Articles Posted in Motor Vehicle Accidents

In many personal injury lawsuits, one of the most important decisions that must be made is which parties to name in the lawsuit. Indeed, in many lawsuits, the at-fault party is not the only defendant named in the case. Depending on the facts surrounding the accident, the at-fault party’s employer is often named as an additional defendant.

In Indiana, when an employee’s actions cause someone injuries, there are two types of claims that can be brought against their employer. The two types of claims are negligent hiring and respondeat superior. While each of these claims allows an injured party to hold an employer responsible, they are very different and, in Indiana, mutually exclusive of one another.

A respondeat superior claim is a form of vicarious liability, meaning that it allows for an accident victim to hold an employer accountable for the negligent employee’s actions. The doctrine holds the employer liable because the employee is seen as the employer’s agent, so to speak. Thus, to prove a respondeat superior claim, a plaintiff must be able to show that the negligent employee’s actions were within the scope of their employment. Otherwise, an employee may be held individually liable for a plaintiff’s injuries, but the employer cannot be liable.

Recently, a state appellate court released an opinion in a motor vehicle accident personal injury case that raised an important issue that commonly comes up in Indiana personal injury cases, especially in the common scenario in which an insurance company is involved in defending the lawsuit. The case required the court to decide if an insurance company that wrote a policy for an employer could be liable for an employee’s drunk-driving accident.

In the end, the court held that the insurance policy, which applied to permissive users, did cover the employee’s conduct. Thus, the insurance company was liable for the plaintiff’s myriad injuries.

Case Facts

The plaintiff sustained injuries in a drunk driving accident. The drunk driver was operating a company vehicle when the accident occurred. The plaintiff was successful in a suit against the defendant, and was awarded damages of roughly $1.5 million. However, the defendant was not able to pay the damages award, and so the plaintiff filed a claim to hold the defendant’s employer responsible. Because the defendant’s employer had an insurance policy with uninsured motorist protection, the plaintiff argued that the insurance policy was on the hook for his damages.

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This past August, Indiana saw a horrific accident on Interstate 65 that took the lives of seven individuals. The semi, for reasons as yet unknown, crashed into the back of the rear of a Jeep Grand Cherokee. The impact crashed the Jeep and sandwiched it into the semi in-front of the Jeep. Tragically, first responders recovered seven bodies.A few states away, an Indiana resident has filed a lawsuit in West Virginia for injuries stemming from an accident involving an allegedly negligent tractor trailer driver on Aug 8, 2011.

While driving along Interstate 68 in West Virgina, plaintiff Sharon Edwards-Toy’s tractor-trailer was struck by the defendant’s tractor-trailer. The defendant, Lyle R. Parrott, was, according to the complaint, asleep behind the wheel at the time of the accident.
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Drunk driving accidents in Indiana unfortunately continue to attract a great deal of attention, as both the extent of depravity and negligence of the driver is matched on the opposite side of the spectrum only by the degree to which these accidents are really very preventable and foreseeable. Drunk driving campaigns have promulgated advertisements through schools, bars, on commercials, and onto billboards. Yet each summer in Indiana we see an uptick of crashes caused by intoxicated drivers.One incident in particular, which involved negligence and recklessness, occurred in June so details are still currently emerging. Mr. Grskovich, of Indianapolis, crashed his BMW into a stone wall while driving with a blood alcohol content of .17, which is over twice the legal limit (.08). What has been revealed was that Grskovich was driving with an eight year old blind child on his lap at the time of the accident, allowing the child to operate the pedals of the car. The boy suffered lacerations, and Grskovich is currently wheelchair-bound after two broken legs.

History almost repeated itself this month when a Vincennes man was pulled over for speeding. The Indiana State Police at the scene detected the smell of alcohol on him and learned the man had been driving drunk with both a case of beer in the backseat and his nine year old grandson. Fortunately, the police arrested the man and no one was injured.
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Last month, Indiana Injury Blog detailed many of the potential dangers and harms that come with texting and driving. To summarize, Indiana is one of 39 states to ban texting while driving.Statistics are revealing some facts about texting and driving safety, which are somewhat surprising and counter-intuitive. Mary Allen, Director of the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute has recommended police raise their vigilance this summer as a result of the prevalence of driving while texting since her institute released their alarming study. Their study analyzed driving habits and accident rates and concluded that drivers who text are twenty-three percent more likely to be involved in an accident. In addition, their findings uncovered that adults are actually more likely than teens to be texting behind the wheel. But despite a lower rate, teens tend to suffer more as their driving experience requires the utmost attention, and 16 year-olds happen to have the highest accident rate of any age driver.

Drivers must beware of a false sense of safety while driving. A recent study conducted through A&M University revealed that voice-to-text technology actually provides no less distraction than standard texting methods. The study involved drivers on a track distraction-free, then creating texts using voice-to-text devices, then typing texts. The reaction time nearly doubled in both texting scenarios, regardless of methodology. Researchers described that when using voice-to-text software the participants needed to proofread more carefully and browse through their text to correct unforeseen errors.

Texters behind the wheel lead to an obvious danger to other drivers and expose themselves to legal liability but, unlike ever before, at-home texters may find themselves in court for their irresponsible distractions.

Soon, the New Jersey Appeals Court will be hearing an initially dismissed claim filed against a texter who was not physically behind the wheels of the accident-causing vehicle. New Jersey, like Indiana, also prohibits texting while driving. So when a texting teen driver hit a couple riding a motorcycle, most expected liability to end at the driver. The couple was severely hurt in the accident, both losing a leg. The drivers were able to settle with the teen’s insurance for $500,000, but costs still remained. This is when the lawyers for the plaintiffs developed a new methodology to attack the epidemic of texting – sue the “remote” texter for “aiding and abetting”, provided she knew her texts were being read and responded to by a driving recipient.

In this case, the texters had exchanged upwards of sixty text messages leading up to the accident. In the opening oral arguments for the plaintiffs, it was argued that the texter knew she was distracting a driver and knew of the dangers of distracted driving. Attorneys for the defense denied any evidence of such knowledge and denied that the texter had insisted on and intended for the driver read her texts while he was driving.
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We recently addressed a wrongful death lawsuit brought in federal court that invokes Nebraska’s fetal death statute, and how that law differs from corresponding statutes in Indiana. The lawsuit, Baumann v. Slezak, et al, also asserts a cause of action for alleged violations of federal commercial truck driving regulations, including restrictions on the number of hours a driver may be behind the wheel without a break. Indiana law has allowed for evidence of regulatory violations in order to prove a claim of negligence, although such evidence may not be sufficient to establish liability by itself.

The Nebraska lawsuit arises from a September 9, 2012 accident on westbound Interstate 80 in western Nebraska. A family traveling through the state in two separate cars was stopped at the rear of a line of traffic, which had backed up nearly a mile because of an accident involving two semi-trailers. Another semi-trailer collided with the back of one of the family’s vehicles. This propelled the car into the family’s other car, which collided with another vehicle. All occupants of the two vehicles died in the accident. The truck driver, Josef Slezak, was allegedly driving at seventy-five miles per hour, and did not slow or stop prior to the collision.

The family’s legal representatives filed suit against Slezak and his employer, alleging negligence per se and violation of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations. The two regulations cited in the complaint prohibit operating a commercial motor vehicle while impaired, such as by fatigue, and regulate the length of time a vehicle operator may drive without rest. The hours-of-service (HOS) regulations prescribe maximum lengths of time a driver can be on-duty or behind the wheel before a required period of time off duty. According to the complaint, Slezak had arrived at a trucking terminal in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at 10:49 a.m. on September 8, and left after less than three hours off duty at 1:49 p.m. The accident occurred more than eighteen hours later, at around 5:19 a.m., and about 920 miles away.
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A Nebraska law allowing wrongful death claims for unborn children is getting its first test in a federal lawsuit. The suit, Baumann v. Slezak, et al, arises from a multi-vehicle accident that killed a family of four and their unborn child. It asserts causes of action for negligence and violations of federal trucking regulations. Several states, including Indiana, have passed statutes allowing wrongful death claims for unborn children at various stages of gestation, and courts in other states have recognized causes of action related to fetal death.

The accident giving rise to the lawsuit occurred on westbound Interstate 80 during the early morning of September 9, 2012. Traffic had become backed up for about a mile after two semi-trailers collided at about 4:30 a.m. One semi-trailer had become disabled and pulled onto the right shoulder. The driver, Vladimir Zhukov, however, allegedly left the trailer in a lane of traffic. Another semi-trailer driven by Keith Johnson reportedly collided with Zhukov’s trailer. The impact killed Johnson and caused his tractor to catch fire. The accident blocked all westbound lanes of the highway, creating a significant risk of further accidents for vehicles forced to stop on the highway.

Christopher and Diana Schmidt were traveling to California from Maryland with their two children, and Diana Schmidt was seven-and-a-half months pregnant with a child they had named Ethan. Diana Schmidt was driving a 2007 Toyota Corolla with the two children, and Christopher Schmidt was following her in a 2010 Ford Mustang. They were at the rear of the line of cars stopped because of the semi-trailer accident, with the Corolla stopped behind another semi-trailer, and the Mustang behind the Corolla. A semi-trailer driven by Josef Slezak approached the stopped traffic reportedly travelling at about seventy-five miles per hour. Allegedly without slowing or stopping, Slezak’s vehicle collided with the back of the Mustang at about 5:19 a.m., propelling it into the Corolla. This pushed the Corolla under the trailer in front of it. All four members of the Schmidt family and their unborn child died in the impact.
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Allstate Insurance released its annual “America’s Best Drivers Report” in late August, listing the cities with the lowest rates of automobile collisions, both per driver and compared to the national average. The survey ranked the two hundred largest American cities, including two cities in Indiana. Indianapolis ranked 60th, and Fort Wayne ranked 31st. Smaller cities tended to rank higher than larger ones. The top city for safe drivers, according to Allstate, is Sioux Falls, South Dakota, while the worst is Washington, DC. The study is useful for Indiana drivers to understand what they are doing well in terms of avoiding car accidents, and where they could improve.

This year’s report was the eighth survey of “best drivers” conducted by Allstate. Actuaries reviewed two years of collision reports from 2009 and 2010 to identify cities with high rates of accident claims. All data used by Allstate comes from its own policy claims, which it says account for about ten percent of all auto insurance policies in the country. It is therefore not a scientific survey, but it provides a useful overview of auto accident statistics.

The study identified two signifiers to determine which cities have the “best drivers.” First, it calculated the length of time between auto collisions for an average driver in each city. Second, it compared the likelihood of an average driver having an accident to the national average. Smaller cities tended to rank higher than the big cities, at least in part because they often present fewer distractions, less traffic, and less uncertainty in terms of road conditions. The top-ranked city, Sioux Falls, has a population of around 156,000 people, making it the 153rd-largest city in the survey. Of the nine cities with populations greater than one million people, Phoenix, Arizona ranked highest on the “best drivers” scale at 53rd.
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The Indiana Supreme Court has ruled that a man who was injured when his father drove into him, pinning him between two vehicles, may sue for damages. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit in Robert L. Clark, Jr. et al vs. Robert L. Clark, Sr., based on a state law that bars suit between family members in certain circumstances. The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the trial court’s dismissal based on a different reading of the state law, and the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court’s decision.

Robert Clark, Sr. was driving a car on September 5, 2007, in which his son, 46 year-old Robert Clark, Jr., was a passenger. The son got out of the car when they got to their destination in order to direct his father into a parking spot. He stood several feet in front of the car and motioned his father forward into a parking space. Once the car was fully in the spot, the son motioned to his father to stop the car. The father pressed the accelerator instead of the brake pedal. The car lurched forward into Robert Clark Jr., pinning him between his father’s vehicle and the adjacent vehicle and causing extensive injuries to his legs.

Robert Clark, Jr. and his wife, Debra Clark, sued Robert Clark, Sr. for negligence. The trial court granted summary judgment for Robert Sr. based on his assertion of the Indiana Guest Statute as an affirmative defense. The Guest Statute bars suit for injuries against the operator of a vehicle by a family member of the operator, or a hitchhiker, provided the injury occurred while the person “was being transported without payment in or upon” the vehicle. The statute allows an exception for “wanton or willful misconduct” by the driver.
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Drivers have dealt with distractions since the invention of the automobile. The explosive growth in the use of cell phones, however, has compounded the risks presented by distracted driving. Drivers who use their cell phones to talk, send text messages, or even read e-mail or web pages cause thousands of accidents around the country every year. A member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the federal agency that investigates accidents and recommends safety regulations, went so far as the call distracted driving an “epidemic.” People injured by a distracted driver generally have a clear claim for damages from that driver. While courts have rejected attempts to recover damages from cell phone companies, plaintiffs have recovered from drivers’ employers, when the driver was engaged in work-related activities.

Distracted driving accounted for as many as 3,092 deaths in traffic accidents in 2010, according to the federal government. It was a factor in up to eighteen percent of all injury accidents that year. The government identifies three types of distraction:

Manual: where the driver takes one or both hands off the wheel.
Visual: where the driver is not watching the road.
Cognitive: where the driver’s attention (or mind) is not on the road.

Studies have suggested that even the use of a hands-free device like a headset does not improve overall safety, because it does not reduce cognitive distraction.

Indiana, like most states, has enacted laws restricting the use of cell phones while driving. Thirty-nine states, including Indiana, and the District of Columbia prohibit text messaging while driving. Indiana also prohibits drivers under the age of eighteen from any cell phone use while driving. Other laws include a ban on all handheld cell phone use (ten states and D.C.), and handheld cell phone use by school bus drivers (nineteen states and D.C.) No state has a ban on all cell phone use, including hands-free devices, although the NTSB recommended such a ban last year.
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