Articles Posted in Auto Accidents

In many car accident cases, disputes can arise regarding insurance coverage for certain types of injuries.  In Kivitz v. Erie Ins. Exch. (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Apr. 29, 2016), the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland considered whether an automobile insurance policy containing a household exclusion barred the wrongful death claims of the surviving children arising out of a fatal car accident.highway

The driver in the case was involved in a car accident that resulted in the death of his passenger.  The driver and passenger lived at the same residence but were not married.  They jointly owned an automobile insurance policy issued by the defendant.  The insurance policy contained a household exclusion, which excluded coverage for the passenger’s own injury and death.  After the fatal accident, the passenger’s adult children brought their own wrongful death claims against the insurance company, seeking to recover compensation for their mental anguish and loss of consortium.  The insurer declined coverage, asserting that the children’s claims were derivative of the passenger’s claims and thus were barred by the household exclusion.

The policy at issue covered the driver’s legal obligations for damages for personal injuries resulting from a covered occurrence.  The policy excluded coverage for personal injury to the policyholders themselves, or to adults who resided in the same household as a policyholder.  The term “personal injury” was included in the definition of “bodily injury” under the policy.  Bodily injury was defined as physical harm, sickness, or disease including mental anguish, care, loss of services, or resulting death.

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Settlement negotiations can be an important part of resolving a personal injury claim against a negligent driver or insurance company.  The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland recently addressed some of the issues surrounding settlement agreements in Ward v. Lassiter (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Jan. 13, 2017).  In Ward, the underlying case arose from an automobile accident, in which the plaintiff filed suit against the defendant.  The trial date was canceled after the parties orally agreed to settle the case, but another dispute arose when the plaintiff refused to sign a written agreement.handshake

In Ward, the plaintiff agreed to accept $7,000 during the settlement negotiations, although the specific terms of the release or indemnification were not discussed.  The defendant’s counsel emailed a proposed settlement agreement, to which the plaintiff’s attorney made several revisions before returning it.  In particular, the plaintiff’s attorney deleted a provision that released the defendant from liability for future medical expenses and changed a clause that indemnified the defendant from any cause of action by limiting it to $7,000.  The defendant did not agree to the revisions, and the parties remained at an impasse regarding the terms and language of the written settlement.

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In a recent personal injury case, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland explained aspects of liability and duty concerning the participation of a private entity in the design and construction of government roadways.  The plaintiff filed a wrongful death action against a cement company, the county, and the state of Maryland after her husband was killed by a tractor trailer.  When the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims against the defendants, the plaintiff brought her appeal to the higher court.bicycle crash

In this case, the plaintiff’s husband was cycling on a state road designated as a bicycle route.  He entered with the right of way into an intersection that did not have any traffic light.  A tractor trailer leaving a cement plant entered the intersection at the same time, striking the plaintiff’s husband.  In her lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that the intersection was negligently designed and constructed to funnel the bicycle lane into the acceleration lane for vehicles turning right onto the state road.  Although the cement company did not own the tractor-trailer involved in the accident, the plaintiff claimed that the cement company owed a duty in tort with regard to its participation in the design and construction of the intersection.

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In some cases, negligence on the part of both drivers may contribute to a collision that causes injuries. In Dailey v. Mackey (Md. Ct. App. May 3, 2016), the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland reviewed a negligence claim arising out of an automobile accident. After a jury found both the plaintiff and the defendant negligent, Maryland’s contributory negligence rule barred all recovery. The plaintiff filed an appeal to the higher court, which considered the case.

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In Dailey, the defendant rear-ended the plaintiff’s disabled vehicle after it shut down on the interstate. Although the plaintiff attempted to move his vehicle off the road, it did not have enough momentum to reach the shoulder, and the defendant struck his car from behind. The parties disputed whether the defendant’s vehicle still had its lights on after the engine lost power, and whether the defendant had activated the hazard lights. The plaintiff sued the defendant, and the defendant counterclaimed, each contending that the other was negligent. After a trial on liability, the jury determined that both parties were negligent. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the defendant did not present sufficient evidence of the plaintiff’s negligence to permit sending the question of contributory negligence to the jury.

Negligence is defined as failing to act as an ordinarily prudent person would under the circumstances. A claim based on negligence requires proof of certain elements:  the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff to exercise reasonable care, the defendant breached that duty, and the defendant’s breach was the actual and proximate cause of the damages suffered by the plaintiff. In Maryland, a plaintiff cannot recover compensation even from a negligent defendant if the plaintiff was also negligent, although there are some exceptions. In the case of a sudden emergency, such as the one that befell the plaintiff when his car lost power, the driver must still exercise ordinary care.

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In some personal injury cases, a plaintiff may still prevail against a careless driver even if the plaintiff was also partially at fault for the accident. The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland addressed this issue when reviewing a negligence claim on appeal in Stevenson v. Kelley (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Dec. 15, 2016). In Stevenson, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit after he was struck by a vehicle driven by the defendant. After a trial, the jury found that the defendant was negligent and proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries. It also found, however, that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the court should have instructed the jury on the doctrine of last clear chance.pylon

In Maryland, the law has adopted the principle of contributory negligence in civil claims. Pursuant to this principle, even if the defendant’s misconduct may have been the primary cause of the injury, a plaintiff cannot recover compensation if the proximate and immediate cause of the harm can be also traced to the plaintiff’s lack of ordinary care and caution. However, there is one exception to this rule. Under the doctrine of last clear chance, the plaintiff may recover if the defendant had a fresh opportunity to avoid the consequences of the plaintiff’s carelessness. The doctrine only applies if the acts of the parties were sequential, and the defendant had a chance to avoid the injury after the plaintiff acted negligently. It is not applicable when the plaintiff’s negligence is the last negligent act, or when the negligence of the parties occurs at the same time.

In Stevenson, the plaintiff was directing traffic around a motor vehicle collision that had occurred on the roadway. The defendant drove on the shoulder of the road to avoid the stopped traffic and take the next exit. The plaintiff attempted to stop the defendant from driving on the shoulder by waving his arms and walking over to his vehicle. Although the defendant slowed down, the plaintiff was struck by the defendant’s bumper on his right knee.

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In a recent car accident case, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland reviewed a jury verdict returned in favor of the defendant. In Lewin v. Balakhani (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Aug. 17, 2016), the defendant was stopped over the median line with the intention of making a left-hand turn. The oncoming plaintiff swerved to avoid a collision with the defendant’s vehicle but hit a vehicle that was parallel-parked on the shoulder of the road. The plaintiff brought a negligence claim against the defendant, alleging that her violation of the left-hand turn statute was the proximate cause of the accident. After a trial, the jury considered the evidence and found that the defendant was not negligent. The judge subsequently denied the plaintiff’s motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and the plaintiff appealed.car accident

On appeal, the court explained that the violation of a statute alone will not support an action for damages, unless there is legally sufficient evidence to show that the violation was a proximate cause of the injury complained of. Instead, the plaintiff must introduce evidence to afford a reasonable basis for the conclusion that it is more likely than not that the conduct of the defendant was a substantial factor in bringing about the injury. In Lewin, although the plaintiff presented evidence that the defendant violated a traffic law, the defendant rebutted with evidence that her conduct did not cause the subsequent collision that occurred between the plaintiff and the parked vehicle. In addition, a witness testified that he did not see the plaintiff attempting to stop before the collision. As a result, the court ruled that the evidence was sufficient for the trial court to properly deny the plaintiff’s post-judgment motions.

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In an interesting car accident case, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland ruled in favor of the plaintiff in a negligence claim against the county for its failure to maintain a stop sign. In particular, the court took issue with a line of questioning involving the plaintiff’s previous traffic offenses and the prejudicial influence it had on the jury.highway

In McKenzie v. Anne Arundel Cty. (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Aug. 17, 2016), the plaintiff was involved in an automobile accident after driving from a residential street into a highway. In 1995, the Department of Public Works installed a stop sign on the privately owned street. However, it was no longer in place at the time of the accident in 2010. After the collision, the county replaced the stop sign. The plaintiff filed an action against the county, asserting that it negligently failed to maintain a stop sign at the intersection of the residential street. Following a trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the county.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred by permitting testimony concerning her driving record. During the defendant’s cross-examination, the plaintiff had been asked about her driving history, including questions regarding a previous conviction of unsafe operation of a motor vehicle, operating a motor vehicle while using a handheld cell phone, and suspension of her driver’s license. The plaintiff alleged that the introduction of past instances of negligence was a violation of the Maryland Rules of Evidence. The defendant argued that the line of questioning was intended to impeach the plaintiff’s testimony that she was a safe driver.

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The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland addressed the legal concept of assumption of risk in a recent car accident case involving intoxicated driving. In Evans v. Shores (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Sept. 8, 2016), the plaintiff was aware the defendant had been drinking when she got into his truck. The defendant crashed the vehicle into a ditch, injuring the plaintiff. The plaintiff brought suit against the defendant for her injuries. Following a trial, the jury found that the plaintiff assumed the risk of her injuries when she agreed to ride with him. The plaintiff subsequently appealed.drinking glass

To establish a negligence claim in Maryland, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed her a duty of care, the defendant failed to adhere to that duty, the plaintiff was injured as a result, and the plaintiff suffered damages. However, if the plaintiff was also negligent in causing her injuries, she may be barred from recovery. Similarly, if the plaintiff agreed to expose herself to the risk of danger, she may not win in a negligence claim.

The test in determining voluntary assumption of the risk is whether there was an intentional and unreasonable exposure to danger, which the plaintiff either knew or had reason to know. Generally, a passenger is not negligent in riding with an intoxicated driver if she is unaware he is intoxicated, or she does not notice any facts that would arouse the suspicions of a person of ordinary prudence. Whether a plaintiff was contributorily negligent in entrusting her safety to the driver is typically a question submitted to the jury.

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In an important decision, Maryland’s highest state court held that a social host who illegally allows alcohol to be consumed by an underage person on his or her property owes a duty to another person injured as a result. In Kiriakos v. Phillips (Md. July 5, 2016), the Court of Appeals of Maryland reviewed two separate cases involving underage people drinking alcohol on an adult’s property and then leaving the property in a motor vehicle. In both cases, the victims brought a negligence claim against the adult property owners.negligence

In Kiriakos, the plaintiff was walking her dog when she was hit on the sidewalk by a truck driven by a teenager, causing her life-threatening injuries. The teenager had been drinking alcohol provided by the defendant at the defendant’s house the prior evening. The teenager drove home early the next morning with a blood alcohol level of .08 at the time of the accident. The plaintiff brought suit against the defendant, alleging that he owed a duty to the public in general not to provide alcohol to someone underage with knowledge that the underage person would drive under the influence. The lower courts found that no liability existed, and the plaintiff subsequently appealed.

On appeal, the court ultimately held that, although Maryland has not recognized social host liability to third persons, there exists a limited form of social host liability in negligence based on the strong public policy reflected by Maryland statute § 10–117(b), which prohibits adults from allowing underage drinking on their property. However, liability only exists when the adults in question act knowingly and willfully, as required by the statute. The court went on to explain that its holding is consistent with the factors used to determine whether a duty exists under common law, such as the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, and others.

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In some car accident cases, issues concerning insurance coverage can become an integral part of litigation, since individual defendants may not have the financial resources available to pay an award of damages to plaintiffs. In a relevant opinion, Weiskerger v. Paik’s Decorators, Inc. (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Apr. 29, 2016), the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland addressed the question of whether an insurance company properly denied coverage for a member of the insured’s household who died in an automobile accident. In Weiskerger, a motorist was involved in an accident that resulted in the death of his passenger, who was a resident of his household. The two adult sons of the passenger brought wrongful death claims against the motorist and the other driver, alleging that their negligence caused their mother’s death.personal injury

Seeking to determine the extent of the motorist’s insurance coverage, the motorist’s estate requested a declaratory judgment from the court finding that the policy obligated the insurance company to indemnify it for any damages assessed as a result of the son’s wrongful death claims. In turn, the insurance company denied coverage on the basis of the policy’s household exclusion, which excluded liability coverage for physical harm to the passenger and her resulting death. After the trial court found in favor of the insurance company, the motorist’s estate appealed.

Maryland courts follow the laws of contract interpretation in determining the rights of the insured under an insurance policy. That is, when the clear language of the policy is unambiguous, the court will give effect to its plain, ordinary, and usual meaning, taking into account the context in which it is used. However, in Maryland, any ambiguity will be construed liberally in favor of the insured and against the insurer as the drafter of the instrument. A term in an insurance policy is considered ambiguous if, when read by a reasonable layperson, the language is susceptible of more than one meaning.

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