past medical expenses, past lost wages, lost future earnings, past and future pain and suffering, past and future loss of enjoyment of life, and permanent impairment. The defendant appealed almost all of the areas of damages awarded, and the appeals court reversed several of the damage awards for further consideration. The case makes clear that each item of damages is separate, and must be separately supported by evidence specific to the damages at issue.

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.