Articles Posted in Personal Injury

There is a common scenario that plays out following an auto accident. First, the injured driver sends a demand letter to the negligent driver’s insurance company, offering to settle for the limits of the latter’s policy. Next, the insurance company either accepts the offer unconditionally–usually by sending a check–or makes a counter-offer. A counter-offer constitutes a rejection of the original offer, so there is no agreement. But if the insurer does send the check, that is often enough to create a binding settlement, which the insurer and its insured may seek to enforce in court.

Claxton v. Adams

What if the insurance company sends a check, but it cannot be cashed right away? Is there still a binding settlement? Not according to a recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals.

Georgia law requires insurance companies to act in good faith when resolving auto accident claims. For example, if you are injured in an accident caused by another driver’s clear negligence, the other driver’s insurance company is expected to make a good-faith effort to negotiate a settlement, especially when your damages meets or exceeds the limits of the actual policy. Conversely, if the insurer acts in bad faith, you can file a lawsuit and seek additional damages.

Kemper v. Equity Insurance Company

For example, a federal appeals court recently revived a bad-faith lawsuit brought against an insurance company by the victim of a motorcycle accident. The plaintiff in this case, Kemper v. Equity Insurance Company, was driving her bike down a road in Coweta County, Georgia. Another driver, who it turned out was intoxicated, crossed the centerline of the road and crashed into the plaintiff, causing her serious injuries.

A jury verdict in favor of the victim is often not the “last word” in a personal injury case. Aside from any appeal the defense might bring, the trial judge can also issue what is known as a “judgment notwithstanding the verdict” (j.n.o.v.) This basically means the judge finds that, based on the evidence presented during the trial, there can only be “one reasonable conclusion as to the proper judgment.” Put another way, j.n.o.v. is only appropriate when it is not a “close case” and the evidence–including any reasonable inferences someone could make from such evidence–inevitably leads to a conclusion that differed from that of the jury.

Gary v. Brown

A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Gary v. Brown, illustrates the type of case in which a court may grant a j.n.o.v. This personal injury lawsuit involved a 2014 auto accident. The defendant rear-ended the plaintiff’s vehicle. The plaintiff did not initially seek medical treatment following the collision.

There is a well-established rule in American law that you cannot sue the government without its consent. This rule, known as sovereign immunity, imposes a high bar for anyone who wants to sue the government for the negligent acts of its employees. Basically, unless Congress adopts an express exemption to the sovereign immunity rule, the injured victim is out of luck.

Fortunately, Congress has adopted a fairly broad waiver of sovereign immunity for personal injury claims. The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) allows individuals to sue the federal government for negligent acts, but there are multiple exceptions to this waiver. One of the most notable is the “discretionary-function” exception.

Under this exception, you cannot sue the federal government based on an employee’s “exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function.” In simpler terms, if the law gives a federal employee any amount of discretion on how to do their job, you cannot bring a claim under the FTCA based on how that discretion is used–even if the employee was negligent. However, if the employee failed to follow a specific federal law, regulation, or policy, then the FTCA’s waiver of sovereign immunity may still apply, as that does involve any discretionary function.

In general, monetary damages in a personal injury case are meant to compensate the victims for their losses. But there are cases in which a jury may award what are known as “punitive damages.” These damages are not meant to compensate, but rather to punish. Put another way, punitive damages are designed to “send a message” that certain types of outrageous or egregious misconduct will not be tolerated in a civilized society.

Punitive damages are considered an extraordinary remedy under Georgia law. This means that it is not enough for a plaintiff to show they were injured by the defendant’s negligence. Rather, state law requires proof by “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant engaged in “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.”

Ferguson v. Garkuhsa

In September 2002, Yahazia Odelia purchased two side-by-side plots from a cemetery in DeKalb, Georgia. The plots were known as Space 15 and Space 16, respectively. Odelia buried her sister in pace 16 and reserved Space 15 for her mother when her time came.

When Odelia’s mother passed away in 2016, Odelia was shocked to learn that the cemetery had re-sold Space 15 to another family in April 2005, who buried one of their loved ones in the plot previously reserved for Odelia’s mother. As you might expect, Odelia was not happy about this and took legal action.

In April 2016, a Georgia judge ordered the cemetery to disinter the remains of the person buried in Space 15 and to make that space available for the burial of Odelia’s mother, as they were contractually obligated to do in the first place. Odelia was finally able to bury her mother next to her sister in June 2017.

One of the most common types of personal injury lawsuits in Georgia is the “slip-and-fall” case. We know how these cases start. A customer is shopping in a local store and suddenly slips on a puddle of water or some other liquid. The customer sustains serious injuries in the fall that require medical attention. Later, the customer sues the store owner to recover damages arising from the accident.

Under Georgia premises liability law, it is not enough for the customer to prove that the hazard–i.e., the puddle of water–existed and was the cause of the fall. The customer must also demonstrate that the store owner had superior knowledge of the hazard. By “superior knowledge,” we mean that the property owner knew about (or should have known about) the hazard in time to warn the customer about the potential danger. In contrast, if the customer had equal or superior knowledge of the hazard, then the store owner can defeat any personal injury claim. Put another way, if the customer was warned about the hazard in some way, yet chose to risk walking in the area regardless, the customer cannot then turn around and demand compensation from the property owner for any injuries suffered.

Allen v. AB Aviation, Inc.

Causation is a key element of any personal injury claim. What do we mean by that? Basically, if you are in a car accident and later sue the other driver for damages, it is not enough to show that person’s negligence led to the accident. You also need to show that the accident was the “proximate cause” of any physical, mental, or monetary loss that you suffered. Absent such proof causation, there is no viable personal injury claim.

Coleman v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company

As a general rule, you do not need expert evidence, such as testimony from your doctor, to prove causation. As with every rule, there are exceptions. For instance, if your personal injury claim involves a “medical question” that requires specialized medical knowledge–i.e., something the average juror could not understand without some sort of guidance from a trained professional in that specialty–then the court will require such evidence before allowing a case to proceed.

In any personal injury case, there is always a risk that the defendant has insufficient assets to pay any judgment or settlement and will therefore seek bankruptcy protection. In many cases, this means the plaintiff–the victim–is out of luck. What happens if there is a co-defendant who is not bankrupt? Can they be held solely responsible for the plaintiff’s damages?

Meeks v. Newcomb

The Atlanta-based U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed such a case. In Meeks v. Newcomb, a man was killed after his vehicle crashed into the back of a tractor-trailer. The victim’s widow subsequently sued both the company that owned the truck as well as the individual driver.

Many auto accident victims struggle not only to recover from their physical injuries, but also to deal with excessive medical bills. Georgia hospitals frequently file “liens” against accident victims’ potential personal injury claims in order to ensure their bills get paid. But the actual amount of these bills can vary wildly, especially when the victim lacks health insurance.

Bowden v. Medical Center, Inc.

In 2011, an uninsured woman named Danielle Bowden was injured in an auto accident. She subsequently received care at The Medical Center, Inc., (TMC) in Muscogee County. Bowden had no health insurance at the time, and TMC billed her over $21,000 for her treatment. TMC then filed a hospital lien against Bowden’s potential recovery against the other driver who caused her accident.

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