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Articles Posted in Truck Accidents

As injury lawyers representing victims of car crashes, one of the most common causes of car accidents we see in police reports is that the at-fault driver was texting or reached down to retrieve a dropped phone. These common car crash causes should vanish if drivers follow Indiana’s new hands-free phone law. Indiana Passes Hands Free Phone Law

“Do not hold or use your phone while driving in Indiana” is the new law in Indiana as of July 1, 2020. Under the law, a person operating a motor vehicle in Indiana may no longer hold or use their phone while driving unless that person has hands free or voice operated technology or is calling 911 to report a bona fide emergency. The new law, which went into effect July 1, 2020 and which can be found in Indiana Code § 9-21-8-59, provides as follows:

(a) Except as provided in subsections (b) and (c), a person may not hold or use a telecommunications device while operating a moving motor vehicle. (b) A telecommunications device may be used in conjunction with hands free or voice operated technology. (c) A telecommunications device may be used or held to call 911 to report a bona fide emergency. (d) A police officer may not, without the consent of the person: (1) confiscate a telecommunications device for the purpose of determining compliance with this section; (2) confiscate a telecommunications device and retain it as evidence pending trial for a violation of this section; or (3) extract or otherwise download information from a telecommunications device for a violation of this section unless: (A) the police officer has probable cause to believe that the telecommunications device has been used in the commission of a crime; (B) the information is extracted or otherwise downloaded under a valid search warrant; or (C) otherwise authorized by law. (e) The bureau may not assess points under the point system for a violation of this section occurring before July 1, 2021.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently resolved a dispute as to the availability of underinsured coverage in an Indiana motor vehicle accident case. In Catanzarite v. Safeco Ins. Co. of Indiana, the Plaintiff, Christine Catanzarite, suffered severe injuries when another driver, Timothy Smith, turned his vehicle in front of her vehicle, causing a collision. Catanzarite incurred $269,841.32 in medical expenses at Memorial Hospital in South Bend, Indiana. Smith had a $100,000.00 liability insurance policy. Catanzarite had a $100,000.00 underinsured policy with Safeco.

Smith’s auto insurer offered Catanzarite Smith’s liability insurance limits of $100,000.00. Memorial Hospital asserted a hospital lien for the medical bills incurred by Catanzarite, which it subsequently reduced to $25,000.00. A perfected hospital lien gives a hospital a direct right to insurance proceeds which are paid to the patient by an at-fault party. Catanzarite filed a motion for declaratory judgment against Safeco, upon which she filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking a determination that Smith, as a result of Memorial Hospital’s hospital lien, was an underinsured driver and Catanzarite was entitled to $25,000.00 in underinsured coverage.

Underinsured motorist coverage ensures an insured person receives the recovery he or she would have received if the at-fault driver had carried adequate insurance; it helps protect persons against inadequately insured negligent motorists. Under Indiana law, an underinsured motor vehicle is an “insured motor vehicle where the limits of coverage available for payment to the insured under all bodily injury liability policies covering persons liable to the insured are less than the limits for the insured’s underinsured motorist coverage at the time of the accident…” Ind. Code § 27-7-5-4(b).

Persons involved in car accidents in Indiana due to no fault of their own have numerous claims for damages that they can pursue against the at-fault parties that caused the collisions. Claimants can pursue claims for wrongful death, physical and permanent injuries, medical costs and other expenses, lost wages, lost time, loss of enjoyment of life, emotional distress, mental anguish, loss of services, support and consortium of a spouse, and property damage. In the recent case of Shield Glob. Partners-G1, LLC v. Forster, the Indiana Court of Appeals addressed the availability of one of those items of damage, diminished value of a vehicle as part of a property damage claim.

The case arose out of an automobile collision between Lindsay Forster and Lance Ingersoll in Bloomington, Indiana. Forster rear-ended Ingersoll, and as a result of the collision, Ingersoll’s Chevy Silverado pickup truck was damaged. The truck was repaired for a cost of $6,852.55. Shield Global Partners-G1, LLC (“Shield”), which held an assignment of any claims for any diminished value, sought reimbursement for the diminished value of the truck, despite the repairs that had been satisfactorily performed. Shield presented an in-house appraisal that the truck had a fair market value of $36,550 before the collision, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association, and that after the collision, despite the repairs, its fair market value was $32,529.50, for a diminished value of $4,020.45. Shield also presented a second appraisal from an auto appraiser who estimated that the diminished value of the truck amounted to $7,400.00.

Shield filed suit against Forster for the diminished value of the truck. A bench trial was held. The trial court denied Shield’s claim for the diminished value of the truck. The trial court found that Shield’s diminished value claim amounted to a claim for “stigma of defect” damage, which per the trial court, Indiana law does not per se recognize without permanent damage. The trial court also found that Shield had failed to present sufficient evidence to support its claim of diminished value. The trial court, therefore, found the repair costs to be an adequate measure of damages.

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.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently found a trial court erred when it instructed a jury on the plaintiff’s alleged failure to mitigate damages in an Indiana truck accident case. In Humphrey v. Tuck, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against a truck driver and a trucking company arising from a trucking collision in which the trailer of the tractor-trailer being driven by the truck driver struck the plaintiff’s vehicle while the plaintiff was driving on the highway. As a result of the impact, the plaintiff hit his head on something inside his car and his windshield cracked. The following day the plaintiff experienced problems with his left eye and removed a sliver of glass from his eye.

The plaintiff thereafter sought and received medical treatment from numerous providers, including an ophthalmologist, optometrist, neurosurgeon, and endocrinologist. During his treatment, an MRI revealed a pre-existing tumor on the plaintiff’s pituitary gland, which was secreting prolactin and causing high prolactin levels. The plaintiff’s neurosurgeon opined that the plaintiff had pituitary apoplexy, which he described as an abrupt sudden event that occurs spontaneously in many cases of large pituitary tumors but which can be associated with trauma. After the plaintiff’s neurosurgeon removed the tumor, the plaintiff’s endocrinologist prescribed a medication, bromocriptine, to help lower his prolactin level. While the plaintiff did not always take the medication as prescribed because he could not afford it and it made him ill, he did take it consistently for a period of at least six months, and as a result, his prolactin levels decreased significantly. His endocrinologist eventually advised him to stop taking the medication altogether. The plaintiff’s optometrist also prescribed eyeglasses, but the plaintiff never got them.

The trucking company argued at trial that the plaintiff failed to mitigate his damages because he did not take the bromocriptine as prescribed and did not get the eyeglasses as prescribed. Failure to mitigate damages is an affirmative defense that can reduce the amount of a plaintiff’s damages when the plaintiff’s conduct aggravates or increases the plaintiff’s injuries. In order to prove a failure to mitigate damages, a defendant must prove (1) the plaintiff failed to exercise reasonable care to mitigate his post-injury damages, and (2) the plaintiff’s failure to exercise reasonable care caused the plaintiff to suffer an identifiable item of harm not attributable to the defendant’s negligent conduct. A defendant’s burden of proof includes proof of causation, namely, that the plaintiff’s unreasonable post-injury conduct increased the plaintiff’s harm, and if so, by how much.

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 Supreme Court recently held in Brewer v. PACCAR, Inc. that a component part manufacturer (PACCAR) may have a duty to offer or install necessary safety features under Indiana’s Product Liability Act (IPLA). Because issues of fact existed as to whether the safety features were offered and necessary to make the final product safe, the Court reversed the trial court’s finding that PACCAR owed no duty, as a matter of law, to install safety features that the injury party alleged were necessary.

The IPLA subjects a manufacturer of “a product or a component part of a product,” I.C. § 34-6-2-77, to liability for physical harm caused by a manufacturer placing “into the stream of commerce any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to any user or consumer,” I.C. § 34-20-2-1. A product is defective under the IPLA if it is defectively designed, if it has a manufacturing flaw, or if it lacks adequate warnings about dangers associated with its use.

Rickey Brewer was a construction foreman killed when a semi driver backed up a semi with an integrated PACCAR glider kit, did not see Rickey, and pinned him against a trailer, killing him.  His widow and his estate asserted an IPLA claim against PACCAR. The claim asserted PACCAR’s glider kit was defectively designed because it lacked certain safety features to reduce the danger inherent in its forty-foot blind spot. (If you drive a vehicle with a rear camera and sensors, you can probably attest to the peace of mind and safety such devices add to our everyday life). Here, because a design-defect claim is based in negligence, Brewer would need to be able to prove at trial that (1) PACCAR owed a duty to Rickey; (2) PACCAR breached that duty; and (3) the breach proximately caused an injury to Rickey. The only element at issue in the case was duty—whether PACCAR lacked a duty, as a matter of law, to install certain safety features.

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.

A recent memorandum decision from the Indiana Court of Appeals in J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc. v. Guardianship of Zak affirmed an Indiana trial court’s order awarding the guardianship of a passenger injured in a semi-truck collision $4,810,000.00 in prejudgment interest.

Ten months after an Indiana jury found in favor of the passenger and against the driver of the semi tractor-trailer and the trucking company he was working for at the time of the trucking accident, the passenger requested prejudgment interest on the $32,500,000.00 jury award. The driver of the semi tractor-trailer and the trucking company appealed the trial court’s order of pre-judgement interest arguing that the guardianship of the injured passenger had failed to comply with Indiana’s Tort Prejudgment Interest Statute (TPIS), as set forth in Indiana Code section 34-51-4-6, and that the request for prejudgment interest was untimely. The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment.

Prejudgment interest is allowed under Indiana law as an additional element of damages to achieve full compensation for the prevailing party at trial. The truck driver and trucking company argued that the guardianship of the injured passenger did not comply with the TPIS because it did not make an offer of settlement within one year of filing the lawsuit and the settlement offer that was eventually made did not allow the truck driver and trucking company sixty (60) days to pay the amount of the settlement offer. In affirming the trial court on these issues, the Indiana Court of Appeals noted that the statute is not meant to serve as a trap for the wary but is meant to put a party on notice of a claim and encourage settlement. The Indiana Court of Appeals found that the trial court acted within its discretion in determining that the guardianship’s settlement offer satisfied the statute because the guardianship had established good cause for the delay in tendering its settlement offer due to critical documents being withheld by the truck driver and trucking company during discovery, and because the settlement offer included time-limiting language.

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.

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