Articles Posted in Personal Injury Case Law

Washington, D.C.’s Workers’ Compensation Act provides some degree of protection to many injured workers. However, the Act does not protect all workers, does not provide benefits to all family members, and limits the beneficiaries who are able to recover. Under section 32-1504 of the Workers’ Compensation Act (the Act), an employer’s liability under the Act is the exclusive liability of the employer. Thus, a workers’ compensation case may be an injured worker’s only way to recover damages from their employer. The idea is that an employee gives up the right to pursue a tort claim against an employer in exchange for an easier means of recovery through the workers’ compensation system. This means that, normally, claims must be brought first before the Office of Workers’ Compensation and will generally be resolved through the agency.

However, Washington, D.C. law allows an employee to pursue a claim against a third party if a third party, such as a contractor, causes the plaintiff’s injury. In addition, injuries that are intentionally inflicted upon an employee and intended by the employer fall outside of the Act.

A recent case before one state’s supreme court demonstrates the limitations of the intentional-injury exception to that state’s workers’ compensation act. In that case, the plaintiff’s husband worked at a trucking and warehousing company. One day, after working long hours, his rig ran off the highway and rolled over, killing the plaintiff’s husband. The plaintiff filed a claim arguing that her husband was killed because he was overworked by the employer.

Many Washington, D.C. residents try to get away from their hectic and busy lives by planning a relaxing cruise vacation. These ships can travel all around the world and are generally a great way to unwind. However, just as in real life, accidents can happen on vacation. Sometimes a tragic incident can ruin a cruise and leave a plaintiff seriously injured. When this happens, Washington D.C. residents should remember that they may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit against the cruise line to recover for the harm they suffered.

Take for example a recent federal case against Carnival cruise lines. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff was on vacation with her family aboard a Carnival cruise ship. Tragically, while on one of the decks of the boat, her three-year-old daughter fell off the deck onto the deck below, suffering head injuries. Eyewitness accounts report that the toddler was climbing the railing, although reports vary as to whether the toddler fell over or fell through the railing. The plaintiff sued Carnival cruise line, alleging negligence in the creation and maintenance of the guardrail.

Generally, to be successful in a personal injury claim, the plaintiff must prove three things: (1) that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care; (2) that the defendant breached that duty; (3) that the defendant’s breach caused the accident or injury; and (4) that the plaintiff suffered actual harm as a result. The court in this case was focused on the first requirement—establishing the duty of care—because the defendant had filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the case, claiming that they did not have notice of the danger or hazard and thus had no duty to fix it.

Governmental immunity, historically referred to as sovereign immunity, is a legal theory that protects government personnel and agencies from civil lawsuits. The premise stems from the idea that governments would not be able to effectively function if they feared constant liability for all of their actions. However, to address the fundamental unfairness of this doctrine, many jurisdictions limit the amount of immunity that a governmental entity enjoys. These laws are generally referred to as “tort claims acts.” In Washington, D.C., individuals who believe they suffered damages because of the negligence of a government entity should contact an attorney to discuss their rights and remedies.

The U.S. Department of Education requires that teachers, principals, and other school administrators protect their students and provide them with appropriate educational environments. However, the law often protects these institutions from lawsuits. Additionally, lawsuits that can proceed often require plaintiffs to abide by burdensome filing and notice requirements.

Lawsuits against governments encompass many other complex issues. One issue is whether the potential defendant falls under the protected category. For instance, in some cases, a negligent university or college may enjoy governmental immunity protections, whereas another similar institution may not. This largely depends on the type of institution and the type of funding they receive from the government.

Defendants work hard to try to avoid liability when they face a lawsuit. One way in which defendants in Washington, D.C. premises liability cases may try to avoid liability is by filing a motion for judgment as a matter of law, or a directed verdict. These types of motions are routinely filed, as they provide a potential basis for an appeal if the case is not decided in the defendant’s favor.

One recent case illustrates a set of facts under which an appeals court found a directed verdict was not proper. In that case, the plaintiff had sued his apartment complex, alleging two counts of negligence and negligent repair after he slipped in a bathtub at his apartment. Before the plaintiff moved into the apartment, the owner had the unit inspected by the owner’s maintenance team. A week after he moved in, the plaintiff’s wife sent the apartment complex a list of items that needed to be addressed, including a  bathtub that was draining slowly. A maintenance person came to address the bathtub issue, and noted afterward that it was working correctly. A month later, the plaintiff was taking a shower, and the water failed to drain properly, causing the water to rise over his feet. He slipped and fell, causing him to sustain a deep cut in his back that required hospitalization, stitches, and therapy. The plaintiff and his wife did not notice a problem with the bathtub drain between the service call and when the plaintiff slipped and fell.

The apartment complex filed a motion for a directed verdict, the trial court denied it, and a jury found in the plaintiff’s favor and attributed zero liability to him. The apartment complex appealed, arguing in part that the trial court should have directed a verdict in its favor. The appeals court disagreed. It found the issue of whether the apartment complex negligently repaired the bathtub drain, causing the bathtub to back up with water later, was an issue for the jury to decide. Taking the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the drain did clog again, and reasonable people could find that there was sufficient notice and negligent repair, and that the clogged drain caused him to injure himself.

A plaintiff in a Washington, D.C personal injury case not only has to prove that the defendant acted wrongfully, and that the defendant’s wrongful conduct caused the plaintiff harm, but also that they suffered harm. Further, they must prove the extent of that harm. Damages can only be awarded if the party claiming the damages has adequately proved that the opponent’s wrongful conduct caused the harm suffered. Washington, D.C. courts have stated that damages cannot be based on “speculation or guesswork,” thus, a plaintiff must provide an adequate basis for the jury to make a reasoned judgment. In addition, damage calculations have to be sufficiently detailed to support an award of damages.

Generally, damages are meant to compensate the plaintiff for the harm the plaintiff suffered. Examples of compensatory damages include past and future medical expenses, lost wages, loss of companionship, and pain and suffering. Punitive damages are also available in D.C. injury cases in some instances. Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant for bad conduct and to deter others from engaging in such conduct. When punitive damages are at issue, a court may consider the defendant’s net worth and ability to pay.

Failing to adequately prove damages can be just as devastating as a judgment in the opposing party’s favor. For example, in a recent case, an appellate court upheld an award of zero future damages, which significantly limited the plaintiff’s recovery. In that case, the plaintiff and her husband claimed that an emergency room physician and his employer failed to properly assess and treat the wife’s brain aneurysm when she went to the emergency room. On the issue of damages, the plaintiffs presented billing records that showed the wife’s medical expenses totaled over $1 million. They also presented testimony concerning her procedures and rehabilitation, future medical expenses, lost wages, and the care she required based on her condition. The defense challenged the extent of future expenses and the credibility of the witnesses.

Washington, D.C. product liability cases often require expert testimony concerning the connection between the defective product and the resulting injuries. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the highest court for the District of Columbia, decided in 2016 that District of Columbia courts would apply the Daubert standard embodied in Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence to determine the admission of expert testimony in civil and criminal cases.

Under Rule 702, a witness is qualified as an expert if:

  1. The expert’s specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence in the case or to determine a fact in issue;
  2. The expert’s testimony is based on sufficient facts or data; the testimony is based on reliable principles and methods; and
  3. The expert has “reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.”

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals determined this rule is broad enough to permit testimony “that is the product of competing principles or methods in the same field of expertise.”

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Healthcare professionals have a special duty to their patients. Because healthcare professionals receive specialized training and are experienced in their field, they are expected to meet certain standards when treating patients. If a healthcare professional fails to meet those standards, and a patient suffers an injury, the healthcare professional may be liable for medical negligence. In a D.C. medical malpractice case, a plaintiff must prove the applicable standard of care that the defendant was required to meet, that the defendant failed to meet the standard of care, and that the defendant’s failure caused the plaintiff’s injury.

Washington, D.C. courts have stated that while healthcare professionals are not expected to be perfect, they may be liable when their conduct falls below the standard of care that the professional must meet. In order to establish the applicable standard of care, expert testimony is usually required, because the subject often is not within an average person’s common knowledge. In general, a Washington, D.C. medical malpractice case must be filed within three years of the date of injury, or when the plaintiff should have become aware of the injury through the exercise of reasonable due diligence.

In a recent medical malpractice case before a state appeals court, the plaintiff suffered a brain infection at a hospital after undergoing surgery to remove a cyst. The infection resulted in permanent neurological injuries. The plaintiff sued the hospital, claiming that the center’s nurses and other providers were negligent in failing to give her an antibiotic before surgery.

When someone is injured using a product in Washington, D.C., they may assume that it was their fault, and they have no course of action against anyone else. This is especially true if they have used the machine before, or if no one else was around when they were injured. Often, those injured in these scenarios will blame themselves. However, these instances may be suitable for a product liability lawsuit. Washington, D.C. law allows individuals injured while using a dangerous or defective product to sue the product’s manufacturer. If successful, these suits may allow injured victims to recover for lost wages, pain and suffering, and past and future medical expenses.

However, potential plaintiffs need to understand how complicated these cases may be. It is usually not enough to show that you were injured while using the product. Typically, the plaintiff must prove several other elements to hold a manufacturer liable. The exact requirements depend on what type of products liability claim the plaintiff is making, but one important one that comes up often is having to prove that the product was defective or dangerous at the time that it was sold.

Recently, a federal appellate court considered a case that hinged on this requirement. According to the court’s written opinion, the product in question was a tube-end forming machine. The user would load tube into the machine, and then press a foot pedal to activate the hydraulic press, which brought clamps around the tube and shaped the end of the tube. The machine at issue was sold originally by the manufacturer in 1992 but passed along to several companies before being sold to the plaintiff’s employer in 2014. When sold in 1992, there was a finger guard to prevent a user’s fingers from being crushed by the machine, but the original guard was lost over the years and replaced with a new guard that only worked for a certain size of tube.

Business owners generally have a duty to protect customers from known hazards under Washington, D.C. law. To prove a dangerous condition existed in a Washington, D.C. premises liability case, a plaintiff must show that the defendant either had actual notice or constructive notice of the hazardous condition. To prove constructive notice, a plaintiff has to show the condition existed for long enough that the defendant should have known of the condition and corrected it in the exercise of reasonable care. The duration of the hazard is an important factor, and the evidence in support of constructive notice often includes evidence of how long the hazard existed. Other evidence may include, for example, the frequency that a defendant inspects for hazards. However, whether notice is sufficient to amount to constructive notice depends on the facts of the particular case.

In a recent case before a state appellate court, the court considered whether a store may have had constructive notice of a puddle of water on the floor before the plaintiff slipped and fell in it. In that case, the plaintiff slipped and fell on the puddle of water at a supermarket. The plaintiff claimed that the plaintiff was negligent because of the existence of the dangerous condition. In the course of discovery in the case, the plaintiff’s sister was deposed, who was there when the plaintiff fell. In the sister’s deposition, the sister was asked only about where the water came from and whether the puddle appeared transparent. She stated that she did not know where the water came from and believed the water was clear.

After the defendant filed for summary judgment, the plaintiff submitted an affidavit from her sister. In the affidavit, the plaintiff’s sister stated that shortly after the plaintiff fell, she saw a pool of water on the ground near a cooler. She explained the puddle was elongated and appeared to have been stepped in by multiple people because there were track marks or footprints to and from the puddle. The store argued that the affidavit should have been stricken from the record, because the affidavit repudiated the sister’s deposition testimony.

In a Maryland slip and fall case, a plaintiff has the burden of proving several elements before they are entitled to recover for their injuries.  Maryland slip and fall victims must prove that a dangerous condition existed, that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazardous condition, and that the defendant had knowledge in enough time for the opportunity to remove the condition or to warn the plaintiff. This means that a plaintiff generally has the burden of proving what the defendant actually knew —  or what the defendant should have known, given the surrounding circumstances. Thus, the knowledge requirement can be broken down into actual knowledge and constructive knowledge.

If a plaintiff claims the defendant had constructive knowledge, they must show how long the dangerous condition was present before their fall. If a plaintiff fails to prove that the defendant created or knew of the dangerous condition, or that it existed long enough so that the defendant should have known about it, the defendant is entitled to summary judgment.

In a recent appellate opinion, the court dismissed a slip and fall case against a grocery store after a woman slipped and fell while shopping. The woman claimed that she fell on a liquid on the floor while she was at the store that appeared to be from a squished grape. The store argued that there was no evidence that the store had actual or constructive knowledge that there was any liquid on the floor. The woman claimed that there was a dispute over whether the liquid was on the floor long enough that the store should have been aware of the substance.

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