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FMG Law Blog Line

Posts Tagged ‘accident’

Serving That Whiskey Might Be Risky – Liability Of Social Hosts In DUI Accidents

Posted on: February 15th, 2019

By: Stacey Bavafa

Under California Civil Code Section 1714, social hosts and other third parties may be held to be partially liable in the event of a drunk driving accident depending on the circumstances that led up to the accident. Under Sec. 1714, everyone is responsible for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for injuries sustained by another by a want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person.

California courts have held that the furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather that the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another by an intoxicated person. Vesley v. Sager (1971) 6 Cal.3d 153; Bernhard v. Harrah’s Club (1976) 16 Cal.3d 313; and Coulter v. Superior Court (1978) 21 Cal.3d 144.

Therefore, social hosts who provide alcoholic beverages to a person may not be held legally accountable for damages suffered by the intoxicated person, or for damages the intoxicated person inflicts on another person resulting from the consumption of alcoholic beverages. In other words, if John Doe had 5 glasses of whiskey at a bar and ends up swerving in and out of his lane due to his inebriated state, and hits another vehicle causing injury to a third person, the bar who provided John Doe the 5 glasses of whiskey will not be required to pay for damages sustained by the third party.

There are however, two exceptions to the rule outlined above:

If an adult, including a parent or guardian, who knowingly serves alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person whom he or she knows, or should have known, to be under 21 years of age, the adult may be held liable for actions the minor takes as a result of the consumption of alcohol.

Further, if a business sells alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor, in such that a reasonable person would be able to tell the minor was intoxicated, the business may face liability for harm arising out of the minor’s actions.

In the case of the underaged drinker, both the underaged drinker and the person who was harmed by the actions of the underaged drinker can file a civil claim against the social host or business to obtain recovery of his or her medical bills, property damage, pain and suffering, loss of income, and legal fees.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Stacey Bavafa at (213) 615-7026 or [email protected].

A Holly(cal) Jolly (Almost) Christmas

Posted on: December 28th, 2018

By: Zach Moura

In what is sure to be the beginning of a slew of cases litigating coverage for injuries caused by drones, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California recently issued an opinion denying coverage under an aircraft exclusion in the drone operator’s Commercial General Liability (CGL) policy. Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company v. Hollycal Production, Inc., et al., 5:18-cv-00768.

The accident at issue occurred when Hollycal Production (“Hollycal”) used a drone to photograph an event. The drone collided with one of the attendees, Darshan Kamboj, blinding her in one eye. Ms. Kamboj subsequently filed suit against Hollycal, its owner, and the Hollycal employee that operated the drone. Hollycal tendered the defense of the suit to Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company (“Philadelphia”) under the CGL policy on which Hollycal was an additional insured. Philadelphia agreed to defend Hollycal under a reservation of rights, and then filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a determination that it had no duty to defend or indemnify Hollycal for the Kamboj suit.

Philadelphia moved for summary judgment, in part on the basis that the Aircraft exclusion in the Policy excluded coverage in pertinent part for bodily injury or property damage “arising out of the ownership, maintenance, use or entrustment to others of any aircraft, ‘auto’ or watercraft owned or operated by or rented or loaned to any insured.” Because “aircraft” was not a defined term in the policy, the Court looked to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary definition of the word, along with the definition included in 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. § 1.1. The Court concluded that a “drone … is an aircraft under the term’s ordinary and plain definition.” Accordingly, the Court found that the Kamboj suit was excluded from coverage and Philadelphia had no duty to defend or indemnify Hollycal.

Drone operators will need to carefully review their insurance and ensure that they have appropriate coverage in place for their drone operations. As this matter makes clear, and as reinforced by recent reports of a drone striking the nose of an Aeromexico plane, an October near-miss of a drone by a passenger plane near London Heathrow, and the shutdown of London Gatwick airport last week because of suspected drone activity, there is substantial exposure arising from drone operations. Without the right insurance, operators may be left disastrously exposed.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Zach Moura at [email protected].

Is Georgia Game for Growing Bad Faith Liability?

Posted on: July 17th, 2018

By: Jessica Samford

As discussed in my last blog on bad faith, seeking bifurcation can be a proactive means to distinguish the issue of coverage from the issue of bad faith and appropriately manage the all too often unwieldy discovery process before it’s too late.  A recent case in Georgia is an interesting illustration of an insurer’s attempt to bifurcate issues after the discovery stage in a bad faith failure to settle claim in particular and is yet another cautionary example for insurers to carefully consider the increasing potential for extracontractual liability in Georgia.  Whiteside v. GEICO Indem. Co., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87868, *3-*4 (M.D. Ga. May 25, 2018).

In that case, the trial court declined to bifurcate the issues of liability and proximate cause of damages at the trial stage as requested by Geico, which sought to have a jury determine whether or not Geico could be held liable for bad faith failure to settle before being presented with evidence of the default judgment entered against Geico’s insured of almost $3 million and causation of same.  Separation of liability and damages issues was not warranted according to the trial court because facts relating to Geico’s claim handling were relevant to both, and Geico’s concerns could be handled through proper jury instructions, special interrogatories, and the verdict form.  See also Whiteside v. GEICO Indem. Co., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52761 (M.D. Ga. Mar. 29, 2018).  The trial court did, however, bifurcate the claim for punitive damages from the rest of the jury trial.

The result was a jury verdict of $2 million against Geico for failing to settle in response to a bicyclist’s demand for the $30,000 policy limit based on medical bills of almost $10,000 following a motor vehicle accident.  Previously, Geico had argued there was no coverage due to the insured’s failure to notify Geico of the subsequent lawsuit she was served.  Whiteside v. GEICO Indem. Co., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 203617, *6, 2017 WL 6347174 (M.D. Ga. Dec. 12, 2017).  Notwithstanding such a flagrant breach of the policy’s notice conditions, the trial court did not see coverage as being an issue since that coverage defense did not exist at the time Geico responded to the demand by offering to settle for about half the limits instead.

These unusual circumstances are certainly noteworthy, and extracontractual damages such as these are becoming less uncommon in Georgia bad faith cases.  FMG’s Insurance Coverage and Bad Faith BlogLine has already geared up to cover the Georgia Supreme Court’s upcoming rulings after granting cert on the scope of what triggers failure to settle liability in Georgia, not to mention the proposed changes to the Restatement of the Law of Liability Insurance and their impact.  Whatever is in the cards for extracontractual liability in Georgia, the risks presented by settlement demands should be evaluated in light of these current trends.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jessica Samford at [email protected].

Beware The Egg Shell Plaintiff

Posted on: February 13th, 2018

By: Jared K. Hodges

Recently, a jury from a historically conservative venue in Georgia awarded $2.7 million to a man who claims he was injured in a 4 m.p.h. rear-end collision. This unusual verdict should serve as an expensive reminder to insurance carriers, adjusters, and their counsel that not all low-speed, minor property damage incidents are alike.

Plaintiff Art Smith was 31 years-old when he was rear-ended in his Toyota Camry by John Bishop, who was driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck. Both Smith and Bishop were stopped at a traffic light in Cobb County, Georgia, when Bishop testified he “rolled into” Smith. Smith’s vehicle incurred merely $1,400 worth of damage, and he told the responding officers he was OK, before leaving the scene of the accident on his own.

The next day, however, Smith began experiencing stiffness in his neck, and he went to the emergency room. Smith underwent physical therapy and an MRI scan that revealed herniated discs in his neck, before he ultimately received cervical fusion surgery.

While Smith’s rapid spinal deterioration and treatment seems excessive given his young age, what Bishop could not have known, was Smith had undergone prior treatments for neck injuries several years before the accident. In Georgia, as in many jurisdictions, it is a tenant in torts that “a tortfeasor takes a plaintiff in whatever condition he finds him. A negligent actor must bear the risk that his liability will be increased by reason of the actual physical condition of the other toward whom his act [is] negligent.” AT Sys. Se., Inc. v. Carnes, 272 Ga. App. 671, 674, 613 S.E.2d 150 (2005). As the Smith case shows, the egg shell plaintiff is alive and well.

So many claimants and plaintiffs contend they are “egg shell plaintiffs,” it is easy for adjusters and defense counsel to become immune to these allegations, especially when there is minimal property damage, as there was in this case. Yet, insurers, adjusters, and defense counsel should remember that a tortfeasor takes a plaintiff in the condition where he finds him. If, for example, a plaintiff has a history of neck injuries that makes his neck susceptible to injury, it is possible a jury could find the defendant responsible for all subsequent neck treatments, even from an apparently minor injury-causing incident.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jared K. Hodges at [email protected]

Look Mom, No Hands!

Posted on: January 24th, 2018

By: Seth F. Kirby

On January 22, 2018 a Tesla Model S slammed into a parked fire truck on California’s 405 near Culver City.  The driver of the Tesla stated that prior to the accident he had the car’s autopilot system engaged.  This is just the most recent in a series of accidents in which Tesla’s autopilot system has been implicated.   At present, Tesla’s autopilot system is limited to what it refers to as Traffic-Aware Cruise Control.  This feature, which is also provided by other car manufactures, allows the car to maintain a lane and speed up or slow down depending upon traffic conditions.  The system relies upon driver input to observe and avoid stationary objects, which may be the true culprit that resulted in the recent crash.  Interestingly, all Teslas are equipped to function autonomously, taking its passengers to a destination with no human interaction.  Such features are not yet enabled due to the need to obtain regulatory approval, and the features of the current systems have been changed several times to encourage drivers to be attentive when behind the wheel (i.e. requiring the driver to maintain their hands on the wheel).

The advent of various levels of autonomous driving presents challenges and opportunities for the insurance industry.  Theoretically, the implementation of autonomous vehicles over the next decade or longer will result in fewer accidents and injuries as computers will be more reliable and predictable drivers.  Of course, machines can have errors, and on the road at 60+ mph, errors can have drastic consequences.  This begs the question.  As vehicles become autonomous, who will the auto carrier be insuring?  The easy answer is that the policy is issued to the individual that owns the car, so clearly the carrier is insuring the individual for their potential liability. In many states, however, the insurance “follows the car” and covers bodily injury and property damage arising from the use of the vehicle no matter who (or what) is operating the vehicle.  If the autonomous car makes a mistake, the law presently considers the human driver to be responsible for the vehicle’s operation and the liability is placed on the driver.  That seems reasonable in our present environment in which driver interaction is required for the system to operate.  It may seem less reasonable once the systems become fully automatic.  At that point, the individual’s carrier is essentially insuring the machine and its software, effectively turning auto liability policies into product liability policies.

In the short term, the transition between human and computer controlled driving presents problems as it can lull the driver into a false sense of safety.  It appears that when the driver has less interaction with the driving process their attention wanes and they may fail to avoid obvious hazards.  This is no different than the problems caused by other forms of distracted driving (texting, eating, tuning the radio), it is just a new dynamic that is being added to the roadway.  Eventually, the human element may be removed from the equation, but whether that will result in a net improvement in vehicle safety remains to be seen.  I fully suspect that many aspects of auto liability insurance will need to evolve as technology begins to take over the wheel.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Seth Kirby at [email protected].