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Pinocchio.jpgIt’s a simple word, credibility. Basically, it means a person’s believability. A person may not be credible because he has a history of lying, or because what he says doesn’t make sense when taken with other more believable facts.

In our recent trial, which was a liability dispute with no independent witnesses (we commonly call these “he-said, she-said” cases, regardless of gender), every single lawyer used the word credibility in opening statement and closing argument. Essentially, we all argued that our clients were credible, that the other side did not testify credibly, and sometimes that the witnesses were somewhat credible. It’s standard fare for a trial.

In a trial, credibility is the most important thing a witness or a party has. If the judge or jury has any reason to doubt that person’s truthfulness on any single point, even something unrelated, that doubt can cast a shadow on every point of that person’s testimony. That’s why some lawyers will fight hard to find a lie or a mis-rembering in testimony. It can be the difference between a win and a loss.

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Norwood jury box.jpgWe just finished a three day trial in the Baltimore City Circuit Court. It was a simple enough case in the beginning–we represented two clients who were injured when they were t-boned on Christmas day as they drove down to Our Daily Bread to help feed the homeless. Liability was disputed (meaning that the other driver’s insurance company believed our driver was at fault). Our clients had reasonable enough medical treatment, so we filed in the District Court for $30,000.00.

Unfortunately, the other side had other ideas. They immediately filed a cross-claim and moved us into the Circuit Court, something that the defense has a right to do when you file a case for over $15,000. Truth be told, our case probably should have been filed for less than $15,000. Our total medical bills were about $8,000 spread over two clients, and there wasn’t any significant permanency.

So, we slugged it out in Circuit Court. What would have been a one to two-hour trial in District Court became a three day trial in Circuit Court. It takes longer because we had to pick a jury, experts had to testify live (in District Court it is usually done by simply submitting the medical records and bills), and, of course, the jury needs to take a break from time-to-time.

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Crash (2 vehicles).jpgAn automobile accident can turn your life upside down. There’s so much to do–find reliable transportation, get to the doctor, deal with insurance companies, and survive missed work. The easiest way to know if you have a claim is to consult with a lawyer–don’t let the insurance company convince you that you have a claim (they are, after all, looking out for their own best interests).

Law School for Non-Lawyers

There are four requirements for every personal injury case. In order to recover in a lawsuit, each must be proven. For a settlement, the strength of one may help to overcome deficiencies in another.

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Norwood jury box 2.jpgSo your lawyer made a claim to the insurance company, and the case didn’t settle. Cases don’t settle for several reasons, including:

  1. The insurance company denies liability, thinking that their driver wasn’t at fault
  2. The insurance company believes that you were at fault for the collision
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Auto accident 2.jpgSo you’ve been injured in a Maryland automobile collision, and you want to get a settlement or verdict. What can you expect from the process? How long does it take? When will you get your money?

There are two possible phases–the steps leading up to a pre-lawsuit settlement, and the steps following that leading to a trial verdict or post-lawsuit settlement. We’ll talk about pre-lawsuit settlements here.

In general, after an accident and once you hire a lawyer, the lawyer will perform whatever investigation is necessary (ordering police report, talking to witnesses, locating photographs or accident video). He will work on notifying the negligent people/corporations or their insurance companies that they are on the case. At that point, they should not be talking to you, but should communicate directly with your lawyer. Your lawyer will also begin ordering your medical records or bills, so he can see what treatment you’ve had in the past, and possibly monitor current medical treatment. Finally, he will apply for PIP (personal injury protection) or MedPay (medical payments coverage).

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In some Maryland auto accidents, there is simply a limited insurance available. We see this frequently in bus accident cases and collisions involving multiple vehicles. If there are many people with injuries, the at-fault driver’s insurance policy may not be large enough to pay for those injuries. How is the money divided up?

The Set-up

An example fact pattern will help to explain this. Let’s say you are on a bus, which is hit by distracted teen who is texting on her cellphone. The teen driver has the lowest possible MAIF insurance–a policy of $30,000 per person, and $60,000 per accident in liability coverage. That means that her insurance company will pay a maximum of $30,000 for each victim, with limits of $60,000 to pay to all victims in a single accident.

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Trucking Accident (Smith)(11-27-11).JPGA permanent injury lawsuit is different from a garden variety injury case. In most cases (which are typically filed in the district courts), there is a car accident, an injury, discrete treatment for a up to about 6 months, and then the victim has fully recovered. In a permanent injury lawsuit, however, the victims will never recover, and will continue to have the effects of the accident for the rest of their lives.

Those effects may include an inability to work, or need for a lifetime of future medical or nursing care. The way we prove these to an insurance adjuster, judge or jury is through experts.

Common to most of these cases are the types of experts that required to prove the claim. These experts will typically come to trial and testify directly in front of the jury, or else their testimony will be recorded a few days or weeks before the trial, and played back before the jury.

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Handicapped parking.jpgPermanent injuries take all forms, including traumatic brain injury (TBI), limited function of limbs, or severe organ damage. What they all have in common is that they significantly affect lifestyle and activities of daily living. Permanent injuries may require lifetime treatment and medication. In some situations, however, there is nothing medically to be done after the victim has reached maximum medical improvement.

In general, serious permanent injury lawsuits should be filed in Circuit Court or Federal Court, where there is a possibility of a higher verdict. Some permanent injuries may not qualify for that type of lawsuit–most “soft-tissue” injuries, for example, should be filed in the District Courts. A permanent injury that qualifies for a higher verdict is one that has abundant objective evidence–the injury is obvious by looking at it, or at the very least, with an MRI or x-ray.

Damages Recoverable in Permanent Injury Lawsuits

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As a nation, we are concerned with ambulance-chasing lawyers, frivolous lawsuits, and the increased costs of doing business. Much of the dialogue, however, comes from insurance companies, big-business, and soundbyte-seeking media.

Of course, lawmakers get into the act. A North Carolina bill recently proposed limiting lawsuits under certain circumstances, including limits to “a company’s liability if it developed a product under government-approved guidelines.” Interestingly, this would appear to apply to drugs approved by the FDA. Most people believe that the FDA independently researches, studies and evaluates drugs submitted for approval. However, the FDA typically only reviews the research submitted by drug manufacturers, and does not have the resources to perform much more.

Furthermore, the goal of reducing frivolous lawsuits–those lawsuits without merit–would not be realized. Instead, it would reduce all lawsuits in these areas to an absolute zero. A quick review of harmful drugs and devices over the past few years demonstrates that people were truly injured by dangerous drugs–pain pumps, Accutane, Granuflo, Baycol, Rezulin, and Fen Phen, to name a few.