The aftermath of a car accident can be stressful, if not devastating, for many Washington, D.C. accident victims. Victims of D.C. car accidents often rely on insurance companies to resolve accident claims. But what can accident victims do when an insurer fails to act in good faith to resolve a claim?

Under D.C. law, all contracts, including insurance contracts, contain an implied covenant for all parties to act in good faith. Parties to the contract may be able to recover damages for a breach of contract if a party fails to act in good faith. D.C. courts have not recognized a separate tort of bad faith by insurance companies in the handling of policy claims. However, in addition to breach of contract claims, there may be other claims relating to insurance contracts, such as fraud and negligent misrepresentation. Some states recognize a separate claim of bad faith. One recent case reflects how a claim of bad faith may be interpreted by a court.

In that case, a drunk driver hit a woman’s vehicle at a railroad crossing, causing it to crash into an oncoming train. The woman suffered permanent injuries, and her eight-year-old son was tragically killed in the crash. The other driver was arrested and charged with DUI manslaughter. He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. The insurer of the drunk driver quickly offered a total of $20,000 to the woman and her son’s estate, amounting to the full bodily injury policy limits under the policy.

Under Washington, D.C. premises liability laws, property owners are required to keep public sidewalks in front of their premises free of snow and sleet by clearing sidewalks within the first eight hours of daylight after a snowfall. However, an individual cannot sue a landowner under the statute in a D.C. premises liability case for failing to keep premises free of snow and sleet. Only the D.C. government can enforce the statute against landowners by fining landowners who fail to comply. A landowner may be liable, however, if the landowner acts in a way that increases the hazard created by snow or ice and which then causes the plaintiff’s injuries.

In a recent case before one state’s supreme court, the court rejected such a case. In that case, the plaintiff was entering a restaurant, and as she approached the restaurant, she slipped and fell on ice, sustaining injuries. The portion of the sidewalk where she fell was a public sidewalk. She filed a complaint against the restaurant, alleging that the restaurant was negligent in failing to maintain the sidewalk and the restaurant’s arrival area in a safe and proper condition.

That court rejected the plaintiff’s case, holding that a city ordinance that required an owner to clear a sidewalk of snow and ice created a duty only to the municipality and not to individuals. Thus, only the municipality was able to enforce the ordinance. The court stated that a landowner whose property touches public property does not have a duty to other individuals (including customers) to repair or maintain it. In addition, there was no evidence that the restaurant’s efforts to clear the sidewalk made the sidewalk more dangerous than if they had done nothing.

After a D.C. car accident, victims may be suffering from physical injuries as well as dealing with the financial losses of property damages, lost wages, and medical expenses. To hold a negligent party responsible for the victim’s losses after a crash, a victim may be able to file a Washington, D.C. negligence claim.

In a negligence claim after a car crash, a plaintiff has to prove that the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, that the defendant deviated from the applicable standard of care, and that there is a causal relationship between that deviation and the plaintiff’s injury. The plaintiff bears the burden of proving these issues.

To show the applicable standard of care and that the defendant deviated from the applicable standard of care, an expert may be required if the subject area is beyond the knowledge of the average juror. To prove a causal relationship, a plaintiff must show that the defendant was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. Proximate cause has two components: cause-in-fact and a “policy element.” In deciding whether an injury is a cause-in-fact of a plaintiff’s injury, a plaintiff must show that the defendant’s negligent conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm. Proximate caused has been a cause “which, in natural and continual sequence, unbroken by any efficient intervening cause, produces the injury, and without which the result would not have occurred.” The policy element of proximate cause limits liability based on the foreseeability of the injury—according to D.C. courts, a defendant may not be held liable if the chain of events that led to the plaintiff’s injury was “highly extraordinary in retrospect.” Generally, proximate cause is a question of fact for the jury to decide.

Every day, many Washington, D.C. residents use Amazon’s website to do their online shopping. Shoppers purchase books, clothing, technology, household supplies, and more on the online marketplace. Some items are sold by Amazon themselves, but many are sold instead by third-party sellers on the Amazon website. But sometimes, individuals may be sold defective or dangerous products and find themselves injured as a result. In these situations, injured shoppers may want to file a personal injury lawsuit against the seller or the manufacturer of the products and against Amazon themselves in the case of third-party sellers. But it can be confusing to know when Amazon can be held liable in these products’ liability suits and when they cannot.

For example, take a recent state appellate case. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff in the case purchased a hoverboard on Amazon’s website in late November of 2015. When the hoverboard had not arrived by mid-December, the plaintiff sent an email to the third-party seller through Amazon’s website. Five days later, she received the hoverboard, which she gifted to her son for Christmas. On New Year’s Eve of that year, her son plugged it into an outlet, which started a fire. Loomis suffered burns to her hand and foot as a result. She brought a personal injury lawsuit against Amazon the next year on a theory of strict liability. Amazon filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted, dismissing the plaintiff’s complaint.

On appeal, the appellate court reversed. The court explained that Amazon could be held strictly liable under that state’s law—meaning held liable even without a showing of fault—for defects in a product if they were in the chain of production and marketing of the product. And the court found that Amazon was in that chain; Amazon interacted with the customer, took the order for the hoverboard, processed the order to the third-party seller, collected the money for the order, and was paid a percentage of the sale. In fact, over a two-month period in which this specific hoverboard was sold, the seller sold over $736,000 in hoverboards. Amazon received over $110,000 in fees from those sales for just that two-month period. Because of these connections, sufficient to establish themselves in the chain of production and marketing of the product, the court held that the trial court had incorrectly granted Amazon’s motion for summary judgment and reversed, meaning the plaintiff should be able to proceed forward with her claim.

Washington D.C. encompasses many properties open to the public for recreational use and amusement. While government officials, business owners, and managers take steps to ensure the health and safety of visitors, accidents can happen. Those who suffer injuries at a Washington D.C. park, national monument, museum, arboretum, or similar location should contact an attorney to discuss their rights and remedies.

Generally, government agencies and private property owners maintain a legal duty to make their properties safe from unreasonable risk of harm to visitors and guests. When a property owner fails to ensure the safety of their premises, visitors may face serious injuries. These injuries may stem from icy pathways, uneven surfaces, inadequate or nonexistent security, toxin exposure, and broken steps or handrails. Despite the public policy reasons surrounding the duty to maintain a safe environment, cases involving public properties pose significant burdens on injury victims.

The law imposes different rules on injury victims who wish to pursue personal injury claims against a government agency. To further add to the challenges many injury victims face, the law provides recreational use property owners with certain protections. A recent federal court decision addressed an issue that many premises liability victims encounter when pursuing a claim against an outdoor recreation area owner. In that case, the government maintained a public shower at a beach. According to the record, the government allowed an algae film to develop on the shower floor and did not provide any warning of the film. A couple sued the government for injuries after the husband fell on the shower floor and suffered severe injuries.

Expert witness testimony is one of the most critical forms of evidence in a Washington, D.C. medical malpractice claim. An expert witness’s purpose is to aid the court or jury in understanding medical evidence or medical facts that are at issue in the case. Generally, both parties call expert witnesses to bolster their claims or defenses. Expert testimony is typically essential in Washington D.C. medical malpractice lawsuits, as such injury victims should consult with an attorney to ensure that they have access to the most appropriate experts.

In 2016, Washington D.C adopted the Daubert standard under the Federal Rules of Evidence 702. Under Rule 702, the court can qualify an expert as a witness if they exhibit the knowledge, skills, experience, training, or education in the relevant field. Expert testimony is appropriate if:

  • The expert’s scientific, technician, or specialized knowledge will aid the fact finder to understand issues or determine facts;

After a person encounters a defective or dangerous product, they may suffer serious physical injuries, property damage, and psychological trauma. The long-standing effects of these accidents may result in significant medical expenses, lost wages, and similar financial difficulties. Those who suffer injuries because of a defective product should contact a Washington, D.C. product liability attorney to discuss their rights and remedies.

Product liability broadly refers to the legal responsibility of those that are in the chain of design, production, or distribution of a product. While most Washington, D.C. product liability claims fall under the theory of strict liability, some involve general negligence theories and breach of warranty claims. Negligence cases usually involve allegations of a product’s defective design, manufacturing defect, or failure to warn. In contrast, strict liability claims do not require a plaintiff to establish that a manufacturer or seller was negligent. Instead, these claims hinge on the unreasonably dangerous or defective nature of the products. Proving an item was “unreasonably dangerous” requires a thorough and nuanced understanding of complex product liability laws.

For instance, a recent appellate court opinion addressed whether a plaintiff presented legally sufficient evidence to support their design defect claim. The case arose after an HVAC technician purchased an installed air conditioning unit compressor that became overheated and ignited the technician in flames. The technician filed a lawsuit against the product manufacturer, arguing that the terminal they used in the unit was unreasonably dangerous. In support of this claim, he asserted that parts manufacturers made two parts for the same cost, but the older design was more prone to failure. The technician claimed that the company’s decision to use the older design created an unreasonably dangerous product. A jury found in favor of the plaintiff, and after analyzing a series of complex evidentiary and legal arguments, the court ultimately affirmed the lower court’s ruling in favor of the plaintiff.

Causation is an essential element in any Washington, D.C., negligence claim. This means that a successful plaintiff in a Washington, D.C. personal injury claim has to show that the defendant’s negligent actions were the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. The plaintiff has the burden of proving a causal relationship between the defendant’s actions and the plaintiff’s injuries. Proving causation means proving that there was “a direct and substantial causal relationship” between the defendant’s actions and the plaintiff’s injuries and that the harm was foreseeable. Proximate cause also involves considering the foreseeability of the harm that occurred and the scope of the risk created by the defendant’s actions. It aims to limit liability in circumstances where the link between the conduct and resulting harm is so attenuated that the consequence is pure luck. It is meant to limit liability in those cases where holding the defendant labile would be unfair or bad policy.

A plaintiff can prove causation by providing either direct or circumstantial evidence. Generally, proximate cause is a question of fact that must be resolved by the jury. The standard for proving causation, like other elements in a negligence claim, is whether it is more likely than not to have been the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. A plaintiff cannot simply show that it is a mere possibility that the defendant’s actions caused the plaintiff’s injuries. This means that in a Washington, D.C. injury claim, a plaintiff must point to the specific acts that the plaintiff claims were negligent and demonstrate how those specific acts, more likely than not, were the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. In accident cases involving multiple vehicles, proving causation can be more difficult.

Bicyclist killed in multi-vehicle crash in Northwest D.C.

In a Washington, D.C. car crash case requiring a court to interpret a contract, general contract principles must be applied. Under Washington, D.C. law, courts will look at the contract’s written language, regardless of the parties’ intent at the time the contract was made. If a contract is not clear based on the contract’s written language, courts will consider the contract as a whole and will determine the meaning of the contract and its terms based on all of the surrounding circumstances when the contract was made. In considering the surrounding circumstances, courts will allow external evidence to be admitted to help explain and determine the parties’ beliefs and actions at the time. Courts will generally consider what a reasonable person in the parties’ positions would have thought the terms in dispute meant—unless the terms clearly had a technical or specialized meaning. In addition, if the language of a contract is open to two interpretations, courts will interpret the contract in favor of the insured.

Insurance policies also may contain exclusions, but exclusions must be strictly construed in favor of the insured. Further, if an insurer tries to avoid liability under an insurance policy by claiming that an exclusionary clause applies, the insurer has the burden to prove that the case falls under the specified exclusion.

In a recent case before another state’s appeals court, the court considered whether an exclusionary clause in a contract relieved the insurer after a woman was killed in a car crash. In that case, the woman was killed in a crash with another vehicle driven by a volunteer employee working for an animal welfare organization. GEICO provided personal vehicle insurance to the volunteer employee and paid out up to its policy limit of $25,000. The organization also had a commercial insurance policy with a policy limit of $1,000,000. The woman’s estate obtained a judgment against the organization of $5,000,000 and filed a claim under the commercial insurance policy. The insurer denied coverage, asserting that the coverage did not apply because the GEICO policy covered the crash.

Presenting strong expert witness testimony is essential in many Washington, D.C. injury cases. But before the testimony can be considered, it must be admissible under evidentiary rules. In 2016, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals issued a decision adopting Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and the Daubert test articulated in the Supreme Court case Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The Daubert standard now applies in all civil and criminal cases in Washington, D.C. and focuses on the relevance and reliability of the evidence.

Under Rule 702, a witness who is qualified to testify as an expert based on knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify if:

  1. The testimony will be helpful in order to understand the evidence or determine a fact at issue;
  2. The testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
  3. The testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
  4. The expert witness reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

In a recent case before a federal appeals court, the court excluded expert testimony in a personal injury case, finding that the testimony was not reliable. In that case, the plaintiff severely injured his right leg, foot, and ankle when a skid-steer loader he was operating at work tipped over. When it began to tip forward, the plaintiff braced his right foot near the front opening. His foot slipped out the front and he brought the lift down on it, crushing his foot. He and his wife filed a strict liability claim against the manufacturer alleging that the machine was defectively designed.

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