Articles Posted in Auto Injury Law and Legislation

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a personal injury case illustrating the difficulties that Maryland car accident victims may encounter when trying to file a claim against their own insurance policy’s underinsured motorist provision. The case required the court to determine if the plaintiff’s untimely notice of claim violated the language in the insurance policy, and if so, whether the insurance company was proper in denying the plaintiff’s claim. Ultimately, the court found in favor of the insurance company on both issues and dismissed the plaintiff’s claim.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was injured after she was involved in a car accident while she was a passenger in a friend’s vehicle. The accident occurred in September 2010. Approximately two years later, the plaintiff filed a claim against the other driver, who she claimed was responsible for the accident and her injuries. That claim was eventually settled for approximately $36,000, which was the remaining amount left under the at-fault driver’s insurance policy after the other victims of the accident had been compensated.

The settlement with the other driver failed to cover all of the plaintiff’s expenses related to the accident, so the plaintiff then filed a claim with her own insurance policy, under the underinsured motorist provision. That policy contained language requiring that the insurance company be promptly notified of any accident, as well as any court case that was filed. Specifically, the policy stated that the insurance company “must be notified promptly of how, when and where the accident or loss happened,” and the insured must “promptly send us copies of the legal papers if a suit is brought.”

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Seatbelt use is one of the best ways to limit the potentially disastrous effects of a serious car accident. According to a recent news report, over the past few decades, lawmakers across the country have tried to cut back on the number of fatal car accidents by passing “click it or ticket” laws, requiring motorists to wear a seatbelt or be fined.

Indeed, Maryland has its own version of the click it or ticket law, which can result in an $83 fine if a motorist is caught driving without their seatbelt. In Maryland, a failure to wear a seatbelt is a primary offense – meaning a police officer can pull a motorist over based solely on not wearing a seatbelt – for drivers, front-seat passengers, and minors under the age of 16. For back-seat passengers over the age of 16, it is a secondary offense, meaning a police officer can only ticket a motorist if there was some other valid reason for the traffic stop.

While it cannot be disputed that seatbelts save lives, seatbelts can only limit the injuries sustained in an accident and can do nothing to prevent accidents themselves. As a result, courts across the country have had to determine whether a car accident victim’s failure to wear a seatbelt should be admissible evidence at a trial involving the at-fault driver.

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Despite the millions of dollars spent by the state and federal governments to curb the dangerous habit of drunk driving, the reality is that drunk drivers still pose a serious threat to Maryland motorists. While the total number of alcohol-related deaths has fallen, the percentage of alcohol-related deaths in relation to the total number of vehicle fatalities remains the same as in years past. In fact, in 2016, 159 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes across the State of Maryland. This represents about 31% of the total number of traffic fatalities.

Maryland lawmakers are aware of the drunk driving problem facing the state and continue to take action to stop it. In fact, according to a recent local news source, Maryland lawmakers are currently trying to pass a bill that would increase the criminal penalties for drunk drivers who cause serious injuries as a result of their actions. Evidently, the law currently calls for enhanced penalties when a drunk driver causes “life-threatening injury;” however, the proposed bill would amend that language to include any “serious physical injury.”

This most recent move to implement stricter criminal penalties reflects Maryland lawmakers’ dedication to reducing drunk driving. However, the criminal consequences of drunk driving only represent part of a drunk driver’s potential liability. Drunk drivers may also be liable to their victims through a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit.

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Earlier this month, a New York appellate court issued a written opinion in an interesting case discussing when an employer may be held liable for the negligent actions of an employee. In the case, Fountain v. Karim, the court determined that the lower court failed to make a necessary factual determination and sent the case back to the lower court to conduct further analysis. The question the lower court must answer is whether the employer had given the employee express permission to use the car that was involved in the accident.

The Facts

Karim was a government employee temporarily assigned to an office several hours away from his home. Karim would stay in a government-provided hotel room during the week and would travel home for the weekend. During the week, Karim was allowed to use a government vehicle for his work-related travels, a Ford Explorer. However, on the weekends, Karim would normally drive his own car back home, leaving the work vehicle at the office. If Karim wanted to use the Explorer for his personal use, he would submit a request to his supervisor. Several of these requests were retroactively approved, meaning Karim did not submit a prior written request but obtained permission after he had returned the car.

On August 31, 2010, Karim was preparing to leave for a work trip to another office 100 miles away. Before he left, Karim submitted a request to take the vehicle, but he did not get a response. Karim was planning on taking the Ford Explorer to his hotel, where he would stay the night, and then take the vehicle to the remote office 100 miles away.

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Earlier this month, the Arkansas Supreme Court issued an opinion overruling a legislatively enacted rule that prevented defendants in personal injury cases from asserting that the accident victim’s failure to wear a seat belt at the time of the accident contributed to the cause of the victim’s injuries. In the case, Mendoza v. WIS International, Inc., the court determined that it is unconstitutional under the Arkansas Constitution to prevent a defendant in a civil case from arguing seat belt non-use at trial.

Importantly for Maryland plaintiffs, this is diametrically opposed to the state of the law in Maryland, where defendants are not permitted to submit evidence of an accident victim’s seat belt non-use. In other words, seat belt use has no relevance in Maryland personal injury cases.

The Facts of Mendoza

The plaintiff was injured when she was riding in the back seat of a vehicle driven by Adams. According to the court’s written opinion, Adams fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed into a parked excavator. Mendoza was not wearing her seat belt at the time of the accident.

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Earlier this month, a state supreme court heard a case that was filed by one motorist against another, alleging that the defendant’s negligence caused not only the accident but also the injuries the plaintiff suffered. The case contained claims of both compensatory and punitive damages, alleging that the defendant’s “willful, wanton, and reckless” actions entitled the plaintiff to punitive damages. Ultimately, however, the court disagreed with the plaintiff and not only denied the request for punitive damages but also sanctioned the plaintiff for making the claims when there was no basis to do so.

Smizer v. Drey: The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was traveling to church with several family members in the car, when the defendant crashed into them. In the specific intersection where the accident occurred, the defendant had a yield sign. Evidence showed that the speed limit was 65 miles per hour and that the defendant was traveling at 45 miles per hour and slowed to 35 miles per hour as she entered the intersection. However, as she entered the intersection, she did not see the plaintiff’s vehicle because a cornfield obscured her view.

By the time she did see the plaintiff’s vehicle, it was too late, and the vehicles collided. The defendant admitted to failing to yield at the intersection and was cited by police for the same.

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Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of South Carolina heard an interesting case dealing with the trial judge’s ability to modify a jury’s verdict if he or she does not agree with the amount of compensation after liability has been established. In the case, Riley v. Ford Motor Company, the plaintiff was the wife of a man who was killed as a result of a negligently designed door latch on a Ford vehicle.

According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff’s husband died when he was driving his Ford truck and swerved to avoid an accident with a high school student who had pulled out in front of him. As the man swerved to avoid the collision, he eventually ended up colliding with a tree and was ejected from the vehicle through the door, which allegedly opened due to the negligently designed door latch.

The woman filed suit against the teenage driver as well as against Ford Motor Company. Prior to trial, the woman settled with the driver, and the case proceeded to trial against Ford only. After hearing the case, the jury determined that Ford was liable to the plaintiff for $300,000.

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Two years ago, the Maryland legislature passed a law making it a primary offense to talk on a cell phone while driving, and texting while driving has been against the law in Maryland for several years prior to the passage of that law. Since the passage of these laws, police have handed out thousands and thousands of these distracted-driving tickets to motorists in violation of the new law. However, according to a recent news report by a local NBC affiliate, drivers are not getting the message.

One Trooper interviewed in the article told reporters that a surprising amount of people are still using their hand-held phones while driving. He explained, “If they are not on it talking or texting, they’re using it for GPS, … They just haven’t got caught yet, and if they did, they just didn’t learn their lesson.”

Driving While Talking or Texting

The practice of driving while using a hand-held device is one of the most common forms of distracted driving. In fact, the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration explains that drivers who text or talk on a hand-held device while driving are four times more likely to get into an accident resulting in serious injury to themselves or others. A spokesperson for the MVA told reporters that there are about 200 fatal accidents each year caused by distracted driving, many of which occurred while using hand-held devices.

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Earlier this year, the Virginia Supreme Court heard a case involving a man who was seriously injured after the Hyundai he was driving left the roadway, slammed into several snow banks, and then struck a large tree. Although the car was equipped with a side airbag, the airbag did not deploy during the accident.

The family of the accident victim brought a suit against Hyundai, alleging that there was a breach in the “implied warranty of merchantability,” essentially claiming that the Hyundai “was defective, unreasonably dangerous, was not fit for the ordinary purpose for which it was intended, and did not pass without objection in the industry in which it was sold.” The essences of their claim was that, had the side airbag deployed, as it should have, the injuries sustained by their loved one would have been greatly reduced.

To support  their theory, the plaintiffs called an expert at trial to testify that, had the airbag been properly designed, it would have gone off and that would have decreased any injury sustained as a result of the accident. His main argument was that it was not located in the right part of the vehicle.

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Say you have a newer car and are involved in an accident that is not your fault. When it comes time for the insurance company to reimburse you for the repairs that your automobile needs to bring it back to its old functioning self, the insurance company will either solicit bids from mechanics or ask you to get bids and will cut you a check accordingly. You can then take your car in to get fixed at whichever mechanic you choose with the money they provided you and you are all set. Everything is back to the way it was before you were involved in the accident, right?

Not necessarily. Why? Because the resale value of your car has gone down significantly now that it has been involved in a serious auto accident. With the prevalence of online title history searches, used car buyers are able to find out whether the car they are about to buy has ever been in a serious accident. Used car buyers are weary of those cars that have been in an accident for several reasons:

  • There may be structural damage to the frame of the car that was not repaired after the accident;
  • The replacement parts may not be of the same quality as the original equipment;
  • The repairs themselves may not have been made by a license and certified auto mechanic who specializes in that particular make and model of vehicle.
  • Used car buyers may not want to take any chance that the car is not reliable.

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