Articles Tagged with 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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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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In continuing the series of blogs on distracted driving, I saw a heartbreaking story on the news last week that unfortunately fits right in with the other blogs on Texting While Driving and Snapchatting While Driving. An 18 year old girl was driving her 14 year old sister while operating a Livestream video feature of the Instagram app. Her car drifted into the other lane, and when she overcorrected, the car flipped. Her 14 year old sister was ejected from the car and died. The older sister — while driving — captured the whole thing on video.

The older sister was arrested on-site for suspicion of DUI and gross vehicular manslaughter. Even if the family does not file a civil complaint — for the wrongful death of one daughter caused by another — the driver faces 13 years in prison if convicted on all 6 felony counts.  (Keep in mind that there may be family immunity laws that would even prevent such a lawsuit).

In a recent case involving an accident while using the Snapchat app, the plaintiff sued Snapchat, Inc. for having the “speed overlay” filter, which has incentives for a driver to use the app while the car is in motion at high speeds. This differs from the Instagram Live function, which seemingly has no “incentives” or benefits for using the function except keeping friends up to date with your every move. Were this motor vehicle accident to be filed as a civil complaint, it would be interesting to see if Instagram could be held liable for the resulting death, as the “incentives” from the Snapchat app were the main argument behind the plaintiff’s claim.

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Parental concern, law enforcement warnings, and user disapproval of the recent updates to the Snapchat app are the least of the company’s worries. Though Snapchat, Inc. has made the headlines recently due to the updates, this isn’t the first time the company has been under scrutiny from the public. In April of 2016, a complaint for damages was filed in a Georgia state court against the company for injuries sustained from a motor vehicle accident, claiming that the main cause of the accident was the speed filter of the Snapchat app.

The speed filter allows a driver behind the wheel to document his or her speed by “snapping” a picture while the car is in motion. On this one particular night, a teenage driver allegedly opened her Snapchat app while driving as an attempt to snap a picture of her car reaching 100 mph. The driver allegedly, according to the Complaint, accelerated until reaching approximately 107 mph before she realized another driver had pulled onto the road. She crashed into him at full speed. Both cars were totaled, leaving multiple people with tremendous injuries – both physical and psychological – and thousands of dollars in expenses.

The plaintiffs have sued Snapchat for negligence, in part because this is, according to the Complaint, not the first instance in which a Snapchat user has used the speed filter of the app and caused a car crash. Petitions online even called for the app to remove the filter or for the app to restrict the usage of the filter while driving. Despite knowing that the speed filter presented many dangers to the public, as of the date of the incident above, Snapchat had not removed the speed filter, thus creating the perfect opportunity for another distracted driver to cause serious harm.

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In Washington last month, Governor Jay Inslee took a step towards improving the safety of his streets by signing a law prohibiting the holding of any electronic device (cell phones, tablets, etc) while driving or waiting at a stop light. The law will go in effect in July due to the Governor’s veto of a section that would have postponed the law’s implementation until 2019. The matter is just too important to wait.

As technology’s prevalence in our everyday lives increases, its capability of distraction from our other daily activities increases as well. This includes our activity within our car. The human’s false sense of ability to multitask often leads to problems behind the wheel. The driver only looks away for one second or only needs to pick up that napkin or only needs to change the radio station or only needs to send that last text. But those single and quick moments that the driver’s attention is diverted are the single and quick moments that can take the driver’s or someone else’s life.

The problem doesn’t only occur with drivers looking away. A driver can be very much so distracted while his or her eyes are fixed on the road. There are many different types of distractions: internal (items inside the car), external (objects outside the car), visual (eyes taken off the road), manual (hands taken off the wheel), and cognitive (distracting thoughts). It just so happens that the use of the cell phone is a combination distraction; it combines the dangerous aspects of the various types of distractions into one grand distraction. In the entire time that you go through the process of picking the phone up, looking down at it to find the contact you want to call, thinking about if the other person can answer your call, and physically dialing the call, your focus has been taken off driving long enough to have an accident.

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You Supreme Court nerds out there (and you know who you are) are probably aware of the fact that the United States Supreme Court  recently heard oral arguments in  McWilliams v. Dunn. At issue in the case is whether James McWilliams, an indigent defendant whose mental health was a significant factor at his capital trial, was entitled to an independent psychological expert to testify on his behalf. The prosecution presented the expert testimony of one psychiatrist and argued the Defendant was not entitled to his “own” psychiatrist as the one offered by the prosecution was essentially neutral, even though he was retained and paid by the State.  Stephen Bright, longtime president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, represented McWilliams.  The issue presented to the Supreme Court in McWilliams was this:  “Whether, when this court held in Ake v. Oklahoma that an indigent defendant is entitled to meaningful expert assistance for the “evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense,” it clearly established that the expert should be independent of the prosecution.” Amicus, the podcast by Slate that focuses on the Supreme Court, covered the McWilliams case in its latest episode, “The Myth of the Neutral Expert.”

This is a fascinating discussion, especially considering the very life of an inmate hinges on the opinion.  Some states have even placed a temporary halt on executions for inmates on death row until the McWilliams opinion is delivered.   As a personal injury trial lawyer, I mused how expert witnesses are treated differently in civil cases, you know, in cases where mere money is at issue and not someone’s life or liberty.  Of course, having one so-called “neutral” expert witness, to testify for both sides of a case, would never happen in civil cases.  I haven’t tried a case without the appearance of at least one expert witness at trial in well over 20 years now. My cases are complex and naturally either require or will benefit from expert testimony. At a minimum. I will present the testimony of a treating physician, who certainly is an expert in his or her medical specialty, even if not an expert “specially retained to testify at trial.”  In civil cases, especially medical malpractice cases, we often hear such testimony described as “The Battle of the Experts.”  Defense attorneys have gotten into the habit of hiring just one more expert than the plaintiff has so that they can argue they have “more” experts on their side and, therefore, naturally, you should side with the party who has more experts (regardless of how credible those experts are!).  What jurors may not be aware of is that the defense experts are being paid by the defendant doctor’s malpractice insurance carrier, not the doctor himself, so the sky’s the limit.  Not so for plaintiffs.  Plaintiff’s must front those expenses out of their own pockets, and because no individual plaintiff can afford to do so, this means the plaintiff’s attorney must pay for the experts in a case on his or her own dime. That may not make sense to you but that’s how it works.  As you can imagine, hiring numerous experts simply to have one more than the other side has can get expensive.  Where does this end? But defendants have unlimited sources of money for this and plaintiffs don’t.

Here is the law of Georgia that the trial judge will read to the jury regarding expert witnesses:

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It’s only a matter of time before you or a loved one is injured by one of these nuisances that are so prevalent on Atlanta city and county streets these days.  Or it’s just a matter of time before you damage your car from driving over one of them.  The ubiquitous metal plate. Who thought these were a good idea in the first place?  The metal plates in the photographs above are currently on my street, Oakdale Road in unincorporated DeKalb County. These two metal plates have been there for months.  And notice there is really nothing hold them in place other than the mere weight of the things and gravity.  But a truck that ways 60,000 pounds loaded, or an SUV that weighs 10,000 pounds or even a small car that weighs 6,000 pounds going 35 m.p.h. can easily move these plates when they are not pinned down.  Once moved, they become a potentially fatal hazard to the motoring public. Imagine coming upon this monster (see photograph below) as you mind your own business driving down the road. Once your car ran over it, you and your car wouldn’t stand a chance.  The weight of your car would cause the metal plate to flip and your car would fall into the sinkhole below. It is doubtful you could escape without serious bodily injury.  The photographs below show several metal plates that are clearly not pinned down or held down in any way whatsoever.  Car and truck traffic have obviously shifted them, so that the next unknowing driver, potentially YOU, could be swallowed by the hole they are supposed to be covering.  I am confident this is not an isolated situation;  my guess is that you have seen the frightening scenario below multiple times.

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There are actually requirements for the way these metal road plates are required to be placed on the roadway.  For example, steel plates must be fixed in place to avoid movement.  In addition to being firmly in contact with the pavement, they should be either pinned, recessed into the pavement, or secured with asphalt wedges around the perimeter. Pinning into the pavement involves driving pins into the pavements along the edges of the steel plates to prevent movement. Recessing involves cutting out the area where the steel plate will be placed.  If these are the mandatory requirements for use of these monsters, why are they so seldom pinned down or recessed?  As a member of the motoring public, you are entitled to assume these plates have been put down and affixed to the street properly so that they are safe for you to drive over. The law does not require you to drive around them in an effort to avoid them.

Remember the “Pothole Posse” formed by then City of Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin?  It seemed to make progress for awhile, but after the initial excitement about bringing back safe streets, we are right back where we were with our streets littered and cluttered with these metal plates. Recently, in New York, such metal road plates may have played a role in a fatal crash that killed six people.

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The Georgia Supreme Court today issued an opinion that makes it clear the age-old rule of “one free bite” for a dog before an owner can be held responsible is no longer Georgia law.  The Court’s opinion in Steagald v. Eason, S16G0293 (Ga. Sup. Ct. March 6, 2017) overturned prior case law that held the opposite. (“To the extent that the Court of Appeals held otherwise in Hamilton v. Walker, 235 Ga. App. 635 (510 SE2d 120) (1998) (a 4-3 decision), when it said that “the dog must have, on a prior occasion, done the same act which resulted in the injury comprising the tort action,” id. at 635 (citations omitted), the Court of Appeals misconstrued its own precedent, and that decision is disapproved.”). In Steagald, the dog at issue, “Rocks,”  had twice before “snapped” at neighbors, without actually biting them. Then, in a third incident, when the neighbor  approached the dog and extended her arm, Rocks jumped at her, bit her arm, and latched onto it. The neighbor attempted to run away, and when she did, she slipped and fell. At that point, Rocks bit and latched onto her right leg. The woman sustained serious injuries as a result of the attack.

The time-worn “one bite rule” refers to this:  A rule that says that the owner of a domesticated animal (e.g., a dog) will be held strictly liable for injuries caused by the animal only if the owner knew or should have known about the animal’s dangerous or vicious propensities, which have been manifested in the past. The burden of proof is on the injured party to show that the animal owner possessed this knowledge. The “one-bite” rule originated in common law and has been rejected or modified by most states, either by statute or by case law, with regard to dogs.  Many states, including Georgia, have long followed this rule, holding that a dog owner has no liability as a matter of law to a person who his dog bites and injures unless the owner was aware of a previous bite by his dog. But today the Georgia Supreme Court acknowledged that the two prior “snaps” by Rocks at the neighbors were really just “unsuccessful bites.”  The two prior “unsuccessful bites” were enough to put the owner on notice that his dog may have a vicious propensity, which is part of what a plaintiff must prove to prevail in a dog bit case. Justice Keith Blackwell authored the opinion of the Court. Known for his sense of humor, Justice Blackwell apparently found the serious injuries of the Plaintiff no laughing matter and wrote:  “An attempt to bite in the absence of provocation most certainly may be proof of a propensity to bite without provocation. And as the Court of Appeals correctly recognized in earlier decisions, when the evidence shows that an owner or keeper knows of such an attempted bite — that a dog has snapped at someone, nicked someone with its teeth, or otherwise used its mouth to attack someone without injuring her — it may well be sufficient to establish knowledge of a propensity to bite.”  The opinion was unanimous by the Court.

I think the Georgia Supreme Court has fashioned a fair and common sense rule here. The “one free bite” rule let the owners of vicious dogs off the hook, or off the “leash” so to speak, too easily.  We all know a pit bull who barks at someone and snaps and jumps at someone but doesn’t actually bite, is just one leash-break away from a horrific mauling. Dogsbite.org reports in the 12-year period of 2005 through 2016, canines killed 392 Americans. Pit bulls contributed to 65% (254) of these deaths. Combined, pit bulls and rottweilers contributed to 76% of the total recorded deaths. Family dogs inflicted 45% (14) of all deaths in 2016; family pit bulls accounted for 86% (12) of these deaths, up from an 11-year average of 63%. Of the 22 fatal pit bull attacks, 55% (12) involved a family or household member vs. 45% (10) non-family. Many Georgia counties and cities have in place specific ordinances about dogs with vicious propensities, especially pit bulls.  And who can  forget the tragedy of the death of a little boy and mauling of a little girl this January as they walked to their bus stop in Southwest Atlanta by pit bull?  These ordinances are created with the policy in mind of encouraging owners to have better control over their dogs.  And the Georgia Supreme Court’s opinion in Steagald will help hold negligent dog owners responsible for the havoc created by their vicious dogs.  Dog owners should take notice and act accordingly.

iphone   This week in Georgia a Georgia State trial court ruled in favor of the social media application Snapchat in a personal injury case and granted Snapchat judgment as a matter of law based on immunity.  The case is Maynard v. Snapchat and is pending in the Spalding County State Court. The plaintiff, who suffered severe brain damage in a wreck when he was hit by a teen who was using Snapchat at the time of the wreck is ably represented by several of my friends, including Mike Terry and Michael Neff, both wonderful lawyers. The suit asserted that Snapchat’s speed filter—a feature which allows a user to photograph how fast a user is going—”motivated” McGee to “drive at an excessive speed to obtain recognition and to share her experiences through Snapchat.”  Apparently, young drivers who use Snapchat are now often driving recklessly fast so they can snap a photo of the speed of the car they are driving to share it with all of their Snapchat followers, and then I guess the reckless driver gets to brag to all of her friends, “Hey! Look at me!!  Me! Me! Me!  Look how fast I am driving!!  Whoopeeee!”  But the Snapchat app encourages the driver to break the law, drive way too fast, illegally fast, and then requires an action by the speeding driver to capture the not-to-be-missed moment.  Those few seconds of distraction force the young driver to take her eyes off the road and they often lose control of their car or fail to stay in their lane, resulting in a horrible car wreck and causing untold devastation to an innocent person minding his own business driving on the road that night.  In the Spalding County case the evidence showed the teen driver reached speeds of 113 m.p.h. AWFUL!

The defense attorneys argued successfully that Snapchat was entitled to complete immunity under the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, and whose Section 230 states, “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  This provision seems to grant immunity for written communications published on the social media application, not for creating an app that encourages someone to break the law in the first place.  Simply reading the literal words of the immunity provision, they would seem to be inapplicable to the facts of this case.  But I’m not a judge and the only opinion that counts is the trial judge’s and he disagreed with me.  Plaintiff’s counsel, I would assume, are considering an appeal.

This case shows a horrifying trend with the Snapchat “speed filter.”  In November of last year in Tampa, Florida, a teen driver who reached speeds of 115 m.p.h. lost control of her car, crossed a median and hit a minivan carrying a family. The wreck killed five people. Snapchat says it actively discourages “their community” to use the speed filter while driving.  If that is true, what is the point of it?  Can Snapchat claim, with a straight face, argue that the speed filter is not designed to be used while driving when it’s entire purpose is to measure a vehicle’s speed?  There is also currently pending in Texas another lawsuit against Apple with essentially the same facts and allegations as the Maynard case here in Georgia but involving Apple’s application Facetime. In that case, a   “driver rear-ended the Modisettes with his Toyota 4Runner at 65 miles per hour — killing five-year-old Moriah Modisette. The driver, Garret Wilhem, told police he was on FaceTime at the time of the crash, and officers found his phone in the car with FaceTime still engaged.”

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I constantly hear, even from jurors, that we are a “litigious society,”  that everyone sues over everything these days. Assuming this is true, who is to blame?  Critics immediately place the blame at the feet of the injured plaintiffs who must bring the lawsuit for compensation for the injuries they have suffered that were caused by someone’s carelessness. If those darn hurt people who can’t work any longer because of their injuries would just not file a lawsuit we wouldn’t be a litigious society!!  The nerve of these people!  Getting injured through no fault of their own and then expecting compensation for the medical bills, lost wages, pain, inconvenience, inability to work, permanent scarring, loss of their normal quality of life, etc., from the person who caused it all.  The gall! Can you believe these people?

Yes.  Yes, I can. I believe these people because these are the people I represent every single day. These are the people who began their day with their normal routine like every other person but who, unfortunately, came into the path of someone who was careless, someone who wasn’t paying attention to the road, someone who was texting while driving, someone who was reckless and causes an upheaval in the life of someone else due to their negligence and carelessness.

But don’t blame these injured folks. Blame the insurance companies of the careless individuals, because it is the car insurance companies who take the stance “so sue me” and invite litigation that easily could have been avoided had they simply been reasonable in negotiating an insurance claim for personal injury.