February 2012 Archives

Why You Need Better Car Insurance

February 29, 2012

Happy MAIF driver.JPGI don't work for the insurance industry. Sometimes, I don't like the insurance industry. We disagree about a lot of things, like to what extent my clients are hurt because of the negligence of their drivers, and what they should pay for it.

But even with its problems, car insurance is important. It is important for all drivers to have insurance to pay claims if they make a mistake--run a red light, fail to see a pedestrian in a crosswalk, or make a left-hand turn before it is really safe to do so. I want insurance so that if I hurt someone, they can recover without having to pay for their own medical bills. It's just personal responsibility--I'm responsible for the damage I cause (it's "you break it, you buy it" applied to the road).

There is at least one other reason to have good insurance. The other drivers. Take this excerpt from the The MAIF Agent Blog:

Every U.S. driver is required to have a driver's license and proof of auto insurance; but what can you do if your driving record is so damaged that no insurance company will touch you? Or if your premium would be so high that you'd never be able to pay it? Driving without insurance is not an option. In those cases, if you are a Maryland resident, you are probably eligible for insurance through MAIF.

You think that's fun? Try this closing "call to action":

MAIF is specifically designed to cover only drivers with poor driving records, such as repeated traffic violations, DUIs, or prior accidents, which private insurance companies refuse to cover. If you are one of these drivers, and you live and drive in Maryland, then MAIF auto insurance may be the right choice for you!

So why do you need insurance? Because MAIF is out there giving the lowest possible insurance coverage to the worst possible drivers. Are you a regular drunk who can't keep his key out of the ignition? We'll insure you. Do you disobey every traffic rule and regulation? We'll insure you. Have all of the other insurance companies turned you down because you are too risky? We'll insure you.

I understand the argument--in order to be a productive citizen, most of us need to drive, and it's better to allow these awful drivers to be on the road with insurance than to risk them driving without insurance. But these are the people that put our lives at risk every day when we are driving our kids to school, doing errands on the weekends, and driving to work every day. It's just crazy.

So here's what I want you to do: call up your Maryland insurance agent. Tell him or her that you are concerned about what will happen to you and your family if you get into a car accident with a uninsured or minimally-insured Maryland driver. Tell your insurance agent you want to have a good amount of coverage to pay for your medical bills. My recommendation? Get at least $300,000 in UM/UIM. Preferably more.

If you have questions about your insurance coverage, give us a call. We'll go through your policy and explain what everything is. I bet your insurance agent never did that.

(Credit for the picture in this blog post goes to MAIF--it's on their home page. I imagine it is an uninsurable driver who is happy because MAIF will let her get back on the road, where she can cause more mayhem.)

Bus and Taxi Accidents in Maryland

February 24, 2012

Maryland Bus Accident.pngI've learned to not take things for granted at trial. I had a case once where a witness was going to testify about something, the defense lawyer objected, and the judge sustained (agreed with) that objection. I explained the the judge the objection was improper, that the evidence was allowed under Maryland law, and that my client should have been allowed to testify. He didn't even spend a second reconsidering, but denied my request.

[It's not important for the purpose of the story, but the judge ruled that the witness could not testify about what she heard an employee of the defendant corporation say immediately after an accident on company property. The judge ruled that the employee was not the corporation, so the statement did not qualify as an admission by party-opponent. Therefore, it was hearsay and forbidden. This is dead-wrong on the law].

So, I've learned that judges are people, too. They don't always have all of the answers. It must be hard to be a judge--they have to know a little about the law for criminal cases, family/domestic cases, and civil cases. Of course they will get things wrong from time-to-time. I was caught off-guard because I thought the evidence rule was a basic one that everyone knew. I never made that mistake again.

When I go into court, now I prepare Trial Memoranda to give to the judge, with copies of caselaw, to make sure that the judge is aware of the law on any issue on which the outcome could hinge (and to make sure the record is clear if I need to appeal the case). A few weeks ago I had one such case. Here's the story.

My client was stepping onto a bus. The bus driver refused to lower the bus (they have pneumatic mechanisms to help injured or disabled people get on so the steps are not so high). It was icy out, and my client was afraid of falling. After asking the driver twice, and being twice refused, my client attempted to board the bus and fell.

In Maryland, taxis and buses are known as "common carriers." Common carriers have a higher duty of care than the rest of us. I needed the judge to know that, in this case, the bus driver had a higher duty of care toward my client. I couldn't assume that the judge knew it, particularly where my client had not even completely boarded the bus. So I submitted a trial memoranda, which the judge read while on the bench. In his ruling, he specifically noted that he also read one of the cases I cited in the memoranda, and that I was correct. Maybe he would have gotten the law right on his own--he's a smart judge. But maybe not, and I didn't want to take the chance.

If you are interested, here are the main points of the memo. When you go into trial, make sure your lawyer is prepared for the unexpected--ask what research he or she is going to give the judge.

Common Carriers Have A Heightened Duty To Provide Safe Entrance for Their Passengers.

It is axiomatic that common carriers, including commercial buses, taxi cabs and trains, have a heightened duty to their passengers. A common carrier: "...must employ the utmost care and diligence which human foresight can use. It is required to use the utmost degree of care, skill, and diligence in everything that concerns its passengers' transportation but is extended further and requires the carrier to provide a safe means to enter and exit the bus." Leatherwood Motor Coach Tours Corp. v. Nathan, 84 Md.App. 370, 376 (1990) (emphasis added).

This duty applies when vehicle is in motion, but it also applies when the vehicle is stopped. A common carrier "owe[s] a duty to be watchful and alert at all times." Jacobson v. Julian, 246 Md. 549, 559 (1967).

Maryland courts have defined passengers, to whom this heightened duty of care is owed: "[a] person becomes a passenger when, with the implied consent of the carrier, the person enters upon the bus, but actual entry upon the bus is not necessary to create a relationship of carrier and passenger in which one may become a passenger." Leatherwood, 84 Md.App. at 375-376. Further, "the duty begins when a passenger who has paid his fare or a prospective passenger intending to do so starts to enter upon the conveyance or upon the carrier's station, platform, waiting room, or other facility maintained by the carrier for the passage and convenience of its passengers...." Leatherwood, 84 Md.App. at 379 (emphasis added).

Common carriers that pick up or drop off passengers must ensure that the location selected by the driver is reasonably safe. In Baltimore Transit Co. v. Brooks, the plaintiff alleged that the driver of a trackless trolley stopped directly in front of an isolated patch of sheet ice, which the plaintiff stepped on when exiting the vehicle. 224 Md. 242 (1961). The plaintiff prevailed at trial, and the Court of Appeals agreed that the case was properly submitted to the jury to determine "whether the driver either saw, or in the exercise of the care required of him for his passenger about to leave the vehicle, should have seen the relatively large sheet of ice, and either driven onto it so the plaintiff could have stepped on the dry pavement, or have stopped short of it on the dry street." Baltimore Transit Co., 224 Md. at 245.

Proving The Other Driver Was At Fault In A Maryland Auto Accident

February 20, 2012

Maryland Car Accident Lane Signs.pngMaryland automobile injury lawsuits come in three types:

  1. One driver was clearly at fault (for example, the average rear-end collision);
  2. It's uncertain which driver was at fault, but the rules are clear (for example, a "lane change" case where one driver, we don't have any outside evidence, merged into the other driver); and
  3. Someone is at fault, but it's hard to know who.
Let's talk about No. 3, today. The auto accident rules of the road are usually pretty easy--most of them are "common sense" acquired by most of us drivers over the years. Many rules on the "standard of care" owed by drivers to one another have been lovingly written by the Maryland legislature, mostly in the Transportation Code.

But sometimes, a client comes in and tells you what happened. It might sound okay, but some of the details are fuzzy. Technology is a wonderful thing, so I frequently visit Google Earth for a bird's eye view and street view of the accident.

Unfortunately, not all rules are laid out in the Maryland Transportation Code. Sure, there is some discussion of traffic control devices, flashing signals and the like (see here). But what about the actual rules regarding when you can cross a double yellow line? There are a lot of road signs and other marking rules, and they are not always obvious.

One source of additional rules, infrequently used in court, is the Maryland Driver's Manual. If you have questions about the single white hashed lines, or the meaning of sign colors, or the meaning of roadway symbols, this is the place to look. If you know that some tidbit from the MVA Driver's Manual might be useful at trial, you might ask the defendant interrogatories to figure out when he/she last took a written driving test. You can try to obtain the driving manual from that year to use in cross-examination to help establish the standard of care. Or, you can try to use the driving manual from the current year. That manual can help to establish some of the "common sense" rules.

Punishing Drunk Drivers For Maryland Car Accidents

February 14, 2012

I'm Just a Bill, Part 2In the spirit of our most recent post on raising the insurance coverage in Maryland for certain MAIF claims, let's talk about another proposed bill before the Maryland legislature, one seeking to impose punitive damages on some drunk drivers.

First, you should know that punitive damages in Maryland are nearly impossible to get in car accident lawsuits. By nearly impossible, I mean impossible. By impossible, I mean it pretty much has to be intentional murder. Lawyers have tried, but even the driver who has been arrested three times for drunk driving, has been in two accidents while driving drunk, and finally kills an entire family, does not get punitive damages.

Punitive damages are damages unrelated to the actual injuries in a case. In most cases, judges and juries pronounce a verdict of compensatory damages, which is meant to replace losses suffered in a Maryland car accident--medical expenses, lost wages, mental anguish, inconvenience, and the like. Punitive damages are linked directly to the person who caused the harm--the worse the behavior of that person, the more punitive damages a judge or jury could impose. Punitives are meant to punish the wrongdoer.

So the legislation is designed to change this. House Bill 469 and Senate Bill 351, in their current form, would allow a judge or jury to punish a habitual drunk driver in the following circumstances:

  1. The drunk driver has a blood alcohol level of 0.15 or more (the legal limit in Maryland is 0.08); or
  2. The drunk driver has a blood alcohol level of 0.08 and (pick one):
    • Is driving with a revoked license (basically because of alcohol and/or drugs);
    • Is driving with a license suspended for drug or alcohol abuse;
    • Is driving with a license that was suspended or revoked because of points imposed for driving under the influence of alcohol or homicide by motor vehicle;
    • In the past 5 years, had some sort of negative court ruling for various alcohol/drug and traffic offenses.
Here's where the bill gets a little fanciful. It also allows insurance companies to write provisions in their contracts that specifically exclude coverage for these punitive damages. So, assuming these bills become laws, here's what will happen: a driver who had his license revoked for one too many drunk driving arrests goes on yet another bender, this time killing a pedestrian who was lawfully in a cross-walk. The family of that pedestrian sues, and recovers whatever they can from the driver's insurance company. That's what insurance is for, and insurance companies accept that risk. However, the family also seeks and receives punitive damages. The insurance company will not pay it, meaning the only source of recompense is from the driver directly. Unless he is independently wealthy, the family will end up trying to garnish his wages (assuming he has any--hopefully he'll be in jail), at which point the driver will declare bankruptcy, and it is case closed with no punitive damages money changing hands.

Really, this is a feel-good bill. It's not going to make trial lawyers any money. It's not going to make car accident victims or their families any money. But, maybe it will scare one or two people who do have something to lose (you know, all those celebrities who, for some reason, drive drunk when they could charter a helicopter ride home directly from the night club). If it manages to save one life, it's worth it. Call your legislators (find them here) and tell them that you support holding drunk drivers responsible for their behavior.

Not Fair: Maryland Law Makes You Carry $30,000 Auto Insurance, But You Might Have a Maximum $20,000 Recovery

February 13, 2012

I'm Just a BillIn 2011, the Maryland Legislature decided that the minimum limits for automobile insurance, which were over 35 years old, needed to be increased. The limits were $20,000 per person/$40,000 per occurrence. They were increased to $30,000/$60,000. Not quite a cost-of-living adjustment (one inflation calculator told me that $20,000 in 1972 would be $107,626 in 2011 dollars). But, it's something, anyway.

The goal of the 2011 legislation was further protect Maryland drivers. Healthcare costs and lost wages following a Maryland automobile accident can be high. The increase eases the pain a little bit. The problem with the 2011 change was that it did not include the uninsured division of the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund (MAIF).

Not only does MAIF insure (the otherwise uninsurable) drivers of Maryland (who are now required to have $30,000/$60,000), but it also provides protection to people who are in accidents with uninsured motorists, when the victims have no other source of insurance. For example, pedestrians hit by uninsured drivers; and people in bus accidents or taxi accidents who are injured in hit-and-run accidents. In order to pay those claims, MAIF collects a little bit of money from other insurance policies. So, a portion of my Allstate insurance premium goes to the MAIF fund.

This year, the Maryland legislature will be considering a bill (House Bill 279, Senate Bill 82) that will raise these MAIF limits to $30,000/$60,000, just like the rest of the automobile insurance requirements. This is a good bill that will serve to further protect Maryland families. I urge you to call or e-mail your legislators (find out who they are here), and ask them to support the increase in coverage.

Don't Settle With Honda: Small Claims versus Class Actions

February 8, 2012

Honda Civic Timonium Small Claims Lawyer.pngHop on over to our other blog, Charm City Lawyer, for a series on the product liability lawsuit brought by one consumer against Honda over problems she had with her Hybrid. The judge just issued an opinion, and awarded her nearly $10,000.

Cutting Bigger Big Rigs Off At The Pass

February 6, 2012

Triple-Tractor-Trailer Accident Attorney.jpg
We recently reported about the Transportation Industry's bright idea to make behemoth trucks even more monstrous (Big Rigs Getting Even Bigger?). If approved, it would not be uncommon to see 100-foot long triple-tractor-trailers sharing our roads with family vans, smart cars and Mini Coopers. To put it in perspective, two basketball courts side-by-side have a width of 100 feet.

The trucking industry is now asking Congress to permit them to increase the national weight limit on tractor-trailer trucks almost 20% from 80,000 to 97,000 pounds.
Well, the House committee on Transportation and Infrastructure said no, for now, at least. They are stalling the request, and mandating that trucks stay the same size, for now. Over the next three years they will study the costs associated with increased truck sizes. The committee was primarily concerned with the costs of repairing and replacing beat up roads (especially those costs to local governments and taxpayers). However, many people who are against the increase for safety reasons will take this opportunity to rally their forces for the next time this request is made.

Part of my problem with increasing truck sizes is certainly visceral. Those things scare me, sometimes. But my other problem is, as a Maryland trucking accident lawyer, I've witnessed not only the devastation that can be caused by a tractor-trailer accident, but I've seen the shoddy maintenance for our nation's fleets of trucks. One of the biggest factors in trucking accidents is velocity--heavier trucks will often have a higher velocity. I've seen trucks that have failed brake inspections, and were put back on the road. Giving trucking companies license to use bigger trucks just puts us all in more danger.