Articles Posted in Personal Injury Case Law

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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In Washington, D.C., when someone is injured in an accident that occurs on another’s property, they usually have the option of bringing a personal injury lawsuit against the property owner to recover under a theory of premises liability. Generally, premises liability allows people to be held liable when they are negligent in regard to the safety of their property and yet invite or allow others onto it. Usually, premises liability cases involve wet floors causing a slip and fall accident, cracks in sidewalks that cause someone to trip, or other similar issues. But it is important to remember that any accident—no matter how strange or unique—can potentially serve as the basis for a Washington, D.C. personal injury lawsuit against a property owner.

For example, take a recent odd and tragic accident that killed a 26-year-old man and made national headlines. According to a New York Times article, the accident occurred in early February at a baby shower. A small cannon-type device, designed to create a big flash, a loud noise, and create smoke, exploded in the hosts’ backyard at the event around 7:30 PM. The victim, a guest at the party, was about 10 to 15 feet away when it blew up and was hit by metal shrapnel from the explosion. He was taken to the hospital immediately, but, unfortunately, he died from his injuries.

The investigation into the accident is ongoing. Officials are focusing their attention on whether the device was used properly or malfunctioned. The homeowner bought the cannon at an auction and had fired it several times beforehand. But officials are concerned that perhaps there was a malfunction—the combination of gunpowder and no regular inspections means that owners of devices such as this one may not notice hairline fractures. Or, perhaps even more likely, it’s possible the homeowner packed too much gunpowder into the cannon, causing the explosion.

In this blog, we often write about a specific type of Washington, D.C. personal injury lawsuit: premise’s liability claims. The premise’s liability doctrine is used to hold property or business owners responsible for accidents on their property. For example, grocery stores that fail to warn customers of slippery floors can be held liable, or homeowners who invite visitors over who are injured on faulty stairs. This is an important doctrine; however, it is not without limits. In some cases, an individual might sign a waiver of liability, releasing a property or business owner from liability if they are injured.

For example, take a recent state appellate court case. The court’s written opinion indicates that in April of 2017, the plaintiff decided to join a gym. In executing her membership agreement, she signed a form that states, in part, “I understand and voluntarily accept full responsibility … for the risk of injury or loss arising out of or related to my use … of the facilities,” and “I further agree that [the defendant] … will not be liable for any injury … resulting from the negligent conduct or omission of [the defendant].” In September of that year, the plaintiff visited the gym and exercised on a treadmill. After her workout, she walked towards a trash bin to dispose of the towel she used to wipe down the equipment, but she tripped and fell on an uneven walkway and broke her wrist.

The plaintiff brought a premises liability claim against the defendant, her gym, alleging that they were negligent in maintaining the facility. The defendant moved for summary judgment, which the court granted due to the waiver agreement the plaintiff signed. The plaintiff appealed. On appeal, she argued that the trial court erred in enforcing the waiver because her injury was not connected to actually exercising or using the gym, but happened as she was walking. The court disagreed, noting that the plaintiff fell right after working out, while walking to throw away the towel she had used to clean the treadmill. For the court, the plaintiff’s injury was sufficiently connected to her use of the gym and was covered by the waiver of liability that the plaintiff signed. As such, her lawsuit against the gym could not move forward, and summary judgment was granted in favor of the defendant.

The difference between an independent contractor and an employee is an important distinction in Washington, D.C. personal injury cases because an injured person’s ability to recover may be limited based on the negligent actor’s status. The following case shows how the plaintiff’s ability to recover compensation from his employer was limited by the wrongful actor’s status as an independent contractor.

In that case, the plaintiff claimed that the defendant’s negligence was the proximate cause of injuries he suffered while working on his property. According to the record in the case, the defendant owned and operated a construction business, and the plaintiff was an employee of the defendant’s company. The defendant sometimes offered employees work at his home outside of normal work hours. One day, the plaintiff and his coworker went to do maintenance work, and among their tasks, they were told to burn the brush in the yard. The plaintiff attempted to do so by standing on top of a large pile of logs and throwing gasoline on the brush. The brush “blew up,” causing him to fall back and burning his skin with severe burns.

The plaintiff claimed that the defendant was liable because he failed to supervise the burning of the brush, he had gasoline available to use, he did not train the plaintiff on how to properly use the gasoline, and he did not train his coworker on how to properly use the gasoline or supervise others properly. He also claimed the defendant was responsible for his coworker’s negligence acts under respondeat superior. The defendant argued he was not liable for any of the coworker’s acts because he was an independent contractor rather than an employee.

Although drivers are required to have insurance, there are drivers on the road without adequate coverage or without insurance at all. However, in the event of a Washington, D.C. car accident with an uninsured or underinsured driver, an accident victim may be able to seek compensation through their own insurance policy by filing a claim for uninsured or underinsured motorist benefits.

Washington, D.C. law requires that insurance companies offer uninsured motorist coverage to drivers. Uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage protects insured motorists if the insured is involved in a Washington, D.C. car accident with another driver who is uninsured or underinsured. Uninsured motorist coverage refers to coverage after an insured is involved in an accident with a driver that does not have any motor vehicle liability insurance. Underinsured motorist coverage refers to coverage after an insured is involved in an accident with a driver that has liability insurance but whose coverage is less than the insured’s underinsured motorist coverage. The limits of coverage generally depend on the language in the insurance policy, as in the case below.

Driver Obtains Uninsured Motorist Benefits After Crash with ATV

When someone is injured while on someone else’s property, they may be able to file what is called a Washington, D.C. premises liability lawsuit. Property owners generally have to maintain their premises safe for others—especially those that they explicitly invite onto their property. For example, grocery stores generally have to ensure that their store is safe to shop in, and hotel owners have to make sure their rooms are safe. If a property owner learns about a hazard on their property—a wet floor, for example, or a malfunctioning device that could cause harm—they have to take reasonable steps to fix it and/or warn others of the danger. However, property owners cannot be on the hook for everything on their property—if a hazardous condition arises that they have no constructive notice about—they don’t know about it nor do they have reason to know—they may be able to escape liability if it harms someone.

For example, take a recent slip and fall case. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff spent his day drinking beer and fixing cars at his auto repair shop. That evening, he went to a craft brewery and continued to drink. At some point during the night, he entered the brewery’s restroom and slipped on a wet surface, falling and causing serious back injuries. He then sued the brewery for negligence, and the brewery filed for summary judgment.

The court found that the plaintiff could not recover in this case, because he could not prove how long the alleged wet substance was present on the floor before he slipped. Thus, there was no proof that the brewery had constructive notice of the wet floor—a hazardous condition—and thus they could not be held liable. It would be different if, for instance, there was proof that an employee had seen the wet floor and decided not to fix it, or not to put up a wet floor sign. In that hypothetical, it could be established that the defendant knew about the issue. As it stood, however, the plaintiff could not recover.

In an Washington, D.C. premises liability case, a party must preserve evidence relevant to a claim. Under Washington, D.C. personal injury law, if a party acts in bad faith to destroy a relevant document the party may be liable for spoliation and there will be a strong inference that the document was unfavorable to that party. The court and the jury can consider this inference in deciding the case. If a party fails to preserve evidence but the party did not act intentionally or recklessly, the fact-finder may still draw an inference adverse to the party that failed to preserve the evidence.

To establish a claim of spoliation under Washington, D.C. law, a party must prove: (1) a potential civil action exists; (2) the offending party had a legal or contractual duty to preserve evidence relevant to the claim; (3) the defendant destroyed evidence; (4) the destruction significantly impaired the injured party’s ability to prove the claim; (5) there is a proximate relationship between the impairment and the absence of the destroyed evidence; (6) there is a significant possibility that the claim would succeed if the evidence were available; and (7) damages adjusted for the estimated likelihood of success.

In a recent case before a state appellate court, the court denied a motion for spoliation in a case involving a child that was injured on a playground at a Chick-Fil-A restaurant. In that case, the child had removed his shoes as instructed by a sign at the playground and was playing barefoot on the playground on a hot day when he badly burned the bottoms of his feet. The child’s parents sued the restaurant, arguing that their child was injured by a hazardous condition on the restaurant’s playground. They alleged that the hazardous condition was the use of a sanitizer on the playground that day.

When someone is injured in a Washington, D.C. accident, the law allows them to file a personal injury lawsuit against the party responsible for their injuries. These lawsuits can provide injured plaintiffs with financial compensation for their injuries, including money to cover their medical expenses. However, courts across the country have struggled with how to calculate the amount owed in medical expenses in situations where the total cost is much larger than what the plaintiff has actually paid, due to health insurance. In some cases, courts have even reduced plaintiffs’ awards, granted to them by a jury, meaning the plaintiff is given less than a jury of their peers decided they were owed.

For example, take a recent premises liability case arising out of a slip and fall accident on a cruise ship. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff in the case was on a cruise with her family and eating at the ship’s breakfast buffet when she tripped over a cleaning bucket and fell to the floor, sustaining injuries to her shoulder and fracturing her humerus. Since the incident, the plaintiff has been to many doctor’s appointments, physical therapists, and specialists to deal with her injuries.

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the cruise company, alleging negligence in leaving the cleaning bucket in a highly trafficked area around the breakfast buffet. After trial, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff and awarded her over $1 million in damages, including $61,000 to cover past medical expenses. This award for medical expenses roughly matched the amount billed by the plaintiff’s healthcare providers. However, the district court reduced this part of the jury award to $16,326 because that was the amount that the plaintiff and her insurer actually paid. The plaintiff appealed this reduction.

In the event that a consumer is injured by a defective product, a number of parties may be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. Under Washington, D.C. product liability law, a person or an entity that engages in selling or distributing products is liable for harm caused by a defective product sold or distributed by that person or entity. Therefore, manufacturers and sellers are strictly liable for their defective products.

In a strict liability claim under Washington, D.C. law, a plaintiff must prove that the seller engaged in the business of selling the product that caused the harm, the product was defective and unreasonably dangerous when it was sold to the consumer, the seller expected to and reached the consumer without any substantial change in the product’s condition, and the defect directly and proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries.

In a recent case before a state appellate court, the court considered the reach of strict liability laws in the online shopping era. Specifically, the court considered whether Amazon could be held liable for a defective product sold on its site. The plaintiff purchased a replacement laptop computer battery on Amazon. The listing identified the seller as “E-life,” and was sold by Lenoge Technology. Amazon charged the plaintiff, packaged the battery for shipment in Amazon packaging, and sent it to the plaintiff. The plaintiff claimed that several months after she bought it, the battery exploded and caused her severe burns. She filed suit against Amazon, Lenoge, and others. The plaintiff claimed in part that Amazon was strictly liable for the defective product. Amazon argued that it did not distribute, manufacture, or sell the product, and thus it could not be held liable under strict liability laws. The trial court agreed, and the plaintiff appealed.

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