Articles Posted in Personal Injury

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Transportation is constantly changing. The year 2002 brought us Segway Personal Transporters; 2009 gave us Uber (formerly “Ubercab”); 2010 brought bike-share companies to the U.S.; and 2017? Scooters. Yes, the same toys we used to ride around our neighborhoods as kids have now become electrified and are the newest, hippest mode of transportation in at least 21 states of the U.S. These electric scooter companies — namely Bird, Lime, and Spin — are taking cities by storm in recent months. People from the company drop off dozens of scooters at “nests” located around the city each morning for civilians to pick up. The person can pay through the app the $1 starting fee, ride it around — paying additionally by time or mileage — and then just drop the scooter off wherever he or she would like. At the end of the night, the company collects the scooters around the city to check for maintenance and repair needs and then deposits them around the city streets the next morning. At first blush, this idea seems great! Avoid traffic, get to a close distance quickly, and for cheap! Upon closer observation, however,  just as the scooters seem to be taking over, more and more problems are quickly emerging with the newest toy-turned-transportation.

First, safety. There have been numerous accidents reported in the last few months as the scooters have become more readily available to the public. The websites and apps for these scooters suggest the riders should wear a helmet; however, there is no method of enforcement from the businesses, and when a person picks up a Bird to ride around town, a helmet does not come attached to the scooter for a rider to wear, and people walking around downtown are likely not already carrying a helmet with them when they get the urge to pick up a scooter. Bird only provides a helmet when a rider puts in a request for one. Personal injury attorneys across the country are reporting dozens of people seeking representation after getting injured on these scooters, and liability and insurance surrounding this latest mode of transportation is a relatively uncharted territory for these attorneys to try to manage. Liability can be hard to prove, and questions of insurance coverage for injuries can be tricky to answer; health insurance will say that car insurance should cover medical expenses, and car insurance points the finger back saying it won’t cover a crash on a two-wheeled vehicle. Oddly enough, according to one personal injury attorney, it’s possible that homeowners or renters insurance could cover a rider in these situations. Another attorney says that though Bird says that riders use the scooter at their own risk and limit its own liability to $100, the company’s waiver likely will not stop claims of gross negligence.

As if the safety concerns were not enough to label these scooters an official nuisance, the legal concerns may do it. According to the Official Code of Georgia, the operation of motor scooters is only mentioned once under the definition of “motor driven cycle” which also includes motorcycles, bicycles with motors attached, and mopeds. Clearly, these newly innovated technological devices (electric scooters) have yet to be addressed by many state legal codes. Because of the lack of specificity in the Code regarding the definition of electric scooters, cities around the country are interpreting law one way, and the scooter companies are interpreting it the other way. The companies do not want riders using the scooters on sidewalks, and the Cities don’t want the riders using them on streets. Additionally, confusion over whether the scooters need license and registration has been at the center of much debate over the legality of the scooters. One of the main legal concerns and problems the cities and public are having with the electric scooters is the sidewalk litter they cause. Because a rider is able to pick up, ride, and drop off the scooter wherever he or she pleases, the “dockless” nature of these scooters is causing sidewalks to fill up with scooters  disposed of by inconsiderate riders, blocking pedestrians’ and wheelchairs’ paths. Though many of the legal concerns are up for debate right now, the issue surrounding the blocking of the sidewalk is not one to be misinterpreted; O.C.G.A. § 16-11-43 says it is illegal to recklessly obstruct any  “sidewalk, or other public passage in such a way as to render it impassable without unreasonable inconvenience or hazard” and failure to remove the obstruction — namely, the electric scooter left lying in the middle of the sidewalk — after an official request to do so is a misdemeanor offense.

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Taking a stroll down the streets of Atlanta can be a healthy pastime or a means of getting in your social interactions for the week, but the cheapest form of transportation is quickly becoming one of the more dangerous. One unfortunate story in Smyrna, GA last week tells of a pedestrian fatality at the hands of a distracted driver; the driver made a phone call, drove off of the roadway, and struck the pedestrian. Another upsetting story in the AJC last week reported of a woman killed in Atlanta as she attempted to cross I-75 and was struck by multiple cars. Recent reports suggest that she attempted to run across the highway due to a dispute over drugs that resulted in someone chasing her. Unfortunately, this story is just one of many that could be written in Georgia this year, as pedestrian fatalities are on the rise on the national level. From 2007 to 2016, the number of pedestrian fatalities increased by 27%, and whether the victim is a harmless pedestrian walking to work or drugs are at play, researchers are not quite certain what is the main cause for the increasing numbers of pedestrian fatalities in the recent years.

Reports over the last few years have found a few potential factors to the increasing fatalities. Obviously, cell phone usage is an issue. Whether a distracted driver is using a phone while operating a vehicle or a distracted pedestrian has his or her face buried in the phone while walking through a crosswalk, cell phones are making us more distracted, less aware of our surroundings, and slower to react when we encounter danger. Cell phone use increased by 236% in the years 2010 to 2016, providing greater opportunity for cell phone related pedestrian accidents.

Many studies and reports suggest the increase in cell phone usage could be a leading cause of pedestrian involved accidents, but a new study provides an interesting possible factor in the rising number of pedestrian fatalities: marijuana. The report does not intend to imply direct correlation of any sort but merely suggests that the possible impairment of judgment and reaction time — for both drivers and pedestrians — due to recreational use of marijuana could lead to higher pedestrian incidents on the roadway. The study found that in DC and the 7 states that legalized recreational use of marijuana between 2012 and 2016, there was a collective 16.4% INCREASE in pedestrian fatalities between the first 6 months of 2016 and the first 6 months of 2017. Conversely, in the remaining states, there was a collective 5.8% DECREASE in pedestrian fatalities between those two time spans.

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In a series of blogs I wrote last summer on distracted driving, I laid out some of the problems with the advancing technology we have readily available to us at our fingertips. The use of social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram while driving has led to many fatal or injurious car wrecks, and texting while driving, which is known as a “combination distraction” – one that averts our attention manually, visually, and cognitively – has caused thousands of deaths and injuries in accidents in the last few years. Last summer, one of my distracted driving blogs was about a bill that the Governor of Washington was signing into law banning hand-held usage of cellular devices. I wrote that Georgia had yet to sign such a bill into its own laws, but one year later, this subject matter needs an update.

This legislative session, the Georgia Legislature worked to pass House Bill 673, which Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed into law a few months ago and will become effective July 1, 2018. The bill is known as the “Hands-Free” or “Distracted Driving” law, which by name alone may sound self-explanatory but with further inspection can be a little confusing. Allow me to lay out the need-to-knows of Georgia’s newest cell-phone driving law.

This bill, which has now become an Act, amends Title 40 “Motor Vehicles and Traffic” of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated. The main change in the Code will be located in O.C.G.A. §40-6-241, which explains a driver’s responsibility to exercise due care, specifically regarding usage of a wireless telecommunications device. The first parts of the bill change the penalties within the license point system. First violation of Code Section 40-6-241 will result in 1 point added to the license; second violation results in 2 points added; and third results in 3 points. There are other – and potentially worse – penalties a driver could face if convicted of violating the Code section.

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The short answer is maybe.

One of the first questions many of my clients have after they have been in a car wreck is whether they can accept the insurance company’s pay-off for their totaled car.  Most people need the pay-off money to be able to buy substitute transportation as quickly as possible.  Some people accept the insurance company’s pay-off well before they even think about hiring a lawyer, and well before they have even spoken to a lawyer about representing them in a car wreck case. This is certainly understandable and normal human conduct when your car has been totaled in a wreck that isn’t your fault. But can there be a problem with accepting the insurance company’s pay-off for your car and, in return, releasing ownership of it to that insurance company for salvage value?

Typically, in a car wreck that has resulted in some personal injuries due to the negligence of the at-fault driver for say, running a stop sign, or rear-ending the car in front, the answer for at least 30 years has been no.  In the past, no insurance carrier ever really cared about preserving the car in a plain ordinary negligence car wreck case where there is no evidence of any mechanical failure of the car or any evidence that the car itself was, somehow, defective. In the last 5 years or so, however, that has changed. Now, in an increasingly scorched-earth tactic by defense lawyers, they often file a motion to dismiss even run-of-the-mill car wreck cases for the plaintiff’s failure to preserve or keep the car that was involved in the wreck, even if that car was totaled by the insurance carrier. This motion is referred to as a “spoliation motion” and they are becoming more and more popular as a “gotcha” tactic by defense attorneys who really have no defense for their insured’s actions in actually causing the wreck in the first place.  They have to admit their insured was negligent and caused the wreck, but maybe they can get out of the whole thing by arguing that without the car to be examined by an expert, hypothetically, we can never know whether something was wrong with the brakes or the windshield wipers (yes, I have really had that argued by defense counsel in a case) or the seat belts or any of a number of made-up potential problems, even if there exists no evidence that anything about the car caused or contributed to the wreck.  At a minimum it is frustrating…at the worst, it can cost a plaintiff her entire case.

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Every day as I travel down Edgewood Avenue in Downtown Atlanta in the middle of Georgia State University, some pedestrian, without fail, decides to take a risk and walk out in front of either my car or another car as I watch. The only time this doesn’t happen is when Georgia State is on Spring Break. It is a stressful trip, knowing that in addition to the numerous cars all around me that I have to be aware of, I have to be ready to slam my breaks in a nanosecond to avoid hitting a pedestrian walking out in front of my car when I have the right-of-way. I am aware of the plentiful crosswalks available for pedestrian use, but they are mostly ignored.  I am talking about students who ignore the crossing signals and walk across a street either not in a crosswalk at all, or in a crosswalk but cross when the signal is telling them to stop.  This typical daily occurrence with pedestrians has me thinking about just exactly what are the laws in Georgia pertaining to pedestrians? Is it just me or are the pedestrian signals getting more complicated?  What do they actually mean?  When does a pedestrian have the right-of-way to cross the street? Can a driver of a vehicle just mow down a pedestrian if the pedestrian is not in the crosswalk?  How about if the pedestrian is in the crosswalk but the flashing hand has started with a stopwatch ticking down, telling the pedstrian how many seconds he or she has to cross the street before the signal turns?  Is a pedestrian required to know how fast they can walk and how many seconds they typically take to cross a street?  Does it depend on how many lanes the street is?  And whether there is a headwind or tailwind? My drive today has me thinking about all of this.  Hmmm….

First, we can easily find the Georgia Rules of the Road as they pertain to pedestrians on the Georgia Highway Safety website. The Official Code of Georgia provides:  § 40-6-91. Right of Way in Crosswalks: 

(a) The driver of a vehicle shall stop and remain stopped to allow a pedestrian to cross the roadway within a crosswalk when the pedestrian is upon the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling, or when the pedestrian is approaching and is within one lane of the half of the roadway on which the vehicle is traveling or onto which it is turning. For the purposes of this subsection, “half of the roadway” means all traffic lanes carrying traffic in one direction of travel.

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It seems to be in vogue with some trial judges currently to allow jurors to ask questions of witnesses after both sides of the litigation are finished asking their questions. This is currently a hot topic due to the Tex McIver trial, currently being tried in the Fulton County Superior Court in front of Judge Robert McBurney. Judge McBurney, rather famously, permits jurors to ask questions of witnesses after questioning by the prosecution and the defense counsel.  Presumably, Judge McBurney allows this practice in civil cases as well as criminal cases, although Superior Court doesn’t see as many civil cases as criminal.  All felonies in Georgia must be tried in Superior Court.  The practice of Judge McBurney allowing witnesses to ask their own questions was discussed extensively before the trial in a podcast produced by the AJC called Breakdown. It is hosted by veteran legal affairs journalist Bill Rankin and I highly recommend it.  In that podcast, defense counsel Bruce Harvey gives his opinion on why it is not only a bad practice to allow jurors to ask questions, but, also, why it is probably unconstitutional.  For example, we all know that the 5th Amendment of the Constitution gives a criminal defendant the right to remain silent, even throughout the trial, so that the government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt without any assistance from the defendant. Harvey, rightfully, preposes the hypothetical of a juror asking “Why didn’t the defendant take the stand to tell us what happened?”  Of course, the judge is not going to permit that question to be answered, but the jurors (or at least the one juror who asked that question) will know the judge didn’t approve it and wouldn’t permit it to be answered, and the bias that answers “why” is naturally because the defendant must be guilty. So simply by denying that juror’s question, the 5th amendment constitutional right is implicated and violated because it was allowed even to be raised in court.

There has lately been alot of discussion in social media about this among lawyers, too.  You can find some of this discussion on Twitter at #texmciver and in the comments on Facebook where WSBTV is livestreaming the trial.  If I were to take a poll, I think the vast majority of trial lawyers is against the practice for the reasons stated above. Also, other websites are livestreaming the same WSBTV feed, like wildabouttrial and lawandcrime.   Both of these websites have a comments section where viewers can post their comments about the trial. It is pretty fascinating, especially for court enthusiasts like me.  On Facebook, there have been some thought-provoking comments about allowing jurors to ask questions of witnesses.  Below are just some of the comments I have seen:

“I think there are two questions that judges should ask themselves before considering this. 1). Why would I allow jurors to ask questions? Whatever the answer is (to help the jurors clarify any issues that the holder of the burden of proof has not clarified, etc). 2). If I am am being a neutral, unbiased referee, should that matter to me?”

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Yesterday I was in the Chicago O’Hare airport after taking the deposition of a defense expert anesthesiologist at the University of Chicago and sat down for lunch next to a nice couple from the Boston area.  We started talking and I, of course, told them I am a plaintiff’s personal injury trial lawyer from Atlanta in Chicago for the purpose of taking an adverse expert witness’s deposition. They were mesmerized. We talked a bit about the case which led, predictably, to their telling me about their personal experiences with both the Criminal and Civil Justice Systems.

The husband of the nice couple told me about  his experience in serving on a criminal jury as the foreperson. Like most folks facing jury duty, at first he was upset about missing work, resented being herded around the courtroom like cattle and being kept in the dark about what was happening, and was overall just unhappy about being forced to take part in the entire process.  Yet, as the testimony came in and the trial moved on,things, including his attitude, changed.  The case was about a man, the defendant, who allegedly had abused his three year old son.  The man had taken his son away from the child’s mother’s home but the mother wasn’t even aware of it. The evidence against the father was, apparently, overwhelming.  My new buddy, who was telling me about his experience, was picked to be the foreperson of the jury. He immediately felt an enormous weight on his shoulders to do the right thing. Not all of the jurors at first wanted to convict, even though he felt the evidence to do so was overwhelming.  Some of the jurors wanted to hear some of the testimony again, some of them wanted to see pieces of evidence again. They wanted to be sure.  In the end, the jury voted unanimously to convict. My new friend said that when he read the verdict out loud in the courtroom, he felt an enormous sense of duty and pride. He felt moved to tears. The jurors, to a person, took their duty very seriously and followed the court’s instructions unwaveringly.  He felt like he was the little boy’s hero.  Now, looking back, he hopes he’ll get the chance to serve on a jury again.  Both he and his wife said that if they were ever the parties in a trial, they would want people like themselves serving on their jury.

Fascinating story, but I’m not surprised. This is often the story I hear from people who have served on juries, criminal or civil.   The sense of duty is extremely strong. By serving on a jury, you are breathing life into the United States Constitution and doing your part as a citizen to make our judicial system work. Without jurors, the system would collapse and we would cease to be a democratic nation.  Jurors ensure that a person’s constitutional rights to a fair trial by a jury of his or her peers is protected.  That is not overstating things. And something about being in the formal courtroom, where lives are at stake, where injured plaintiffs seek to have the harms done to them balanced by damages from the wrongdoer, makes that sense of honor and duty to your nation come alive. Jurors are the heroes of victims of crime and of those citizens who are personally injured through no fault of their own. The courtroom is the great Equalizer, where the son of the richest man in America is the equal of a homeless person, and where the smartest graduate of Harvard University is the equal of a high-school drop-out. All persons are treated equally in a court of law.

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Let’s say you have been injured in a car wreck, or in a fall at a store, and the insurance adjuster for the insurance company of the at-fault driver or of the store owner calls you after your injury. They often want to take a recorded statement (which you should NOT give unless you have your lawyer present) about what happened, how you were injured and what your injuries are. Then they might reassure you that they “are there for you,”  and will be looking forward to resolving your claim with you, “don’t worry, everything will be okay,”  or “we’ll take care of you, just let us know when you have finished your medical treatment.”  Makes you feel better, right? So comforting and reassuring. You might even be thinking you can settle your personal injury claim without even having to hire a trial lawyer.  After all,  a trial lawyer will have to be paid for her work and if you can just handle this on your own with this very nice, concerned insurance adjuster, that’s more money for you, right?

WRONG.

One thing that is patently clear that I have come to understand in practicing personal injury law for 30 years in Georgia:  insurance adjusters are not your friends. They are trying to prevent you from being successful on a personal injury claim. They may even resort to trickery, subterfuge, and downright lies.

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The news from the Georgia Department of Public Safety was not good;  deaths on Georgia highways during the Holiday period rose again in 2017.   For just the Holiday period alone, there were 11 reported traffic fatalities. In 2016 there were 8 fatalities in the Holiday period.  The Department of Public Safety is reporting, thus far, 1499 traffic fatalities for the entire year, down from 1561 in 2016. Perhaps the Georgia Department of Transportation’s safety program “Drive Alert Arrive Alive” is working.  The PSA campaigns on television and social media that warn against drunken or distracted driving may be playing a positive role, too.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” is not only catchy, but is seen in every state.  Throw in the ride services now readily available, like Uber and Lyft, and you simply have fewer folks on the road, which, necessarily, will mean fewer deaths.  Actual studies of whether these ride services are making a difference in traffic deaths show the jury’s still out on whether they really make a difference.

Georgia can be proud.  Nationwide, traffic fatalities continue to climb.  But not in Georgia. And that’s a good thing. Stay safe out there, Friends.

 

Robin Frazer Clark pursues justice for those who have personal injury claims as a result of being injured in motor vehicle wrecks, trucking wrecks, defective products, defective maintenance of roads, premises safety, medical malpractice and other incidents caused by the negligence of others.  Ms. Clark is the 50th President of the State Bar of Georgia and a Past President of Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and has practiced law in Georgia for 29 years.  Mrs. Clark is listed as one of the Top 50 Women Trial Lawyers in Georgia and is a Georgia Super Lawyer.  Robin Frazer Clark~Dedicated to the Constitution’s Promise of Justice for All.

 

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Stop, Look, Listen!  We often hear that in regard to what you should do when you approach a train track in your vehicle. Stop, look and listen for a train before driving over the tracks. I can remember when I was little and rode the school bus home, the bus driver even opened the door to the bus at train tracks so he could see better and hear any potential approaching train more clearly. But shouldn’t the same rules apply for pedestrians before they cross a busy city street?  Should pedestrians also stop, look and listen for their own safety? Are they even required to do so?

I drive down Edgewood Avenue in Downtown Atlanta to get from my house to my office every day. Edgewood is a busy city street that goes through the heart of Georgia State University.  At any given time of the day, there are hundreds of college students crossing Edgewood Avenue to get to their next class to to their dorm room or maybe even to the library.l  The three photos above demonstrate a typical day with GSU students crossing Edgewood Avenue.  These photos show students crossing at the light, but students often cross Edgewood in the middle of the block, not at an intersection and without any traffic signal. Invariably, these young men and women are texting while walking, talking on their cell phones in deep conversations while walking, or even listening to something on their phones with earphones on while they cross one of the busiest streets in Downtown Atlanta.  Many pedestrians attempt to cross while vehicle traffic has a green light.  One of the photos above shows pedestrians crossing the street diagonally, which is certainly against the rules. Watching this sort of nonchalance and devil-may-care attitude regarding oncoming cars while they strut right out into the street had me wondering:  who would be at fault if a pedestrian crossing illegally where struck by a car that had a green light?  Does  a person who texts while they cross a street value his or her life? Or does the lack of taking any safety precautions for their own person, e.g., not texting while walking, forfeit the right to blame someone else when they are struck by a vehicle?

There is no question that texting while walking, especially while crossing a street, is a bad idea.   Research has found that, mile for mile, distracted walking results in more injuries than distracted driving, and makes pedestrians 60 percent more likely to veer off course. At least one city has taken the step to protect people from themselves.   Starting Wednesday, texting while walking across a street in Honolulu is illegal, thanks to a new law that allows police to fine pedestrians up to $35 for checking their phone, while crossing an intersection in the Hawaiian city and surrounding county.  Honolulu is, apparently, the first city in the U.S. and perhaps the world to ban texting while walking (TWW).  “This is really milestone legislation that sets the bar high for safety,” said Brandon Elefante, a City Council member who proposed the bill, in an interview with the New York Times.