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Washington, D.C. Personal Injury Blog

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Mediating Personal Injury Lawsuits

Personal injury cases run the gamut from slip-and-fall accidents to auto wrecks. Insurance companies are often involved, and most parties generally want to resolve cases as economically as possible. Mediation is one option to accomplish this.

Mediation is a form of alternate dispute resolution (ADR), in which the parties voluntarily agree to work with an independent third party – a mediator – to resolve their disputes. Unlike a court trial where one party is the “winner” and the other party is the “loser,” mediation involves finding a workable solution to which all parties can agree. A mediated settlement is formalized with a legally binding contract signed by all parties.

Mediation is a non-binding procedure, meaning that no party can be forced to consent to an agreement. The mediator does not have the decision-making authority that a jury, judge or arbitrator has. Even if the parties previously agreed to mediate their dispute, any party is free to walk away from the process and pursue the matter in the courts.

Mediation also affords the parties a level of confidentiality that is not available in court cases. Parties cannot be forced to disclose information. If a party opts to make admissions or disclose confidential information, those statements or information cannot be introduced in court or otherwise used outside the scope of the mediation itself. This confidentiality enables the parties to freely and productively negotiate their dispute.

Unlike court trials or arbitration hearings, which are determined based on the underlying facts of the incident and the applicable laws, mediation allows parties to make agreements based on their own interests. The parties are free to allow their choices to be guided by business interests or personal preferences. When the dialogue within a mediation is focused on each party’s true interests, a mutually satisfying result is often possible.

Parties to a personal injury dispute often choose to mediate the case to avoid a trial involving significant attorney’s fees and other costs and an uncertain outcome. When both sides are faced with uncertainties regarding the outcome, a mediated settlement agreement can be a good solution. Furthermore, taking a case to trial can take months or years and usually results in at least one party being unhappy with the outcome.

In mediating a personal injury case, the parties and their lawyers work with the mediator to devise a settlement that everyone can live with. Plaintiffs can be compensated for their property damage, medical costs, lost income, and pain and suffering. On the other hand, defendants and their insurance companies can end up paying far less than it would have spent in legal fees and costs to defend the case at trial, and a potential sizable jury award. A good mediator will help all parties see the strengths and weaknesses in their respective cases, enabling them to compromise and arrive at a result which is acceptable to both.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Expert Witnesses Can Be the Key to a Lawsuit

In civil cases, plaintiffs have the burden of proving defendants are to blame for their injuries or economic losses by a preponderance of the evidence, which essentially means, that based on the evidence, the defendants were more likely than not responsible for the injuries.  That can be a lot more complicated than it sounds  Expert witnesses can be a critical key to success in winning over the jury and winning these complex matters.

 
Take the case of Margaret Wellinghorst.  In November 2007, she was walking her dog when she tripped on the edge of a trench that had been dug in the road.  She fell and injured her left hand.   With the help of her attorney, to get compensation for her injuries, she sued the companies responsible for creating and filling in the trench and repairing the road.
 
Ms. Wellinghorst had the burden of proving that the defendants owed her a duty of care, defendants breached that duty and as a result, she suffered injuries.  The fact that she tripped over the edge of a trench created by defendants and was injured, simply wasn’t enough to win her case.  She had to prove negligence by defendants.  To do that, an expert witness was introduced to show defendants did something wrong which consequently injured the plaintiff.   
 
Expert witnesses are used to introduce evidence that’s scientific, technical or specialized in nature.  It’s the kind of evidence that the average person isn’t qualified to introduce, or to render a judgment upon, given the facts of the situation.
 
Ms. Wellinghorst’s expert witness was William Poznak, a civil engineer with over 30 years of professional experience.  He examined the roadway, took measurements, took photographs and created a report.  He observed that the section of trench under the road sunk uniformly over the years, while the rest of the road did not.  In a deposition, Mr. Poznak gave the opinion the trench was backfilled improperly, which lead to the surface sinking and Ms. Wellinghorst’s injury.  
 
Mr. Poznak’s opinion was that the defendants did their work negligently.  But all he had was his opinion and that’s not enough.  He couldn’t say why that area of road sank, thus had no facts to back up his opinion.  Defendants’ attorneys brought up two possible tests that he could’ve done to help determine what happened.  Mr. Poznak admitted he had performed neither.  
 
The expert was unable to perform the key role he was hired to do.  He couldn’t explain why the area of the trench sank into the roadway.  If he couldn’t do that, he had no factual basis for his opinion that the defendants did something wrong or did something negligently which resulted in plaintiff’s injuries. Since the plaintiff had no other experts, and Mr. Poznak’s testimony was the best the plaintiff could do, Ms. Wellinghorst’s case was dismissed.
 
A legal case is like a chain in that it is only as strong as its weakest link.  Competent attorneys will test every link to its limits.  In this case, the weak link that broke the case was the expert testimony.  In our cases, we hire the right experts who are knowledgeable and experienced, and are able to communicate effectively in a courtroom.
 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Underinsured and At-Fault

Almost all states require some form of auto coverage insurance. This may include Bodily Injury Coverage, Personal Injury Protection, Property Damage Liability, Collision Coverage, and even Uninsured Motor Coverage. Depending on the state, the coverage level will vary greatly. For instance, you may only be required by to carry $25,000 in bodily injury coverage. While a relative residing across the country may be required to carry $50,000 in bodily injury coverage.  And while mandated requirements are often used as guides by drivers when selecting their policies, these coverage levels are not always enough to cover the cost of an accident. So what happens if you are underinsured and at fault in an accident?

The course of action will vary greatly depending on whether you are in a state with no-fault laws or traditional tort insurance laws. In states with no-fault laws, your insurance company will pay your damages while the other party’s insurance company will be responsible for theirs so if you choose to carry low levels of coverage the amount you receive after an accident will be capped by the coverage you selected. In states where traditional tort insurance laws exist, fault is established and the party at fault is responsible for the damages. If the driver at fault is underinsured in a traditional tort state, both parties may be in trouble.

Following the accident, your insurance company will seek to settle all claims as soon as possible. Even if you carry the lowest possible coverage, your insurer is responsible for your legal representation. If the opposing party has injuries exceeding your coverage level, and has Underinsured or Uninsured Motor Coverage, he or she may be able to collect the difference from this policy. However, if they don’t have this extra protection net from their own insurer or the damages exceed the policy limits, the injured party may file a lawsuit against you where your personal assets are at risk. 

In selecting an auto insurance policy, you might consider purchasing coverage above the minimum limits to protect your assets and livelihood. While a limit of $25,000 may seem high, the costs of healthcare continue to soar and just a one week stay at a hospital following an accident can easily exceed that amount.

 


Monday, June 30, 2014

On-the-Job Injuries, Worker’s Compensation and Third-Party Claims

Worker’s Compensation Benefits Only Go So Far

Workers’ compensation laws have two primary objectives:  The first is to ensure that injured workers receive the compensation they need following an on-the-job injury and the second is to ensure that injured workers received the compensation they need quickly and easily, and without anxiety as to whether the funds will actually be available.

Millions of injured workers have received funds dispersed by the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP), which compensates workers for lost wages, medical expenses and other expenses directly related to their injuries and losses. There is another loss for which the OWCP cannot reimburse workers: pain and suffering. This means that, despite injuries that are severe, injured workers are barred from OWCP compensation for:

  • Mental trauma associated with a serious injury or disability
  • The inability to accomplish the activities of daily living
  • A diminishment in quality of life
  • Loss of consortium on the part of a spouse or family member (in the event of the death of a worker)
  • Loss of mobility (except in relation to diminished earning capacity and other direct financial loss)

Fortunately, there is often a way for workers and their families to obtain additional, high-value, lump sum compensation following an injury on the job – a third-party claim.

What Is a Third-Party Claim?

To understand third-party claims, it’s important to understand that Worker’s Compensation claims are paid via the employer’s Worker’s Compensation insurance. Federal law limits what the insurance covers, leaving injured workers uncompensated for a range of losses.

Successful third-party claims result in compensation paid to an injured worker, or his or her family, not by Workman’s Compensation insurance but by a third party. A third party can be the insurer of a contractor, subcontractor, vendor or other party on a work site that was responsible for the accident and subsequent injuries.

A third-party claim could look, generally like this:

While working for a roofing company, a roofing assistant sustains a concussion when a can of paint, owned by the house-painting contractor, falls on him from above. In the wake of the injury, the employee requires a great deal of medical care resulting in high medical bills and a month of missed work. The worker files for and receives compensation from the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs through his roofing company employer but this compensation only covers medical expenses and lost wages. In order to recover damages for the pain and suffering associated with the injury, the assistant hires a personal injury attorney and receives a high-value award for the other losses resulting from the injury. The award is not paid by the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs but instead by the insurer of the painting company whose negligence caused the injury. 

If you or a family member endured the pain, shock and loss of a serious on-the-job injury, you should investigate the possibility of a third-party claim. A third-party claim can result in compensation that covers your whole loss, not just the losses directly related to medical and wage expense. To learn more about third-party claims, contact a personal injury lawyer. 


Friday, June 20, 2014

Truck Accident Personal Injury Claims: Are They Different from Car Accident Claims?

 While automobile and truck accidents have many aspects in common with each other, in certain respects, they differ greatly. Due to the specialized knowledge required to successfully resolve these types of matters, it’s important that you hire an attorney who knows the ins and outs of truck accident law if you’ve suffered an injury from an accident involving a truck.


How Do Truck Accident Claims Differ from Car Accident Claims?

Truck accident claims involve many of the same basic questions that car accident claims involve. Who was negligent? How did the accident occur? And what insurance coverages apply to the claim?

Numerous circumstances can occur during truck accidents, though, that are unique to crashes involving commercial vehicles and large vehicles. For example:

 

  • Semi truck drivers are required to stop and rest at legally mandated intervals. Drivers’ logs, driver and expert testimony, witnesses’ testimony and other evidence can be used to prove that a truck driver was fatigued at the time of the accident.
  • Semi trucks must be regularly maintained in order to be operated safely. Maintenance records obtained via the discovery process may prove the truck was unsafe to operate.
  • Semi truck drivers are barred from operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs, alcohol and certain prescription medication. If the driver was under the influence of a substance, or had a history of substance abuse that went unnoticed when he or she was hired, the driver or transportation company can be held liable for damages.
  • Transportation companies are legally required to employ safe and cautious drivers, and to competently screen drivers. If a transport company fails to determine that a new hire has a history of traffic violations, it can be held liable.
  • New trucks are often now equipped with technology similar to jumbo jets’ “black boxes”. If an accident occurs, a truck accident attorney can subpoena possible evidence of negligent driving via the black box.
  • Truck drivers, more so than car drivers in many jurisdictions, are barred from using cell phones while driving. Following a truck accident, a lawyer can subpoena the truck driver’s personal and or company cell phone records to determine whether he or she was using the device at the time of the accident.

Other complex legal issues can arise when a commercial vehicle such as a delivery truck, pickup truck or even company car is involved in a crash. The question of whether the driver was “on the clock” immediately comes into play. If a driver was returning from a sales appointment, leaving work, or running an errand that involved both work and non-work-related stops, complex questions can arise regarding whether company-purchased insurance coverage applies.

Car and truck accident claims begin at the same spot – negligence, fault, cause and coverage – but truck accident claims involve numerous additional federal regulations and state laws. When hiring a personal injury lawyer following a truck accident, make sure he or she has the necessary knowledge to help you obtain the best possible result.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Personal Injury Cases & Minors

When an adult is injured, he or she has the legal right to bring a lawsuit or settle with the at-fault party for compensation. A child, on the other hand, does not have those same rights prior to his or her 18th birthday. When a child is injured, it is the responsibility of the parents, or legal guardian, to advocate for the child and ensure his or her best interests are protected. While the laws vary greatly state to state, there are generally some unique considerations which come into play when a minor is the plaintiff in a personal injury proceeding, these include:

The Statute of Limitations May Differ
All states impose a time limit which requires that the injured party file suit within a given time frame from the date of the accident. In many states, the statute of limitations for an injured child will be different from that of an adult and the time period may not begin until the child turns 18 (allowing him or her to bring suit on their own).

A Guardian Ad Litem May be Appointed
Since children do not have the capacity to protect their interests in legal proceedings, some states require the appointment of a guardian ad litem. This individual must honestly represent the child’s best interests. In many states, the court will choose the Guardian Ad Litem; it is often a parent or close relative of the child.

The Parents May Also Be Able to Collect
While the compensation for injury will belong solely to the child, the parents of the child are legally responsible for medical bills and they may be able to also bring a claim against the at-fault party for compensation for these associated expenses. When this does occur, the parents’ claim is often tried with the child’s although two separate verdicts are issued.

The Standards of Care May Be Different for a Child
In lawsuits regarding negligence, the court will seek to establish whether all parties acted with a certain standard of care. This is even true of the injured party as the defendant may claim that the negligence of the plaintiff contributed to the injury. In the case of a child, he or she will likely be held to a different standard of care based on what is reasonable for a child of that age, intelligence and maturity. In some states, a child under a certain age is incapable of being negligent so a claim of contributory negligence would not be valid.

Court Approval May Be Required
Most settlements for a child’s personal injury will require court approval. Before approval, the court will generally demand that all documentation of the case along with a detailed accounting of the attorney's fee and case expenses be submitted for the judge’s review. The judge will then approve the settlement, if it is appropriate and in the best interest of the child. If the settlement is approved, the money must be deposited into a designated bank account approved by the court. The money cannot be withdrawn without order of court until the 18th birthday of the injured child. It's important to note that the parents are not entitled to this money.

Since children are seen as vulnerable members of our society, these extra legal safeguards are intended to provide additional protection. If your child has been injured, it’s imperative that you contact a seasoned personal injury attorney who can help you to better understand local laws and how they apply to your child’s case, and make sure that your child’s best interests are protected now and in the future.


Friday, May 30, 2014

Affidavits: Avoiding Potential Problems

You may have signed several affidavits over the years, without fully knowing what they are.  You might have signed one to register to vote or obtain some government benefit.  An affidavit can also be used as evidence in a lawsuit.

An affidavit is a written document.  The person signing it (the “affiant”) declares under oath that he or she is making voluntary and truthful statements.  Requirements for an affidavit vary based on the circumstances and jurisdiction.  In most jurisdictions, an affidavit must contain the affiant’s name, physical address and the affiant’s signature.  

The contents need to be voluntary and limited to what the affiant knows to be true because of direct observation or experience.  Before signing an affidavit, be certain of the basis of your knowledge.  Do you know these statements to be true or just think that they’re true?

Most jurisdictions require the affiant swear under oath that the statements are true before signing the document.  That signature needs to be witnessed and certified by a notary public, attorney or other public official authorized to take oaths.  The affiant must understand the content of the affidavit, the importance of an oath and the consequences for violating an oath.  A person who lies on an affidavit may be deemed to have committed perjury and face considerable penalties. Given the significant consequences, anyone who is not mentally competent shouldn’t sign an affidavit or be asked to sign an affidavit.

You may be asked to sign an affidavit if you witnessed an incident that may lead to, or has already resulted in, legal action.  Parties, or their attorneys, may want a formalized, written statement of what you saw.  If you’re in this position, make sure the affidavit is complete and accurate.  Consult your own legal counsel before signing.  The party contacting you may want an affidavit that puts them in the best light, not one that tells the whole story.

Be very careful about what’s stated in the affidavit, as opposing counsel may focus in on the document and investigate every aspect of it during litigation.  In a deposition or during a trial, opposing counsel may press you on the contents of affidavits to impeach your credibility.  

Is this the first affidavit on this topic?  If not, review the previous affidavit(s).  If something you previously stated was true, but you now know is false, you need to discuss with your attorney how this should be addressed.  
 
Before signing on the dotted line of an affidavit, think it through and make sure the information presented is accurate.  If you have any questions about an affidavit you’ve been asked to sign, or want to sign for your own purposes, consult with an attorney who can review it to ensure it is optimally drafted and does not end up getting you in hot water.  
 
 
 

Friday, May 23, 2014

“We Don’t Get Paid Unless We Win” – What does it all mean?

Each day, thousands of advertisements for personal injury lawyers can be found in local newspapers, on television stations and even on social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn. Most of these ads explain that the firm doesn’t collect any fees unless they win. Of course, there’s usually a catch with this statement and it centers around what the advertising firm means by “fees” and what other costs you might be expected to pay regardless of whether or not you win your case.

Attorney fees usually involve the time and labor of the attorneys and their staff. These fees do not include the out-of-pocket case costs that are inevitable in any court proceeding. So while you may not be required to pay any attorney fees upfront or at all (unless you win), you may be required to pay all related case costs. Case costs are usually expenses charged by third parties for work on your case. These may include court filing fees, expert witness fees, cost of obtaining medical records, court reporter fees, etc. Depending on the scope of your case and the duration of these proceedings, these fees can easily be thousands of dollars.

While some firms will require you to pay case costs as they are incurred, others won’t require upfront payment (especially, if you have a very strong case) and will instead deduct these expenses from the final settlement. Combined with legal fees, these costs may add up to 50% or even more of the settlement. In selecting an attorney for your personal injury matter, it’s important that you take time to understand what expenses, in addition to attorney fees, you will incur.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Can you be sued for hurting someone's... feelings?

In a civilized society, citizens are expected to conduct themselves with at least a small amount of regard for the feelings of others.  To prevent behavior that can cause severe anguish, the law has created a tort called “intentional infliction of emotional distress”. An intentional infliction of emotional distress claim allows those who are emotionally injured by another person to recover for emotional injuries as well as any physical injuries that result from distress induced by the bad behavior, such as migraines, ulcers or a miscarriage. 

In order to prove intentional infliction of emotional distress, four elements must be shown. First, the defendant must act either intentionally or recklessly. The defendant’s conduct must be extreme and outrageous. Third, the plaintiff must have suffered extreme emotional distress.  And lastly, the plaintiff’s conduct must be the cause of that distress. In addition, some states require that the incident that caused the emotional distress must have taken place in public. 

Some examples of behavior that may constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress include a person telling a parent their child has died, while knowing it wasn’t true; a medical professional telling a patient he or she is HIV positive as a joke; or a person threatening to shoot another person if he or she does not meet certain demands. Some behavior that may seem like intentional infliction of emotional distress but probably is not would include a person having an affair with a friend’s spouse; a landlord evicting a dying person who hasn’t paid rent for a few months; or an action that was intended as a harmless prank, such as toilet papering someone’s house. 

When determining whether intentional infliction of emotional distress has occurred, a judge or jury must take into account the emotional state of the victim and whether the plaintiff knew of that emotional state. For example, a person locking another person who is scared of roaches in a closet filled with roaches could be intentional infliction of emotional distress in that instance, while it may not be to a person who isn’t afraid of roaches. 

Intentional infliction of emotional distress can be hard to prove. The hardest element to show is that the defendant’s conduct was so extreme or outrageous to be completely intolerable in a normal society. It is not enough for the defendant to simply have behaved badly or even very badly – the behavior must be atrocious and harmful to one’s mental health. 


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Federal Agency Proposes a Centralized System for Reporting Medical Errors

Currently, there is no centralized system to report hospital or medical malpractice, and research indicates that reporting rates are very low.  The federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) has proposed a new, centralized system for consumers to file complaints about harm suffered while receiving medical care.  


Information About Reporting Rates for Medical Errors
Because no centralized complaint agency exists for reporting medical malpractice, accurate statistics about the medical error rates in the United States are difficult to come by.  A 2010 review of medical records by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) revealed that about 134,000 Medicare patients were harmed in the hospital in a single month. Another HHS report revealed that hospitals report only about 1 percent of adverse medical events they are required by state law to register.  The report went on to state that the low percentage is most likely due to hospitals’ failure to identify medical errors that occur in their facilities, as opposed to failure to report known medical errors.

In short, available data suggest that hospital error reporting does not accurately reflect the number of hospital errors that actually occur.  The data also suggest that one reason for low reporting may be that hospitals do not have accurate systems in place to identify adverse medical events resulting from medical negligence or medical malpractice.

Why Are Hospital Errors and Medical Malpractice Incidents Rarely Reported?
Hospitals may need to improve their reporting procedures if hospital error data are to more accurately reflect reality.  There are other reasons for low reporting rates, as well.  Patients who suffer from hospital errors may be too traumatized to make the report, they may be focusing on other aspects of their lives after a disabling medical error, or they may find the current reporting bureaucracy too complex to navigate.  Without a centralized reporting system, patients and their families must choose from several different complaint options:

  • The state medical professional licensing board
  • The state public health department
  • The Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals
  • A Medicare Quality Improvement Organization

These different agencies do not have procedures in place to communicate complaints among one another, and no agency collects accumulated data from all agencies into a centralized location.

Summary of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s Proposed Program
The AHRQ’s proposal is to design a prototype system to collect information about patient harm events, to test telephone and internet patient questionnaires, and to test follow-up surveys of health care providers after a report of hospital error.

You can Visit the Federal Register Website for information about commenting on the AHRQ’s medical error complaint prototype system.
 


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Deposition Do’s and Don’t’s

Matters that are subject of litigation are ultimately decided on facts and the applicable law. The process by which parties uncover those facts is called discovery.  There are many tools in the discovery toolbox.  A deposition (questioning of a party or witness under oath, often referred to as a “dep” or “depo”) is one of the most powerful tools.

At the start of the proceeding, the judge sets a date by which depositions are to be completed.  Attorneys issue subpoenas requiring a party or witness to appear at a certain place on a certain date and time (production of documents or other evidence may also be requested).  A court reporter is present to create a record of the questions and answers.  Some depositions are video recorded.
 
At the deposition, both parties should have their attorneys present.  A witness can have his/her own attorney present if he/she so desires.  Those testifying are placed under oath, and the attorney issuing the subpoena then starts the questioning.  Next, the opposing attorney has a turn to ask follow up questions.  This normally goes back and forth until the attorneys are done.  
 
Depositions aren’t just about questions and answers.  Just as critical as what was said can be how it was said.  Was the person evasive?  Uncomfortable?  Credible?  Nervous?  Sure of the facts?  Would the person damage or help the case if testifying in court?  These issues can be critical when deciding whether to settle a case or proceed further.  If one party’s witnesses are much weaker than those of the opposition, it may make that party much more willing to settle.
 
If you’re going to be deposed, you should keep the following in mind:
 
Tell the truth.  If you knowingly make a false statement while you’re under oath, you may be charged with perjury. In addition, you will lose credibility, and weaken, your case.
 
If you honestly don’t know the answer to a question, say you don’t know.  A deposition isn’t a contest and you won’t lose points by truthfully admitting you don’t know something.
 
Stick to the point and answer the questions as asked.  Needlessly stating information not requested may damage your case.  
 
If you don’t understand a question, ask that it be repeated or re-phrased.  If you feel you need to talk to your attorney before answering, ask to speak to your attorney. After doing so, answer to the best of your ability, in light of your attorney’s advice.  Your attorney may object to a question, but you may have to answer it anyway.  Prior to trial, your attorney may ask the judge not to use the response as evidence, as the question was improper. 
 
Though depositions can be stressful, they are not to be feared.  They are opportunities for all parties involved in a legal matter to tell their side of the story.  
 
 

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Richard F. Silber is admitted to practice in Washington, D.C. and Maryland. From his office in Georgetown, he and his legal team assist clients throughout the Washington metropolitan area.



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