Articles Posted in Motor Vehicle Accident

In American legal culture, the determinations of juries are afforded considerable deference. Nevertheless, juries do make mistakes, and courts then must step in and order new trials in the interest of justice. However, those who benefit from an initial jury’s ruling are generally not amenable to a trial court ordering a new trial. Indeed, the propriety of a trial court order directing that there be a new trial was at the center of Botta v. Florida Power & Light Co., a recent decision from Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal that involved a collision between an FPL truck and the vehicle of another motorist.

The events at issue in Botta were set in course by a nighttime power outage. After receiving a report of the outage, FPL sent out a truck to investigate. The technician sent to investigate the outage parked his truck along the side of a road but did not set up any reflective markers behind the truck to indicate its presence. In addition, there was disputed evidence as to whether the truck’s warning lights had been activated. Some time after the technician parked, a car being operated by the plaintiff in this case collided with the truck. The plaintiff testified that he believed the truck was in motion at the time of the accident and that he attempted to brake prior to the collision. However, a witness to the accident testified that he did not see the car decelerate before the collision. In addition, there was a dispute of fact regarding whether the headlights of the plaintiff’s vehicle were illuminated at the time of the accident. The plaintiff was severely injured as a result of the crash and needed to have his arm amputated.

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In a recent decision from Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal, Manfre v. Shinkle, the court examined whether a jury correctly found that the defendant, a local sheriff, was liable for injuries arising from a motor vehicle accident. Although the accident at issue occurred at night on an unlit, rural road, the lack of light only played a marginal role. Instead, the crash was principally caused by the plaintiff’s collision with a dead horse, which the plaintiff claimed was in her path because of a local deputy’s negligent investigation of a report of roaming animals.

The accident at the heart of Manfre occurred shortly before sunrise on a dark road in rural Flagler County. The plaintiff was traveling at about 45 miles per hour when her vehicle struck a dead horse and flipped. As a result of the accident, the plaintiff suffered a variety of physical injuries. About an hour and a half before this accident, the county’s Sheriff’s Office received a call that reported two horses were roaming on the side of the road where the accident occurred. A deputy responded to the scene, where he saw the horses returning to the pasture. Evidence presented at trial indicated that the horses may have been spooked by the sheriff’s headlights. Satisfied that the horses’ return to the pasture settled the issue, the deputy cleared the call and left the scene without either ensuring that the horses were now safely enclosed or contacting the property owner. Following the deputy’s departure, at least one of the horses returned to the road, where it was struck by a vehicle and killed. It was the dead horse with which the plaintiff’s vehicle collided.

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Although the end of a trial often means finality, seasoned litigators understand that, at least in some cases, it may simply be a precursor to protracted appellate battles. Indeed, a favorable ruling for a plaintiff is often not secure, for dissatisfied defendants will often take the case to an appellate court, seeking reversal on any ground possible. As the plaintiff in Ortega v. Belony, a recent case before Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal, now knows, a trial court victory is often just the beginning.

Ortega arose from a motor vehicle accident in Miami-Dade County. As a result of the collision, the driver of one of the vehicles involved, who is the plaintiff in this case, suffered a broken neck. The plaintiff was hospitalized for eight days following the accident. Rather than undergoing surgery to repair the injury, the plaintiff elected to wear a “halo” for three months. During his rehabilitation, the plaintiff had difficulty sleeping and needed assistance with ordinary tasks such as bathing. Following the three months, the halo was removed, and the plaintiff only complained of residual back pain. His neck had almost fully healed, but the plaintiff sought additional treatment from an orthopedic surgeon. The surgeon recommended surgery. However, the plaintiff again declined and instead opted for an injection treatment. The treatment was successful, and by the time of the trial, the plaintiff did not have difficulty performing daily activities and had not returned to the surgeon for any additional treatments.

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In addition to determining fault, juries are often tasked with the responsibility of setting damages, the amount an injured party may recover from a liable party. Obviously, most jury members are not experts who are perfectly capable of setting a damages amount with mathematical certainty, and even though expert testimony is often enlisted to help guide juries, jury verdicts are often hotly disputed.  Although damages awards, like all jury determinations, are entitled to deference, a court does have discretion to alter a damages award it determines is too high or low. However, when a court exercises this power, disputes regarding the damages award are often just as bitter. Indeed, in a recent decision, Arnold v. Security Nat’l Ins. Co., the Fourth District Court of Appeal needed to address whether it was proper for a trial court to reduce a jury verdict the trial court considered excessive.

Arnold began with a car accident that left the plaintiff in this case seriously injured. The other driver did not have motor vehicle insurance, and the plaintiff brought suit against his personal uninsured motor vehicle insurance provider. In his complaint, the plaintiff alleged that he suffered physical, emotional, and financial damage as a result of the uninsured driver’s negligence. The case ultimately proceeded to trial, at which the plaintiff produced expert testimony related to the past and future medical expenses he would likely incur as a result of a herniated disc resulting from the accident. His insurance company argued, however, that the plaintiff’s injuries were a result of prior injuries and dissociated, natural degenerative conditions.

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In certain legal areas in which expert testimony is of importance for determining liability, litigators will often form relationships with particular experts who provide testimony in their cases. However, a familiarity between experts and attorneys can raise issues regarding the propriety of the testimony provided. Indeed, many may question whether the testimony being provided by a purported expert is genuine or merely the function of an established course of prior dealings. This dynamic was addressed in a recent decision from Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal, Vazquez v. Martinez.

Vazquez arose from a 2007 rear-end collision. The car of the plaintiff in this case was stopped at a red light when her car was rear-ended by a vehicle being driven by the defendant. The plaintiff brought suit against the defendant for damages arising from the collision. The case proceeded to trial. At trial, the plaintiff sought to introduce evidence that payments that totaled over 700,000 dollars had been made by the defense or its agents to the expert witness testifying on behalf of the defendant over the past three years. The trial court permitted this evidence, and ultimately the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. On appeal, the defendant argued that admission of the testimony was improper. The Fifth District disagreed.

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It’s often difficult for a driver who rear-ends another vehicle to avoid some form of liability. Indeed, although many other types of car accidents can occasion genuine discussion about apportioning fault between parties or determining whether a particular driver was in fact negligent, accidents involving one car rear-ending another almost invariably lead to liability for the driver who strikes the other in the back. In fact, Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal recently reversed part of a trial verdict that, in its judgment, inappropriately apportioned fault to the driver in a stationary vehicle that was rear-ended by another.

As noted above, this case, Bodiford v. Rollins, arose from a rear-end collision. The plaintiff was waiting to make a left turn at an intersection when the defendant’s car rammed into the back of his vehicle. The plaintiff sustained serious injuries as a result and brought suit against the driver of the other vehicle. The case proceeded to trial, after which the jury awarded the plaintiff more than one million dollars in damages. However, the jury also found the plaintiff to be 13% at fault, and the court reduced the damages award by that percentage. The defendants appealed, asserting various arguments against the jury’s ruling. In addition, the plaintiff cross-appealed, asserting that the jury erred in apportioning any fault to him and that the trial court, therefore, should have granted his motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

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Although the law is fundamentally concerned with justice, justice often requires that a party take timely action to redress her harm. Indeed, negligence cases are subject to various statutes of limitations, and many would-be litigants have gone to court only to find that their claims, irrespective of their merits, have been lost because of the passage of time. Although many statute of limitations cases relate only to a plaintiff’s failure to take timely action, a recent decision from the First District Court of Appeals, Russ v. Williams, involved an intriguing situation when a defendant’s “mischief” helped assure that a plaintiff’s claims would be time-barred.

Although the merits of the claims were ultimately not reached in Russ, the case arose from a motor vehicle crash on May 15, 2009. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant’s negligence led to the accident and filed the complaint in this case in November 2012. The complaint was served on the defendant on March 1, 2013. On May 23, 2013, one week after the statute of limitations had elapsed, the defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that his wife was actually the one operating the vehicle at the time of the crash and was the sole owner of the vehicle. The plaintiff moved to amend the complaint in order to add the defendant’s wife as the proper party. The defendant opposed the motion, arguing that the defendant’s wife was an entirely new party and that any claims against his wife were time-barred because the statute of limitations period had passed. The trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion to amend the complaint but reserved judgment on any statute of limitations issues. The claims against the original defendant were dismissed.

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One of the most common arguments on appeal following a trial is whether evidence was erroneously presented to the jury. Although inappropriate evidence can affect a jury’s determination, appeals courts are wary to allow a new trial in every case that involves an evidentiary ruling with which it disagrees. Accordingly, the “harmless error rule” limits overturning a jury verdict to only those situations when the evidence is shown to have had some material impact on the jury’s ruling. Courts have different standards for harmless error, and the Supreme Court of Florida recently clarified its pre-existing harmless error jurisprudence for civil cases in Special v. West Boca Medical Center. In West Boca, which arose from the appeal of a Fourth District Court of Appeal decision, the Supreme Court of Florida held that harmless error in civil cases requires that “the beneficiary of the error must prove that there is no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the verdict.” 39 Fla. L. Weekly S676 (Fla. Nov. 13, 2014). The Fourth District previously applied a “more likely than not” standard for harmless error and has been forced to revise several of its decisions in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Among these decisions is Hurtado v. DeSouza, which involved prejudicial evidence introduced in an automobile accident trial.

The plaintiff in Hurtado filed suit after being rear-ended by another driver while stopped at a traffic light. Prior to trial, the defendant stipulated to liability, leaving only causation and damages to be determined by the jury. At trial, the plaintiff’s attorney stated in his opening statement that immediately following the accident the defendant didn’t check in on the plaintiff or apologize. The defendant’s counsel called for a sidebar with the judge, who ruled that the statement could be admitted. Afterward, the plaintiff’s counsel made another statement on the defendant’s possible effort to flee, to which the defense counsel objected. A third comment was subsequently made, and the defendant’s counsel moved for a mistrial or a curative instruction to the jury, both of which the trial court denied. In his testimony, the plaintiff noted the defendant’s failure to check on him or his family and the defendant’s desire to leave the scene of the accident. The trial judge permitted the testimony but ultimately directed a verdict in favor of the defendant on the plaintiff’s mental anguish claims. Following the directed verdict, the trial judge read a curative instruction to the jury, directing them to ignore references to the defendant’s failure to admit negligence sooner as irrelevant given the court’s determination on mental anguish damages. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict for over one million dollars for permanent injury. The defendant appealed the jury verdict.

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In a recent decision, Jones v. Alayon, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal addressed several questions arising from trial in an auto accident negligence case. At trial, the jury found that the decedent was, in part, responsible for his death because the evidence established he had not been wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash. Among various arguments the decedent’s estate raised on appeal was whether the trial court erred in not directing a verdict in favor of the estate on the defendant’s seatbelt defense because the undisputed evidence showed that the seatbelt was actually inoperable.

Alayon was brought by the daughter of the decedent as the personal representative of the decedent’s estate. The defendant in this case was the driver of the vehicle that rear-ended the decedent’s vehicle, which caused it to strike a guardrail and turn over. The decedent was ejected from the vehicle. The decedent died as a result of either ejection from the vehicle or being struck by other oncoming cars. The defendant was a off-duty police officer, who fled after striking the decedent’s vehicle and falsely reported that it had been stolen. At the time of the civil trial, the decedent was incarcerated on charges related to the hit-and-run. The defendant conceded liability but contended that his negligence didn’t result in the decedent’s death. Instead, the defendant argued that the decedent was comparatively negligent because he failed to wear a seatbelt.

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Following the initiation of a personal injury suit, many defendants will start to conduct covert surveillance of the plaintiff in hope of uncovering evidence that can later to used to impeach inconsistent testimony. Beyond obvious privacy concerns, the production and use of surveillance footage raises numerous legal issues related to authenticity. Accordingly, it is well settled that defendants are required to turn over surveillance footage that they intend to use at trial during the discovery process. However, there is often an argument about when the defendant must turn over this footage. These timing issues are at the core of the discussion in a recent decision from Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, Hankerson v. Wiley.

Hankerson started with an alleged act of auto negligence, which ultimately led the plaintiff in this case to bring suit against the other driver. During the course of pre-trial discovery, the defendant acquired surveillance footage of the plaintiff, which the plaintiff then sought to acquire prior to her deposition. The trial court granted an order that would permit the plaintiff to view the surveillance footage prior to her deposition. Following issuance of this order, the defendant sought immediate certiorari review by the Fourth District Court of Appeal, arguing that permitting the plaintiff to view the footage prior to having an opportunity to depose her would lead to irreparable harm that warranted immediate review by the appellate court. Thus, there were two issues before the Court of Appeal:  1) whether the harm attendant to turning over footage is of a degree that warrants immediate appellate review; and 2) whether the defendant could be ordered to turn over work product surveillance footage prior to deposing the plaintiff.

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