Fatal car accidents continue to plague Massachusetts roadways, causing untold trauma to a victim’s family as well as to the defendants and their families in many cases. In one such case last December, a Stoughton man was charged with vehicular homicide, operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol, and other charges in the death of a 64-year-old Bridgewater man.
The accident occurred at the intersection of Pleasant and Elm Streets in Bridgewater. The victim was driving a Jeep Wrangler and was stopped at a red light when his vehicle was hit from behind at a high rate of speed by the defendant’s Honda Pilot truck. The force of the impact caused the jeep to spin and flip on its side before being propelled into a light pole. The victim was found partially ejected from his vehicle and pronounced dead at the scene. We don’t know if he was wearing a seat belt.
Liability and Causation Issues
At first glance, liability appears clear since there is apparently no question that the Honda Pilot rear-ended the jeep that was lawfully stopped at a red light. However, it also appeared that the victim may not have been restrained unless his seat belt failed to properly operate since he was found partially ejected.
Massachusetts motorists are unfortunately notorious for not wearing seat belts. Over the past few decades our motorists have been near the bottom nationwide for their failure to be restrained in their car seats. According to the National Highway Safety Administration, about 81% of our state’s drivers wear seat belts as opposed to the national average of nearly 90%. Part of the blame might be traced to our motor vehicle law that treats a seat belt violation as only a secondary offense, meaning that a police officer cannot pull you over merely because you are not wearing a seat belt.
Wearing a seat belt reduces your chances of incurring fatal injuries by 45%, and in sustaining serious injuries by 50%. You are also 30 times more likely to be ejected in an accident if you fail to be restrained. Only around 1% of persons who were wearing a seat belt are ejected in an accident. Further, you have a 75% chance of suffering a fatal injury if you are ejected.
Massachusetts also has a comparative fault law where if you are more than 50% at fault in a car or other accident, then you cannot collect any compensation from other responsible parties for your injuries. If you are less than 51% at fault, then your award will be reduced by your degree or percentage of fault. For instance, if you were 45% at fault, then a compensation award of $100,000 will be reduced to $55,000.
In the above Bridgewater tragedy, the driver of the Honda Pilot will certainly be found at fault for the accident, but there is also the issue of causation. In any personal injury case, the victim must connect her injuries to the negligent conduct of the defendant. In this case, the defendant’s insurer can argue that had the victim been restrained, he may well have survived the accident.
Expert analysis of the accident regarding the forces involved, property damage, examination of the vehicles, the physical condition of the victim, and other factors is needed in such cases to determine whether the victim would have been killed from the accident, regardless of whether he was restrained or not. Often, there is opposing testimony from the parties’ experts that a jury will have to consider and determine which is more credible.
Compensation and Issues in Comparative Negligence Cases
A consideration that a car accident attorney must consider in a case where comparative negligence is an issue is the insurance involved and whether the decedent’s family would rather take the case to trial and be awarded a sum that meets or exceeds the defendant’s policy limits as well as an award of punitive damages that would have to be collected from the defendant’s personal assets.
Generally, an insurer is only liable for its insured’s policy limits. If it refuses to offer the limits and a jury awards an amount that exceeds the limits, even accounting for any comparative negligence by the victim, then the insurer may be on the hook for a bad faith claim against it. If the defendant in the Bridgewater accident only had $50,000, then an insurer would more than likely offer it since the accident would have at least resulted in very serious injuries with damages that far exceeded the policy limits.
Your car accident attorney will have to assess the available policy limits and if it has been offered. If offered, then the decedent’s own auto policy will be examined to see if he possessed underinsured motorist coverage (UIM). In Massachusetts, UIM coverage is optional. Also, the UIM limits must exceed that of the defendant’s policy. For example, if the defendant had a $100,000 liability policy and the decedent’s UIM coverage was $50,000 or $100,000, then the family could not recover any additional compensation. If the UIM coverage was $200,000, the family could recover up to $150,000 if the defendant’s liability limits that are offered were $50,000, or up to an additional $100,000 if the liability limits were $100,000.
Further, an attorney would do an asset check on the defendant to see what personal assets could be seized if punitive damages were awarded by a trial jury or judge acting as the finder of fact. In many cases, defendants lack adequate assets or those that can be seized in a judgement.
Another option for an experienced car accident attorney is to examine other factors or entities that could have caused the accident or resulted in the victim’s death. If the decedent was wearing a seat belt but it failed due to a defect, then the car manufacturer could be accountable. There may also have been braking issues on the defendant’s vehicle where it failed to operate and stop the vehicle if the defendant did brake so that an auto service that negligently serviced the brakes could be held responsible.
In any event, retaining an experienced and seasoned car accident attorney in any serious or fatal car accident claim is essential if you want issues of liability and causation to be thoroughly addressed, and all avenues of compensation exhausted.
Damages in Wrongful Death Claims
Wrongful death claims in Massachusetts are brought by the administrator of the decedent’s estate for the benefit of the immediate family. Damages can include:
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Any medical expenses incurred prior to death
- Loss of income over the decedent’s lifetime
- Pain and suffering but only if the decedent were visibly observed to have suffered
- Loss of the decedent’s love, guidance, companionship, and counsel
- Punitive damages if the defendant’s conduct was grossly negligent or exhibited wanton indifference to the decedents’ safety and life
Retain a Car Accident Attorney from Burns and Jain
Few personal injury cases are clear cut or result in an immediate payout of a defendant’s policy limits. In cases where comparative negligence is an issue, you will need the representation of a car accident attorney from Burns and Jain. Our attorneys have handled numerous complex claims and issues in cases over the years and have obtained millions of dollars in compensation for our clients and their families. Call us today at (617) 227-7423 for a free consultation about your injury or wrongful death claim.