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Auto insurance coverage is required in Indiana, and most motorists are familiar with the coverage they have and how to go about using it when the need arises. However, the contract that is entered into between a motorist and an insurance company is lengthy, and most motorists do not take the time to read over the entire policy but instead skim the declarations page to gain a basic understanding of their coverage.

Car AccidentHowever, insurance contracts are long, complicated documents that often require trained eyes to understand and interpret. In fact, there may even be errors or internally inconsistent clauses in an insurance contract that can create confusion for motorists hoping to seek reimbursement for expenses related to property damage or personal injuries. In fact, a recent case in front of the Indiana Supreme Court illustrates how these confusions can arise and what courts can do to resolve problems when they arise.

State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance v. Jakubowicz

Jakubowicz and her two children were injured as a result of an accident caused by a third party. After the accident, Jakubowicz filed a personal injury claim against the third party’s insurance company, seeking compensation for her family’s medical expenses. However, while that claim was being processed, Jakubowicz realized that the total available amount available under that driver’s policy was not going to cover her family’s injuries. She then filed a claim under her own insurance with State Farm, under the underinsured motorist provision. This claim was filed over three years after the accident.

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Earlier this month, a federal appellate court affirmed the dismissal of a product liability case filed against a ride-on lawnmower manufacturer. In the case, Parks v. Ariens, the court held that the defendant manufacturer was not negligent in failing to install a roll-over protection system (ROPS) on a ride-on lawnmower because it offered the ROPS as optional equipment at an additional cost.

LawnmowerThe Facts of the Case

In 2006, Parks purchased a used ride-on lawnmower from a licensed dealer. At the time of the purchase, the roll-over-protection system, which consisted of a roll-cage and seatbelt, was optional equipment that a buyer could purchase at an additional cost. When Parks was discussing the purchase of the mower with the defendant’s salesperson, the salesperson discussed the type of terrain where Parks would be using the mower. While the salesperson did not recall whether he offered the ROPS package to Parks, he did testify that it was his common practice to always ask if the customer wanted the package.

Parks decided to purchase the mower but not to add the ROPS. About seven years after the purchase date, Parks was killed when the mower rolled, trapping him underneath. His wife filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the lawn mower. She claimed that the manufacturer was negligent in failing to install the ROPS on the mower before selling it to her husband.

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While some accidents only involve one plaintiff and one defendant, others involve multiple defendants. This can create an issue when it comes to determining which defendants are responsible for compensating the plaintiff in the event of a plaintiff’s verdict. Jurisdictions around the country have different methods of determining how defendants are required to compensate a plaintiff when there are several at-fault defendants, some of whom may not be present at all or may not be able to afford to compensate the plaintiff.

Broken Tail Light

There are two basic methods that states use to determine which defendants are responsible for compensating the plaintiff. Under one method, called “joint and several liability,” any defendant found to be at fault can be held completely responsible for any and all damages the plaintiff suffered. This is a very plaintiff-friendly rule because it allows for a plaintiff to seek full recovery from just one defendant, if the other defendants are either not present or unable to pay. A defendant that ends up paying for other defendants’ shares can then sometimes seek compensation on their own through what is called “contribution.”

The other manner in which courts split up liability is called “several liability,” under which a defendant is only held responsible for their own percentage of fault. For example, if a defendant was 20% at fault, and the total damages suffered by the plaintiff were $1 million, the defendant would be only responsible for up to $200,000. Indiana uses this method. A recent case in front of an Arizona appellate court illustrates how several liability can play out in the real world.

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Personal injury and medical malpractice cases are subject to a maximum amount of time that a plaintiff can wait before bringing the lawsuit. This amount of time is outlined in what is called a statute of limitations. There are several types of statutes of limitations, and determining which statute of limitations applies in any given case is not always straightforward. Similarly, it can also be difficult to determine when a statute of limitations begins to run.

SurgeryIn a recent medical malpractice case in front of a state appellate court, the court determined that under the “continuing course of treatment” doctrine, the plaintiff was excused for not filing the case within the normal statute of limitations. In the case, Cefaratti v. Aranow, the court determined that, although the plaintiff’s case was technically filed after the statute of limitations, under the “continuing course of treatment” doctrine, the statute of limitations didn’t actually begin to run until after the plaintiff stopped being treated by the allegedly negligent doctor.

Indiana Statutes of Limitations

In Indiana, the general rule is that a medical malpractice plaintiff has two years to file their lawsuit against the defendants. This two-year timeframe usually begins on the date when the alleged negligence occurred. Thus, for example, if a plaintiff is claiming medical negligence based on a surgical error, the clock would start on the date of the surgery.

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Earlier this month, an appellate court in Rhode Island issued an instructive opinion regarding that state’s recreational use statute and how the statute may be used by defendants to avoid liability in a premises liability case. The case is also instructive to potential premises liability plaintiffs, since it shows which facts must be pleaded and proven in order for the case to survive a summary judgment challenge by the defense.

Sunset on LakeRoy v. State:  The Facts of the Case

Roy was with some friends at a state-run park. The park had a medium-sized pond in which people routinely swam, despite there being signs that swimming was prohibited. In fact, on some days, the government agency in charge of the park would staff the pond with lifeguards and allow swimming. There were, however, a number of “no diving” signs placed around the pond. Generally, the prohibition on diving was enforced, but there was an old diving platform that was still left from previous years when diving was permitted.

On the day in question, Roy got out of his parked car, ran up to the edge of the pond, and quickly inspected it before diving in. Roy later testified that the pond looked deep enough and that if it hadn’t looked safe to dive in, he would not have done it. When Roy did dive into the pond, his head struck the bottom, and he was paralyzed as a result. He later filed a lawsuit against the state agency in charge of the park’s maintenance.

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Premises liability cases, like most other cases brought under the legal theory of negligence, require that the plaintiff establish the defendant owed them a duty of care. In many cases, this element is the easiest for the plaintiff to prove, but in others there may be substantial litigation over whether a duty of care exists. In a recent case in front of a state appellate court, the court had to decide if a church had a duty to its churchgoers in providing them some assistance in crossing a dangerous street to get from the church parking lot to the church itself.

Busy Street

In the case, Vasilenko v. Grace Family Church, the court ultimately determined that a duty did exist, requiring the church to take some precautions to ensure that churchgoers could safely cross the street.

The Facts of the Case

Grace Family Church is located on a busy five-lane road. The church has a small parking lot next to it that fills up quickly when busy church events are being held. To help accommodate the additional cars, the church contracted with a local business to use the business’ parking lot across the five-lane road.

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Earlier this month, the Michigan Supreme Court issued an interesting opinion illuminating the jurisdictional issues that can arise in personal injury cases. In the case, Hodge v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, the plaintiff was a woman who was injured when she was struck by a vehicle insured by State Farm.

GavelAfter the accident, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit in a district court. In Michigan, as in Indiana and many other states, the court system is broken down according to several factors, one of which is the “amount in controversy,” or the amount sought by the plaintiff. In this case, the plaintiff was seeking $25,000, which was the upper limit of a Michigan district court.

At trial, the plaintiff presented evidence of damages far in excess of the $25,000. State Farm attempted to prevent the plaintiff from presenting this evidence, arguing that it wasn’t proper because the limit she could recover was $25,000. The court denied the request and allowed all of the plaintiff’s evidence of injuries. After the trial, she was awarded roughly $85,000, and the court then reduced the recovery amount to the jurisdictional limit of $25,000.

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State, local, and federal governments, as well as related government agencies, enjoy a general blanket of immunity from personal injury lawsuits. This means that in many cases filed against a government agency or employee, the injured party will not be permitted to recover compensation for their injuries because the named defendant is immune from liability.

Road ConstructionHowever, government liability does have its limits. Importantly, immunity will only attach when the alleged act of negligence is a discretionary one. This means that if the government had a choice in how to conduct the actions in which it is alleged to have been negligent, immunity will attach. Ministerial acts, however, are not covered under the blanket protection of immunity, and governments may be held liable when an allegedly negligent action or inaction was mandated by some law, rule, or regulation. This is exactly what happened in a recent case in front of the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Mississippi Transportation Commission v. Adams:  The Facts

Adams was riding his motorcycle on a Mississippi highway that was maintained by the Mississippi Transportation Commission. As he was riding along, Adams accidentally entered into a construction zone. As he attempted to exit the zone safely, he struck an uneven part of the pavement and lost control, falling off the motorcycle. Tragically, two passing cars struck him in the wake of his fall, and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

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Earlier this month, a West Virginia court issued a written opinion in a premises liability case brought by a man who suffered a shoulder injury when he fell after leaning on what turned out to be a damaged handrail. The court in the case of Wheeling Park Commission v. Dattoli determined that the injured man’s case against the park was incomplete in that the man failed to submit any evidence regarding the duty the park had to maintain the handrail.

Wooden BridgeThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff and his wife were visiting the park to attend a concert. Since there was no seating available when they arrived, they ended up standing near a fence that protected visitors from inadvertently falling down a nearby hill. The plaintiff, looking for a place to lean, quickly visually inspected a handrail on the fence and then placed his weight against it. As he did so, the rail snapped at both ends, causing the plaintiff to fall down the hill. As a result of the fall, the man suffered a rotator cuff injury requiring surgery and months of physical therapy.

The plaintiff and his wife filed a premises liability lawsuit against the park, arguing that the park’s management was negligent for failing to keep the park safe. Specifically, they argued that it was negligent to allow the handrail to decay to such an extent that the weight of a single person leaning up against it could cause the rail to break.

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Earlier this month, an appellate court in California issued a written opinion holding that a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the father of a young man killed while skateboarding was properly dismissed below because the young boy assumed the risk of the dangerous activity in which he was engaging when he suffered his fatal injury. In the case, Bertsch v. Mammoth Community Water District, the court’s decision will prevent the boy’s father from receiving compensation for the loss of his son.

SkateboarderThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff and his two sons were staying at a friend’s condo in Mammoth County, California. The two boys were skateboarding around the neighborhood before meeting up with their father to go rock climbing. Along the way, the boys pushed their way up a hill so that they could enjoy the long and fast ride down. However, on the way down the hill, one of the boys’ boards hit a lip surrounding a manhole cover, and he was thrown from the board. He was not wearing a helmet. When he struck the ground, he hit his head, causing him to suffer a traumatic brain injury. He later died from the injuries he sustained.

The boys’ father filed a lawsuit against several parties, including the local government and the water company that installed the manhole cover, seeking compensation for the loss of his son. The father claimed that the manhole cover was dangerous and that it was negligent for the government to fail to fix the hazard.

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