In complicated accident cases involving heavily disputed facts, parties often rely on expert testimony to establish the bases for their claims. Experts can help provide background and context on issues such as evidence at an accident scene, faulty mechanics, or user error. Experts also help to explain complicated concepts and arguments in easily digested formats so that juries can understand what is going on. At the same time, since they wield such authority, experts can have an undue influence on a case, and a jury may give their testimony more weight or credibility than the expert’s testimony may actually merit. For these reasons, courts take the inclusion of expert testimony very carefully, and they generally only allow experts to testify if they are truly qualified to do so and have reliable testimony to offer.
When a defendant is found liable in a negligence or personal injury action, many plaintiffs presume that damages will be awarded to them. But damages are a separate element of any personal injury claim that must be independently proven by the plaintiff. When the plaintiff fails to do so, a jury can decline to award the plaintiff any damages at all. Just such a circumstance arose in a recent case, and the unsuccessful efforts of the plaintiff to reverse the jury’s verdict on appeal show the reluctance of courts to disturb a zero damages verdict.
In West Virginia, as in other states in the United States, individuals may have their right to obtain a driver’s license withheld when medical evidence suggests that it would be dangerous for them to drive. This most often occurs when drivers have vision problems, but it can also result from mental health issues or conditions like epilepsy. When the withholding of a driver’s license is based on a temporary or reversible medical condition, West Virginia residents may request to have their driver’s license reinstated. A recent case before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals looks at whether the West Virginia DMV has any liability when a driver has her license reinstated, only to lead to accidents and injuries based on the medical conditions that initially led her license to be revoked.
In West Virginia Department of Transportation v. King, Ms. King was killed after an accident involving another driver, Ms. Peyton. Ms. Peyton had had her license revoked in 2007 due to a seizure disorder. However, in 2009, the DMV reinstated Ms. Peyton’s driving privileges and allowed her to obtain a license. Representatives of Ms. King’s estate filed a negligence action against Ms. Peyton and later amended the action to include the DMV. The representatives argued that the DMV was negligent in allowing Ms. Peyton’s reinstatement to be approved without first sending her medical information to the Driver’s License Advisory Board (DLAB). The DMV responded by filing a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it was entitled to qualified immunity as a state agency. Under West Virginia law, state agencies are entitled to qualified immunity for discretionary actions but not for non-discretionary ones. The trial court found that the DMV was required to submit Ms. Peyton’s medical records to the DLAB, so the actions were non-discretionary. It denied the motion for summary judgment, and the DMV appealed.
When companies manufacture an item for public consumption, they generally owe a duty to consumers to ensure that the item is safe for the purposes for which the public intended to use it. However, this does not mean that the product must be safe for every possible use that can be conceived. For instance, if a person decides to use a bed sheet as a parachute while skydiving, and it does not live up to the task, the bed sheet manufacturer will not be responsible for any injuries that might have occurred, unless it was explicitly advertising its bed sheet as a backup parachute. It did not intend for the bed sheet to be used in that way and can’t be held responsible for an individual’s decision to do so. A recent case out of Virginia looks at how this doctrine applies to car manufacturers and when they can be held liable for designing and manufacturing a car in a way that allegedly causes injuries to a driver.
One of the first steps that any plaintiff must take when bringing a personal injury claim is to determine where the lawsuit should be filed. Many personal injury claims arise between two individuals, such as two drivers of vehicles that collide. In these situations, it is relatively easy to determine the correct court, since both individuals will likely live in the same state. However, sometimes personal injury and product liability claims involve large corporations. While these corporations may have products that reach the state where the injury occurs, they may not have offices or factories in that state, or they may be incorporated in a different state. In these circumstances, plaintiffs must consider, with the help of their attorney, more complicated personal jurisdiction requirements, which determine where a lawsuit can properly be brought. A recent case before the Supreme Court of Appeals for West Virginia took a look at a victim’s efforts to bring a lawsuit against Ford Motor Company in the state.
When an individual sues for injuries and damages resulting from another party’s negligence, he or she is only entitled to receive compensation for harms actually and proximately caused by the other party’s actions. In some negligence cases, this may be very straightforward. For instance, if a doctor performs the wrong surgery, it is usually clear which harms resulted from this error. However, in other instances, an individual may have preexisting injuries or conditions that existed well before the accident, in addition to new injuries resulting from the accident. It can be difficult to separate the two. In a recent case before the Supreme Court of West Virginia, the court took a look at a case involving preexisting injuries and new conditions.
In Harnish v. Corra, Mr. Corra was injured in an accident with Mr. Harnish. Mr. Corra claimed neck and back injuries, as well as a knee injury for which he later needed surgery. Mr. Harnish admitted liability for the accident and for the neck and back injuries, but he denied that the accident had caused the knee injury. Instead, according to Mr. Harnish, Mr. Corra’s knee pain and surgery were the result of preexisting knee conditions. At trial, Mr. Corra presented evidence from a medical expert that while Mr. Corra had chondromalacia, a knee condition, prior to the accident, he had never before had pain, so the pain he experienced and the surgery he required resulted from the accident.
Conversely, Mr. Harnish presented evidence from a medical expert that Mr. Corra’s knee pain was the result of preexisting conditions and normal wear and tear, rather than the accident. However, he acknowledged that these preexisting conditions were aggravated by the accident.
The sanctity of jury decisions in civil trials is a well-guarded principle of law in the United States. We entrust a jury of our peers to make decisions concerning liability and damages in civil lawsuits, and only very rarely will such decisions be overturned. Ultimately, while lawyers, witnesses, and parties may disagree with the verdict rendered by a jury, it takes very extreme circumstances for a judge to decide that a jury verdict should not stand. In a recent case in the Supreme Court of Appeals for West Virginia, the Supreme Court made clear the extreme circumstances that justify vacating a jury verdict in a negligence case.
Phillips v. Stear arises from an auto accident that occurred in December 2010. Phillips was a commercial truck driver driving on Interstate 79 when he claims that Stear veered in front of his vehicle and slammed on the brakes in an act of sudden road rage. In order to avoid hitting Stear, Phillips swerved and wrecked his truck. Stears then attempted to flee the scene of the accident but was followed by a third party witness who obtained his license number. Stears was later tracked down by the police. Phillips sued Stear for injuries, claiming that he had been negligent in his driving.
“Hearsay” is a type of evidence that generally can’t be admitted during a personal injury or other trial. It covers a wide range of statements that are offered at trial by a person other than the one who made the statement and are offered in order to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement. These statements are usually inadmissible because the person against whom the statement is being offered doesn’t have the chance to cross-examine the person who actually made the statement. There are a number of exceptions to this rule, however, including for statements capturing a person’s impression of an event while or shortly after it happens. The West Virginia Supreme Court recently considered this “present sense impression” exception in a car accident case that turned on the statement of a witness that no one could locate.
Mr. Browning and Mr. Hickman were involved in a collision in Logan in October 2011. Browning was making a left turn into an intersection at the time, while Hickman was traveling straight through the intersection. The front passenger side of Hickman’s car collided with the rear passenger side of Browning’s truck. Browning later sued Hickman for negligence, alleging that Browning had the right of way at the time of the crash and that Hickman was speeding and failed to yield. Following a two-day trial on the matter, a jury disagreed.
The decision appeared to center largely on the tape of a 911 call made shortly after the accident. A woman who identified herself only as “Toni” told an emergency dispatcher that Browning’s truck had pulled in front of Hickman’s car at the last minute, causing Hickman to swerve and hit the truck. Toni said she “wasn’t from around here” and didn’t provide any contact information to later confirm her account of the accident. An official from the 911 Center authenticated the tape and Hickman was permitted to play it at trial, despite Browning’s objection.
Expert and other witnesses often play a key role in personal injury cases. That’s particularly true in car accident litigation, which regularly pits one driver’s version of the events against the other driver’s version. A recent case in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia shows just how far good witnesses can go.
Mr. Nease was injured in a car accident while driving a 2001 Ford Ranger. He and his Wife later sued Ford, alleging claims for strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty. Mr. Nease said in the trial that followed that he was driving the car normally when the accelerator pedal became stuck in the down position, and the car sped out of control before striking a brick wall.
The Neases called an engineer named Mr. Sero as an expert witness at the trial. He said he used a tool called a borescope to examine the car’s controls through a small hole, performed other visual inspections, collected and reviewed the vehicle’s data, and applied general engineering principles in reaching a conclusion about how the crash occurred. Sero testified that a defect in the vehicle bound its speed control cable, causing the throttle to stick in the open position and making the brakes ineffective. A jury later awarded the Seros more than $3 million in damages on the strict liability claim.
The discovery process gives parties to a lawsuit the opportunity to seek information, documents, and other evidence from one another. It’s an essential part of litigation and one that can help a person suing for a personal injury solidify and weigh the merits of his or her case. There are limits on just what you can seek to discover, however, as the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of West Virginia recently explained.
Mr. Deitz was injured in a car accident on I-64 in Barboursville when the vehicle he was driving was allegedly rear-ended by a tractor trailer. Deitz said he was traveling eastbound in a Honda Civic and was attempting to pull over to the side of the road when the tractor trailer plowed into the back of his car. He also said that he suffered serious injuries as a result of the crash, including a permanent brain injury. Deitz sued Pilot Travel Centers, which owned the tractor trailer and employed the driver behind the wheel at the time of the collision, for negligence.
Deitz served Pilot Travel Centers with various discovery requests. Among other questions, he asked the company to disclose whether it had been sued over any other motor vehicle accident over the previous 10 years. If so, Deitz requested that the company describe the lawsuits in detail and explain how they were resolved. PTC balked at the request, arguing that the information about accidents in other cases involving drivers that weren’t involved in Deitz’s case wasn’t relevant to the case at hand. They said it wasn’t likely to turn up information that would be admissible as evidence at trial. Since the company owns roughly 600 stores across the country, it said going back over lawsuits in the previous decade would also be unduly burdensome.