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FMG Law Blog Line

Posts Tagged ‘liability’

An Examination of the Interpretation of Free Recreation

Posted on: October 15th, 2018

By: Kevin Stone

In Georgia, if property is open free of charge for recreational purposes, the landowner is normally immune from liability for injuries occurring on the property.  A court can decide this as a matter of law without sending the case to a jury.  When sales occur on such property, however, a court may require a jury to decide whether the property’s use is “purely recreational,” rather than commercial.  This creation of a jury issue exists even if the sales are by private vendors and the landowner receives no payment.

For example, the Court of Appeals recently found that a free concert—at which concert-goers had the option of buying concessions from outside vendors (that did not pay the property owner), and where the event may have created a marketing benefit for the landowner—was considered to have both recreational and commercial purposes.  The result being that a jury, not a judge, had to resolve the issue of the property owner’s primary purpose for the property.  This interpretation of the law allows a commercial classification even though property is open for free for recreation.

This seems at odds with the purpose of the Recreational Property Act: “to encourage property owners to make their property available to the public for recreational purposes.”  In a concurrence, Chief Judge Dillard made the keen observation that a fair interpretation of the Act strongly suggests that the only relevant economic consideration is whether an admission fee is charged.  In such a case, the immunity would apply.

The Georgia Supreme Court has decided to weigh in and granted certiorari on these issues.  The Court’s examination will provide clarification for landowners who allow free access for recreation but also allow the public the option of making purchases.  We will continue to follow this case and keep you updated with the Court’s explanation.

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

Following in the Footsteps of Lebron James? Ohio Parts Ways with the Restatement of Liability Insurance

Posted on: August 17th, 2018

By: Matthew Weiss

Last week Ohio Governor John Kasich signed into law legislation that rejected the American Law Institute’s (ALI) Restatement of the Law of Liability Insurance, claiming that it “does not constitute the public policy of Ohio.”  According to ALI, the legislation marks the first time a state has rejected a Restatement in its entirety.

The Restatement of the Law of Liability Insurance was approved by the ALI in May but has received a decidedly mixed public reaction.  Insurance attorneys have criticized numerous provisions within the Restatement.

In one example, lawyers have disagreed with the Restatement’s adoption of a “plain meaning presumption” in the interpretation of insurance contracts in the Comment to Section 3, rather than the “plain meaning rule” used in a majority of states.  This means that the Restatement advocates a “contextual approach” when interpreting provisions that requires the utilization of custom, practice, or usage.  In effect, this would lead courts to interpret insurance policies in light of the circumstances surrounding the drafting, negotiation, and performance of the policy.  By contrast, the plain meaning rule states that when a provision is “unambiguous” when applied to a claim in the context of the entire policy, courts must interpret the provision according to its plain meaning.

Another controversial provision is Section 8, which uses the word “substantiality” with respect to misrepresentation of material facts.  Experts claim that the word is unnecessarily vague and at odds with existing statutory and common law governing misrepresentation and rescission.  Similarly, Section 13 of the Restatement deviates from the majority of states by creating a duty to defend not only based on the allegations of a complaint, but also based on extrinsic evidence known to the insurer.  Finally, Section 11 provides that an insurer does not have a right to receive any information of the insured that is protected by attorney-client privilege, work-product immunity, or a lawyer’s duty of confidentiality under the rules of professional conduct if that information could be used to benefit the insurer at the expense of the insured.

The actual impact of the Restatement’s deviations from established case law in the field of liability insurance is subject to debate.  While the Restatement may have an impact in areas where limited case law exists nationally on a particular issue, where state law is silent on an issue, or where case law exists within a jurisdiction but no clear rule has been established, the Restatement will not overcome a rule in a state where clear precedent exists on a topic.

The impact of the Restatement of Liability Insurance remains to be seen, but the Ohio legislation is more likely to be the beginning, rather than the end, of a debate concerning its relevance and practicality.

For more information about the Restatement, or other insurance coverage issues, please contact Matthew Weiss of the Law Firm Freeman Mathis & Gary LLP at (678) 399-6356 or [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].

Driverless Motor Vehicle Lawsuit – The First of its Kind

Posted on: February 7th, 2018

By: Courtney K. Mazzio

General Motors is the first manufacturer to be hit with a driverless motor vehicle lawsuit. On December 7, motorcycle driver, Oscar Nilsson, alleges he was attempting to pass a self-automated Chevy Bolt on the right. The Bolt had indicated it was moving into the left hand lane, and according to Nilsson, when the coast was clear, he proceeded in his attempt to pass the Bolt. It was at that point the Bolt swerved back into Nilsson’s lane, knocking Nilsson over. Nilsson did walk to the side of the road, but was complaining of neck and shoulder injuries, which he allegedly treated for extensively and which required him to take disability leave from his job.

However, GM paints quite a different picture, detailing that the self-driving car attempted to merge into the left lane. However, the minivan ahead of it slowed down, and so the self-driving car abandoned the merge attempt. GM maintains it was as the self-driving car was attempting to center itself in the middle lane once again that Nilsson attempted to pass between the self-driving vehicle and a vehicle in the right lane. As he was attempting to make that pass, he hit the side of the self-driving vehicle. Notably, GM reported the self-driving car was keeping with traffic at its speed of 12 miles per hour while the motorcycle was traveling 17 miles per hour, which if proven, could be useful for them in mitigating liability They have also represented that the police report also maintains the company is at fault.

In the analysis swirling around driverless car technology and anticipated lawsuits sure to crop up, there is anticipation that car manufacturers will take the tack of either resolving swiftly when liability is poor or fighting tooth and nail when liability is questionable. The technology of the driverless vehicle no doubt affords car manufacturers the ability to be a bit more dichotomous. We will have to wait and see how this one pans out.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Courtney Mazzio 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].