Articles Posted in Car Accidents

Personal injury lawyers must often navigate complex and confusing insurance policies that might be available to compensate their injured clients. Insurance policy types may include general liability, professional liability, medical payment, health insurance, and in a recent truck accident case decided by the Indiana Court of Appeals, an MCS-90 Endorsement.  An MCS-90 is known to truck-accident attorneys as a federally-mandated endorsement to an insurance policy that ensures federally-regulated motor carriers will meet their public financial responsibility obligation in the event of a breach of the terms of the policy by the insured motor carrier.  This has been described by at least one court as “suretyship by the insurance carrier to protect the public.”

In Prime Insurance Co. v. Wright, a motorist injured in a truck accident filed a state-court lawsuit against multiple defendants, including the at-fault truck driver and multiple trucking companies. One of the insured trucking companies, Riteway Trucking, Inc., did not cooperate with Prime Insurance and did not appear or present any defense. Choosing not to defend Riteway, Prime also filed a separate federal court declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that it had no duty to defend or indemnify Riteway or any of the defendants. The injured motorist then moved for default judgment against Riteway and other defendants on both liability and damages. Prime was next granted permission to intervene in the state-court lawsuit. The state court then entered a default judgment in favor of the injured motorist against the trucking companies, including Riteway, in the amount of $400,000. Prime filed an answer and sought to set aside the default judgment and to obtain discovery in the state-court action. The state court denied the motion to engage in discovery but stayed the state court action pending the federal court action.

The federal court entered an order that Prime did not owe any duty to defend or indemnify Riteway, because Riteway had failed to meet its obligations under its insurance policy with the insurance carrier. However, the insurance policy also contained an MCS-90 Endorsement, which was separate from and in addition to the liability policy issued to Riteway. Under Federal law, motor carriers must maintain proof of financial responsibility, and an MCS-90 Endorsement is in effect a guarantee by an insurance company to protect the public where a federal motor carrier is responsible for an accident causing personal injury to a member of the public. The federal court ordered that Riteway would be liable for any payments the insurance carrier made under the MCS-90 Endorsement under the policy.

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In Tyus v. Indianapolis Power & Light, the Indiana Court of Appeals held that the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) acted unlawfully and unreasonably in granting Indianapolis Power & Light (IPL) immunity from personal injury and property damage caused to noncustomers, by IPL’s own negligence, and in conjunction with an interruption of IPL service. Consequently, the Court reinstated dismissed negligence claims arising out of a tragic automobile crash with catastrophic injuries.

In March of 2016, IPL filed a tariff (2016 Tariff) with the IURC that provided a release from liability for injuries to third persons resulting from an interruption of service or supply of electricity absent “willful default or neglect.” The IURC approved the 2016 Tariff. During a storm less than a month later, IPL-operated traffic signals went dark in an Indianapolis intersection. Eight hours later, the signals were still down despite numerous complaints. That night, a mother and her three minor sons were t-boned in the dark intersection. In this tragic motor vehicle crash, the mother suffered severe fractures and orthopedic injuries and two of the children suffered severe brain injuries, while another suffered bodily injuries and emotional damage from witnessing the crash and his family’s condition.

In 2016, under a contract with Indianapolis, IPL agreed to supply equipment and electricity to the City’s traffic signals, including those at the intersection where the crash occurred. After the crash, the family, who were not IPL customers, brought claims alleging IPL was negligent in several respects including for failing to timely and properly restore power to the intersection.

Before we meet with a prospective client about their potential car accident injury case or truck accident injury case, we will have already obtained and reviewed the crash report.  We will then go through the crash report with them and identify whether the officer determined anyone was the primary cause of the accident and whether there were any contributing factors. Sometimes the investigating officer has made a definitive decision as to the primary cause. Other times we find the officer was unable to determine what was the primary cause of the accident and has provided an “either or” type answer. Ultimately, we are asked what will the insurance company or trucking company do with the officer’s findings? Unfortunately, like many answers in the law, it depends.

An Indiana Officer’s Standard Crash Report must be completed by the investigating police officer when a car accident causes an injury or death or property damage greater than $1000. The most significant portions of the crash report for personal injury cases are the check-the-box section on contributing circumstances and the section where the officer is to provide a narrative/diagram of the incident.

The check-the-box section on contributing circumstances includes a variety of options for the investigating officer to list for the “Primary Cause” and for the other vehicle(s) involved. Options for the officer include such human factors as alcoholic beverages, illegal drugs, prescription drugs, unsafe speed, failure to yield, disregarding a signal, improper turning, using a cell phone, passenger distraction and pedestrian’s actions. Options also include mechanical factors such as brake failure, accelerator failure, tire failure, and tow hitch failure. Finally, the options include environmental factors such as glare, roadway surface, severe crosswinds, roadway construction, an animal or object in the roadway, utility work, or the view was obstructed. The primary cause is the officer’s strongest suspicion as to what caused the accident. Contributing factors are other issues that may have caused or contributed to the accident.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion on whether a trial court properly instructed a jury in a rear-end automobile accident case in Indiana. In Torrence v. Gamble, 124 N.E.3d 1249, 1250 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019), the defendant rear-ended the plaintiff as the plaintiff was stopped waiting for oncoming traffic to clear before making a left-handed turn. After the collision, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant for the substantial damage to her vehicle and for personal injuries she suffered in the collision. The defendant denied liability and asserted the plaintiff had comparative fault in causing the collision, namely, that the plaintiff’s brake lights were not illuminated, and her left turn signal was off.

Under Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act, which follows a modified comparative fault approach, a personal injury claimant is barred from recovery if the claimant’s fault is greater than the fault of all persons whose fault proximately contributed to the claimant’s damages. Ind. Code § 34-51-2-6. In other words, if the fault of the claimant is greater than fifty percent (50%) of the total fault of all persons involved in the incident giving rise to the injury or death, the jury has to return a verdict in favor of the defendant or defendants. Ind. Code §§ 34-51-2-7, 34-51-2-8. If the plaintiff’s fault is not greater than fifty percent (50%) of the total fault of all persons involved in the incident giving rise to the injury or death, the jury has to return a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Id.

Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act provides that a court shall instruct a jury to determine its verdict taking into account the percentage of fault of the claimant/plaintiff, of the defendant/defendants, and of any person who is a nonparty. Id. The Act further provides that the trial court shall provide the jury with forms of verdicts that require only the disclosure of the percentage of fault of each party and nonparty and the amount of the verdict against each defendant. Ind. Code § 34-51-2-11.

The Indiana Supreme Court recently issued an opinion in a car accident case in which the question before the Court was whether a party may use evidence of an expert witness’s professional disciplinary history to challenge the expert’s credibility. In Tunstall v. Manning, 124 N.E.3d 1193, 1195 (Ind. 2019), the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against a defendant driver that had rear-ended the plaintiff at a stop sign, causing injuries to the plaintiff. One of the plaintiff’s treating physicians diagnosed the plaintiff with a 28% whole body impairment.

Leading up to the jury trial, counsel for the defendant inquired about the plaintiff’s physician’s past professional discipline and the reasons underlying the physician’s past discipline. While the physician admitted his medical license had previously been on probation, he refused to answer questions about the reasons underlying his past discipline. When the defendant filed a motion in court to compel the plaintiff’s physician to answer questions about his past discipline, the trial court denied the motion, reasoning that the physician’s professional disciplinary history was not relevant because his medical license was in good standing. At trial, the defendant was unable to use the physician’s licensure probation and the reasons underlying the physician’s past discipline to impeach the physician’s testimony, which was the sole medical testimony offered by the plaintiff, based upon the trial court excluding any evidence of the plaintiff’s physician’s past licensure probation and the reasons for his past professional discipline.

After an Indiana jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant appealed, arguing the trial court abused its discretion by disallowing evidence of the plaintiff’s physician’s licensure probation and the reasons underlying his professional discipline. In personal injury cases in which there are competing expert opinions as to the seriousness of a person’s injuries, expert testimony can be particularly important in affecting the amount of any jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Once the foundation for an expert’s opinions has been established, the accuracy, consistency, and credibility of the expert’s opinions can be challenged by the parties. The question in this case was whether the plaintiff’s physician’s expert opinions could be attacked by evidence of his professional disciplinary history.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently upheld the grant of summary judgment in favor of the estate of a vehicle driver who suffered a heart attack and became unconscious while driving, which resulted in his vehicle speeding up, going off the roadway, and crashing into a nearby house. The vehicle driver died and his passenger, who brought suit against his estate, suffered severe injuries.

In Indiana, a plaintiff must establish three elements to prove negligence on behalf of a defendant: (1) a duty owed to the plaintiff by the defendant; (2) a breach of that duty by failing to comply with the applicable standard of care; and (3) a compensable injury proximately caused by the breach of that duty. Under Indiana law, individuals must conform their conduct to that of a reasonable person under like circumstances. Summary judgment is appropriate when the defendant negates at least one of the elements of the plaintiff’s claim. While the element of breach is usually a question for the jury, where the relevant facts are undisputed and lead only to a single inference or conclusion, the court may determine as a matter of law whether the defendant breached a duty.

The defendant estate in this case claimed it was entitled to summary judgment on the element of breach because the vehicle driver could not be found to have acted unreasonably in causing the collision when he suffered a heart attack and was rendered unconscious. The plaintiff passenger argued that the defendant driver was negligent for driving in the first place given his medical condition. While the vehicle driver had recently suffered a prior heart attack and undergone treatment related to his heart condition, at the time of the collision, he had been cleared to drive by his medical providers. Based upon this evidence, the Court found that the passenger plaintiff failed to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendant driver’s sudden physical incapacity was reasonably foreseeable, so as to hold him negligent for driving in the first place.

In Holland v. Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance Company, the Indiana Court of Appeals decided a dispute between an Indiana lawyer and an automobile insurer concerning the reimbursement of medical payments coverage provided by the automobile insurer to the injured client of the lawyer in a personal injury lawsuit. After the lawyer’s client was injured in a vehicle collision and sustained medical bills as a result of injuries suffered in the collision, the client’s automobile insurer paid $5,000.00 towards the client’s medical bills. The automobile insurer put the attorney on notice of its subrogation claim, which entitled it to partial reimbursement of the amount it paid out of its medical payments coverage.

Under Indiana law, the amount of an automobile insurer’s subrogation claim for medical expenses paid on behalf of an injured party is diminished in the same proportion as a personal injury claimant’s recovery is diminished by comparative fault, or by reason of the uncollectability of the full value of the claim for personal injuries or death resulting from limited liability insurance. Ind. Code § 34-51-2-19. The amount of the automobile insurer’s subrogation claim is also reduced by a pro-rata share of the claimant’s attorney’s fees and litigation expenses. Id.

In this case, the personal injury lawsuit against the at-fault party was settled in the client’s favor. The client’s attorney and the automobile insurer were unable to reach an agreement as to the reimbursement amount due the automobile insurer from the personal injury settlement. More than two (2) years after the Indiana attorney and the automobile insurer reached an impasse and communication ceased between them concerning the medical payments subrogation lien, the automobile insurer filed a lawsuit in state court in Indiana against the Indiana attorney. While the trial court initially found in favor of the automobile insurer, the Indiana attorney appealed the decision, and the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the trial court, finding in favor of the Indiana attorney based upon a two (2) year statute of limitations for breach of fiduciary duty.

Last week we looked at Indiana’s anti-texting statute, the unlikelihood of criminal enforcement, and asked whether punitive damages could provide an additional deterrent.  We noted the first obstacle to punitive damages is Indiana’s incentive-reducing statute that takes 75% of any uninsured, punitive judgment and requires this to be paid to the State of Indiana.

The second obstacle to punitive damages is that federal law prohibits “grossly excessive” punishment of wrongdoers as unconstitutional for violating an individual’s substantive due process rights.  Recognizing that there are many different degrees of wrongful conduct, the U.S. Supreme Court placed no arbitrary limit on punitive damages in the case of BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, but reversed an award of 1000x compensatory damages.  Later, in State Farm v. Campbell, the Court noted that “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages, to a significant degree, will satisfy due process.”  Luckily for State Farm, this meant the reversal of an award of $145 million in punitive damages where compensatory damages had been $1 million.

Indiana law provides wrongdoers in Indiana with even more protection than that provided by the U.S. Supreme Court.   Indiana places an arbitrary cap on any punitive damages award of the greater of $50,000 or three times the compensatory damages awarded.  Thus, even though Indiana victims of wrongful conduct would be helping victims of violent crime and sexual assault by maintaining a claim for punitive damages, Indiana believes three is the magic number when compensatory damages exceed $50,000.

In 2011, Indiana joined the legions of States that made texting while driving illegal.  Indiana Code 9-21-8-59 bans drivers from using a telecommunications device to type a text message or an email, transmit a text message or an email, or read a text message or an email.  Excepted from the law is using the device in conjunction with hands-free or voice-operated technology, or to call 911 to report a bona fide emergency.

However, absent exceptional circumstances, the law also restricts police from confiscating cell phones and determining if the driver had been using it.  Police cannot use the law to confiscate a phone and keep it as evidence or to extract or download information from the phone.

Although criminal enforcement of anti-texting laws is rare, when a car crash occurs as a result of texting, there may be civil remedies available to deter such conduct.  Punitive damages developed under the law as a means of deterring particularly bad conduct.

You are sitting in a growing line of cars at a traffic light waiting to make a right turn onto the Lloyd Expressway. Up ahead at the exit of a parking lot sits a vehicle with a frowning senior citizen who apparently wants to make it across your lane into the left lane.  You recall how you felt the last time you were stuck in traffic and unable to move and someone waved you out.  You decide to return the favor and stop, leaving room for the vehicle to cross your lane.  You look in your rear-view mirror to make sure no traffic is approaching in the left lane, smile and kindly signal the driver to go.  Out of nowhere comes a speeding truck.  Horns honk, and brakes squeal.  Your heart races.

If the cars collide, could you be found negligent for having given the courtesy wave?  In Key v. Hamilton, the Indiana Court of Appeals explored this legal issue.  Hamilton was seriously injured when his motorcycle struck a vehicle Key had waved through traffic.  The trial court ruled that Key owed Hamilton a duty, determining that a jury should be allowed to decide whether Key had been negligent in extending a courtesy wave.  The jury returned a verdict in Hamilton’s favor, finding Key was 45% at fault, the driver who Hamilton had waved through 50% at fault, and Hamilton 5% at fault.  The jury found Hamilton’s damages to be $2.2 million and reduced this award after applying Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act to $990,000, entering judgment against Hamilton.  Hamilton appealed.

The trial court found Key’s duty to Hamilton was grounded in a principle of law embodied by the Restatement (Second) of Torts  324A (1965).  That legal concept provides that “[o]ne who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things, is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to protect his undertaking, if (a) his failure to exercise reasonable care increases the risk of such harm, or (b) he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person, or (c) the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other or the third person upon the undertaking.”

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