Articles Posted in Car Accidents

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Experts agree that seat belts help save lives. And it is common knowledge that drivers and passengers should always wear their seat belts regardless of the length of the trip. However, what is less known is that the seat belt defense may allow a defendant in a Texas car accident case to use an accident victim’s failure to wear a seat belt against them.

The seat belt defense is really an interpretation of the rules of evidence, specifically, whether evidence of the plaintiff’s failure to wear a seat belt is admissible. For the most part, only relevant evidence is admissible. Most states do not allow defendants to use the seat belt defense, because they consider such evidence irrelevant. Specifically, these jurisdictions determined that whether a person is wearing a seat belt has nothing to do with whether the defendant negligently caused the accident.

Of course, defendants naturally want to introduce seat belt non-use evidence to argue that the plaintiff is responsible for their injuries, and that they should not be on the hook for damages that the plaintiff could have prevented. And, in a 2015 case, for the first time, the Texas Supreme Court held that seat belt non-use evidence was admissible, reversing a long line of decisions.

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Recently, the Supreme Court of Texas issued an opinion stemming from a wrongful death lawsuit brought against the City of Killeen, Texas (the “City”). According to the court’s opinion, the victims died after striking an un-barricaded dirt mound on an unlit road in the City. The victims’ relatives filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that the dirt mound was a “special defect” on the City’s property.

Generally, under the theory of sovereign immunity, governments cannot be sued by their citizens based on a tort claim. However, the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) allows citizens to sue the government in specific situations. The TTCA enables personal injury lawsuits based on two grounds. First, when a citizen suffers property damage, personal injury, or death from a Texas employee’s use or operation of a motor vehicle during their scope of employment. And second, if personal injury or death occurs because of a condition or use of personal or real government property.

To succeed on the second ground, the TTCA breaks down the claim into two additional classes: special and premise defects. Special defects, such as the one that was alleged in the above case, are conditions created by the government. These are conditions such as excavations and construction sites. Premises defect lawsuits often mirror typical personal injury lawsuits such as slip and fall cases. Unlike special defect lawsuits, premises liability lawsuit requires the defendant to have actual knowledge of the defect.

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A Texas appeals court recently considered a wrongful death case in which a Texas man was killed in an accident on the job. The man was involved in a single-vehicle accident involving a 1987 Freightliner, and died shortly after the accident occurred. The man was acting within the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident. The employer was a nonsubscriber under the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act, and the plaintiff, the man’s husband, filed suit against the defendant for negligence and gross negligence. The employer argued that it was not liable because the man was intoxicated at the time of the accident. After a hearing, a trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer.

Under the Texas summary judgment standard, the party moving for summary judgment has the burden to prove that there is no genuine issue of material fact on at least one essential issue and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. If the moving party succeeds in satisfying its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to show that an issue or evidence should preclude summary judgment. In addition, all motions for summary judgment must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that summary judgment should not have been granted because there were genuine issues of material fact concerning whether the man was legally intoxicated when the accident occurred. In support of its defense, the employer submitted an autopsy report and a toxicology report. The autopsy report showed that there was amphetamine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl in the man’s blood when he died. A doctor’s report stated that the amount found reflected a “voluntary introduction” of the drugs.

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Texas drivers have a duty to drive carefully, as well as to respond to dangerous situations in a reasonable and thoughtful manner. This means that Texas personal injury plaintiffs may be able to recover compensation if another party fails to operate a vehicle with due care or act reasonably, even when that party is responding to a dangerous situation.

Under Texas law, the sudden emergency doctrine (or the imminent peril doctrine) concerns the response of a defendant to a sudden and unexpected emergency. A defendant may be protected under the doctrine only if the defendant can prove the following. First, that there was a sudden and unexpected emergency, and that someone was in actual or apparent danger of immediate injury. Second, that the defendant did not cause the sudden and unexpected emergency. Third, that the defendant acted as a reasonably careful person would have acted under the circumstances, even if another course of action would have been safer. The doctrine is applicable if a driver who was acting with reasonable care was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by an emergency situation that the defendant did not cause. Essentially, it protects a person who acts in response to a sudden emergency, and it later becomes clear that another course of action would have avoided an injury.

However, the doctrine applies only in cases where an unexpected physical danger comes about that is so sudden that it deprives the driver of the ability to use reasonable judgment. In addition, a party cannot be protected by the doctrine if that party’s negligence caused or contributed to the dangerous situation.

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Earlier this month, six El Salvadoran citizens were killed and five others seriously injured in a Texas car accident. According to a local news report covering the tragic accident, the single-vehicle crash occurred when an SUV crashed into a roadside ditch near Robstown. Apparently, shortly before the accident, the vehicle was being pursued by police. However, law enforcement gave up on the pursuit due to the wet conditions. The SUV was traveling at estimated speeds of up to 50 miles per hour before the crash.

The authorities have not yet released several important details surrounding the fatal accident. For example, it is unclear what the basis of the traffic stop was and whether it justified a high-speed chase. Additionally, it is unknown how long after the authorities called off the chase the crash occurred. What is known is that the people involved in the accident were undocumented.

Because police gave up on the pursuit, they were not immediately aware of the accident, which was only reported after passers-by noticed two injured men walking along the side of the road. Once the crash was reported, emergency medical crews responded to the scene, removing several from the wreckage.

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While any Texas car accident lawsuit has the potential to become very complicated, as a general rule the more parties that are involved in an accident, the more complex a subsequent personal injury case will be. In Texas, courts apply several doctrines to determine which accident victims are entitled to compensation for their injuries and the amount of compensation each at-fault party owes the plaintiff.

Under Texas’ comparative negligence law, an accident victim who is less than 51% at fault for causing the accident that resulted in their injuries can pursue claims for compensation against the other parties involved in the crash. After the case, the jury will assign each party, including the plaintiff, a percentage of fault. Under Section 33.013 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, each defendant is then liable only for their percentage of fault. Thus, a plaintiff may be required to recover several judgments to obtain full compensation for their injuries.

If, however, a defendant is more than 50% at fault, the defendant is considered jointly and severally liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. This means that, while a defendant who is more than 50% at fault is technically only responsible for their percentage of fault, at the plaintiff’s option, the defendant can be required to pay the full damages amount to the plaintiff. Then, the defendant would be able to pursue a claim against those defendants with a lesser percentage of fault. When joint-and-several liability applies, the burden of recovering on smaller judgments is shifted onto the defendant who is primarily responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries.

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Recently, a federal appellate court issued a written opinion in a Texas car accident case illustrating the importance of expert testimony. The case presented the court with the opportunity to discuss whether a subsequent report issued by the plaintiff’s expert was admissible. Ultimately, the court concluded that the report was properly excluded, and affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendant manufacturer.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff was killed in a single-vehicle car accident after his Jeep Wrangler swerved off the road and into a concrete pillar. There was no known cause for the accident, and investigators noticed that the grass under the Jeep was charred, as though there had been a fire. A few days after the crash, the manufacturer issued a recall of the transmission oil controller (TOC). Evidently, a defective TOC could result in the undercarriage of a vehicle catching fire.

The plaintiff’s surviving loved ones filed a Texas product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer. In support of their claim, they consulted with an expert. However, after reviewing the data, the expert could not definitively state that the recall defect caused the fire. After learning of the expert’s opinion, the plaintiffs moved for additional discovery related to Jeep fires that were caused by other defects. After reviewing this data, the plaintiff’s expert submitted an amended report, concluding that a defective TOC caused the fire.

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In a recent case, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected a Texas personal injury claim against Apple. The plaintiff alleged that a driver’s “neurobiological response” to a text message notification caused a fatal car crash.

According to the facts alleged in the plaintiff’s complaint, a text message came in that the at-fault driver looked at while driving on the highway. When the driver received the text message, she looked down at her phone to read the message. In doing so, she averted her eyes from the road. When she looked back up at the road, it was too late, and her car crashed into another car, which had two adults and a child inside. The two adults were killed and the child was seriously injured.

The victims’ family sued Apple, the manufacturer of the phone, claiming that Apple was liable under the theories of negligence and products liability. The plaintiffs claimed that, although Apple was aware of the dangers of texting while driving and had obtained a patent for a lock-out mechanism for texting while driving, the company did not put the lock-out mechanism in any version of the at-fault driver’s phone. The plaintiffs claimed that Apple was liable because the receiving of text messages triggers “an unconscious and automatic, neurobiological compulsion to engage in texting behavior.” The plaintiffs also claimed that Apple failed to warn customers about the dangers of texting while driving. Apple filed a motion to dismiss, and a federal court granted the motion. The plaintiffs then appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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In Texas, drunk driving is taken seriously by lawmakers, police, and prosecutors. Yet, despite the decades-long efforts of government agencies and non-profit organizations, drunk driving is still a major problem in Texas. Indeed, each year there are approximately 17,000 Texas DUI accidents, claiming the lives of nearly 1,000 Texans annually.

While a Texas drunk driver is subject to criminal penalties, they can also be held accountable for their actions through a Texas personal injury lawsuit. To establish that a drunk driver is responsible for an accident victim’s injuries, the accident victim must be able to prove the four elements of a Texas negligence lawsuit: duty, breach, causation, and damages.

Typically, in a lawsuit arising from a Texas drunk driving accident, the elements of duty and breach are often established through the doctrine of negligence per se. Negligence per se is, in essence, a shortcut that lawmakers allow certain accident victims to take when developing their claim. When the elements of negligence per se are met, the defendant is found to have been legally negligent. This satisfies both the duty and breach elements of a negligence claim.

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While some Texas car accidents are caused exclusively by the negligence of one party, many accidents are the result of shared responsibility. In these cases, Texas courts use the state’s proportionate liability statute to determine which accident victims can pursue a claim against the other parties involved in the accident.  Specifically, the law allows for anyone involved in a Texas multi-vehicle accident to seek compensation for the injuries they sustained, provided that their percentage of fault is determined to be 50% or less.

Typically, a jury will determine a party’s percentage of fault at the court’s instruction. One question that frequently arises in many Texas car accidents is whether the jury can consider a motorist’s failure to wear a seatbelt as a factor in determining a party’s potential negligence.

Seatbelt Non-Use Evidence

When it comes to seatbelt non-use evidence, courts typically take one of three different approaches. Some courts can allow seatbelt non-use evidence to be considered by the jury when determining a motorist’s percentage of fault. Other courts only allow a plaintiff’s failure to wear a seatbelt during the damages phase of the trial, after liability has been established. And finally, some courts prohibit seatbelt non-use evidence altogether.

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