July 16, 2014

General Motors Prepares to Pay Out Big in Relation to the Numerous Recall Lawsuits

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

In a recent report from the Associated Press, the attorney in charge of compensating the victims of the recent rash of crashes due to the GM recalls announced that there will be no limit to the amount of money GM will shell out to victims and their families. Currently, thirteen deaths have been linked to various accidents due to recalls in GM automobiles over the course of the last year. This figure, however, may be artificially low, as it relies on GM’s own admissions. It is expected that hundreds of other lawsuits will be filed once the specifics of the fund are established.

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The recalls affected a number of General Motor vehicles, but were primarily centered around the Saturn Ion and the Chevrolet Cobalt. Each of these vehicles had ignition switch problems that had the potential to leave drivers with no way to control the vehicle.

The attorney in charge of compensation—who is paid by GM, but is not technically an employee of the company—says that the most recent recalls will not be eligible for the limitless compensation fund, as the company sees the most recent recalls as a separate issue. Additionally, only those lawsuits alleging problems with a vehicle's ignition switch will be eligible for the recovery fund.

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June 25, 2014

Maryland Court Keeps Out Important Testimony Favorable to the Plaintiff in Hit and Run Accident

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

In a recent case in front of the Maryland Court of Appeals, the court held that testimony from witnesses that the driver of the car causing the accident fled the scene and then returned a short time later laughing before he then left again, was inadmissible in a claim for damages against that driver.

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In the case Alban v. Fiels, the Albans were an elderly couple who were hit while driving in their truck by Mr. Fiels. The Albans’ vehicle sustained more damages than Fiels, and they were immobilized. In fact, Mrs. Alban was stuck in the car until firefighters came to extricate her.

Mr. Fiels fled the scene but did so down a road that had no outlet. Knowing that the road the driver fled down had no outlet, a nearby witness waited for the driver to return. When he did, the witness noticed that the driver slowed down and then sped off, laughing.

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July 26, 2013

Maryland High Court Refuses to Hold Bar Liable for Drunken Patron Actions

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

The Maryland Court of Appeals refused to create a "dram shop" law when it ruled earlier this month that a bar cannot be held liable for the actions of a drunken patron after he or she departs.

The case was originally argued in March, on behalf of a family whose 10 year old was killed during a car crash on I-270 back in 2008. The driver responsible for the young girl's death had been served 20 drinks at a local bar prior to getting behind the wheel.beers.jpg

The court held that individuals should solely be held responsible for their own decisions and actions. In addition, the court determined that General Assembly is the venue most proper in which to create new laws, not the court.

The dissenting opinion argued that this was a lost to ensure bars were held accountable for protecting the public from overly intoxicated customers. The judge wrote, “this case presented the opportunity to impose dram shop liability on commercial vendors of alcohol" which served their patrons even after they were visibly impaired as a result of their alcohol consumption. Further, according to a study cited in the dissent, studies have shown that these types of laws could potentially lead to 14 deaths fewer in Maryland every year.

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April 8, 2013

Man Receives 10 Year Sentence For Deadly DUI in Potential Wrongful Death Case

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

Last week a Missouri man received a heavy sentence for his role in a tragic car accident that he allegedly caused in September of 2011. He received a sentence of 10 years in prison for his role in the DWI crash that killed two people and injured five. The defendant pleaded guilty in November to the charges, which included two counts of involuntary manslaughter and five counts of second-degree assault.
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Based on the evidence at the scene and witness accounts, the police estimate that the man was driving nearly 100 miles per hour when the collision occurred. His car rear ended the Chevy Tahoe, containing the two men and other passengers, which caused the Tahoe to flip over several times.

He received a 10 year sentence for each count of involuntary manslaughter and seven years for each of the five counts of second-degree assault. The 17 months which he has already served in jail will be counted as time served, and all of the sentences will be served concurrently.

The assistant prosecuting attorney in the case said that 10 years was the heaviest sentence he had ever seen in a DWI and involuntary manslaughter case, adding that, “Part of it was that he had a prior DWI, and the fact that he killed two people and injured five." He also stated that under Missouri law, the man must serve at least 85 percent of his sentence before becoming eligible for parole.

Although the outcome in this particular case addresses the sentencing reached as a result of the criminal justice system, the families in this case also likely have wrongful death claims against the driver in this tragic car accident.

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December 6, 2012

Father's Wrongful Death Lawsuit for Daughter Finally Makes It to Trial, but Jury Rules that Defendant Was Not Negligent: Tollenger v. State of Maryland, et al

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

800px-Hatem_Bridge.jpgA father’s long legal battle over the 2001 death of his daughter in a car accident may have come to an end in November, when a jury ruled that the state of Maryland was not negligent in its maintenance of the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, where the accident occurred. The lawsuit, Tollenger v. State of Maryland, et al, alleged that various state transportation agencies negligently failed to place a dividing barrier on the bridge to separate the four lanes of traffic. The state had successfully argued that the Maryland Tort Claims Act (MTCA) contained an implied exception shielding the state from liability for discretionary planning, but the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed that judgment in 2011 and remanded the case for trial. The November verdict was on the sole issue of whether the state was legally responsible for the death of the plaintiff’s daughter and other individuals.

The accident occurred during a rainstorm on August 10, 2001, when 12 year-old Ashley Tollenger was riding in a pickup truck driven by her stepfather, 52 year-old Kenneth Connor. The truck reportedly hit a patch of water on the bridge, which extends over the Susquehanna River, and began to hydroplane. The truck veered across the center line and into oncoming traffic, where a Jeep Cherokee collided with it. Ashley Tollenger was pronounced dead at the scene, and Connor was pronounced dead soon after at a nearby hospital.

Garrett Tollenger, Ashley’s father, filed suit in Harford County Circuit Court against the Maryland Transportation Authority, the State Highway Administration, the Maryland Department of Transportation, and other state defendants in August 2004. The lawsuit alleged that the state knew of potential hazards associated with the absence of a center barrier on the bridge, and that it was negligent in failing to place such a barrier. The plaintiff’s witnesses included other individuals who were injured in accidents on the bridge, and a former Harford County executive who had written to the state requesting construction of a barrier on the bridge.

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November 23, 2012

Death of Maryland Family in Auto Accident Leads to First Lawsuit Based on Fetal Death Statute: Baumann et al v. Slezak et al

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

136518_7676.jpgAn accident on a Nebraska highway took the lives of a Maryland family. The resulting lawsuit, Baumann v. Slezak, et al, is reportedly the first to invoke that state’s law allowing causes of action for the wrongful death of unborn children. Nebraska’s law, enacted in 2003, differs from Maryland’s wrongful death statute, in that it allows causes of action for prenatal deaths “at any stage of gestation.” Maryland only allows causes of action for the death of viable fetuses.

In the early morning of September 9, 2012, the Schmidt family was stuck in a traffic jam on westbound Interstate 80. The family, which consisted of Christopher and Diana Schmidt and their two children, was driving through western Nebraska on their way from Maryland to California. Diana Schmidt was seven-and-a-half months pregnant with a child they had named Ethan. The couple was driving in separate cars: Diana Schmidt and the two children were in a Toyota Corolla, and Christopher Schmidt was directly behind them in a Ford Mustang. The traffic jam was the result of a deadly collision between two semi-trailers about a mile further up the highway. One semi had become disabled, and although the driver pulled the rig to the side of the road, he allegedly left the trailer blocking traffic. Another semi crashed into the trailer at about 4:30 a.m., killing its driver.

While the Schmidts were stopped at the rear of the long line of traffic, a semi trailer driven by Josef Slezak collided with the back of the Mustang. Slezak was allegedly driving seventy-five miles per hour, and did not make an effort to slow or stop his rig. The collision caused the Mustang to collide with the Corolla, pushing the Corolla under another trailer. All four members of the Schmidt family, as well as their unborn child, died in the collision.

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November 12, 2012

Business Use Exceptions in Auto Liability Policies Under Maryland Law Reviewed by Federal Appellate Court: Forkwar v. Empire Fire and Marine Ins. Co.

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

601967_68826450.jpgAfter obtaining a verdict in a car accident lawsuit, the plaintiff sought to enforce the judgment against the defendant’s insurer. The insurance company successfully argued that the “business use” exception barred coverage of the plaintiff’s claim, as the defendant was operating his vehicle in the course of his work at the time of the accident. The court in the original lawsuit had found that the doctrine of respondeat superior, which holds an employer liable for certain acts of an employee, did not apply to the defendant’s employer. The court in the present case, Forkwar v. Empire Fire and Marine Ins. Co., nevertheless found that the business use exception applied. The case highlights an important challenge for Maryland plaintiffs who may obtain a verdict, but might have difficulty enforcing it.

The plaintiff, Augustine Forkwar, was involved in an automobile accident during the early morning of November 26, 2004 with Hameed Mahdi. Mahdi was an independent contractor of J&J Logistics. He owned his vehicle but leased it to J&J. At the time of the accident, he was on his way to a job for J&J when he stopped to get something to eat. Empire Fire & Marine Insurance Company had issued a commercial auto insurance policy to Mahdi, but it asserted that it was not obligated to defend or indemnify Mahdi under the policy’s business use exception.

Forkwar sued Mahdi and J&J in October 2006, alleging negligence against Mahdi and respondeat superior liability against J&J. Forkwar reportedly made no attempt to prove liability against J&J, and she did not oppose its motion for judgment as a matter of law in the middle of trial. The jury entered a judgment against Mahdi, who was a no-show at trial, for over $180,000. Forkwar then filed suit against Empire for indemnification. Empire removed the case to federal court and moved for summary judgment based on the business use exception. The district court granted the motion, and Forward appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

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September 18, 2012

Man Sentenced to More than Two Years in Prison for Fatal Drunk Driving Crash

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

320px-NorwichUniversityWinter.JPGAfter pleading guilty to charges of drunk driving, a Vermont man received a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence in late August. One passenger died in the automobile accident that led to the criminal charges, in which the man was allegedly driving with more than twice the legal blood alcohol level.

The accident occurred at about 1:00 a.m. on October 2, 2011, when a car driven by 23 year-old Derek Seber, a Maryland resident attending Norwich University, ran off a road in Northfield, Vermont and crashed into the trees. Witnesses said they saw a car speed past them at fifty to sixty miles per hour. The posted speed limit at the turn where the crash occurred was thirty-five miles per hour. The car, an Acura 4S sedan, was carrying seven passengers in addition to Seber. A passenger in the front seat, an eighteen year-old Norwich freshman, was sitting in another passenger’s lap with no seatbelt. She sustained fatal injuries in the crash. Three other passengers suffered critical injuries.

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August 20, 2012

Two Wrong-Way Crashes on Maryland Highway Linked to Exit Ramp

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

600px-I-97.svg.pngInterstate 97 stretches just under eighteen miles between Annapolis and Baltimore. Exit 10B on the northbound side of the highway feeds onto Veterans Highway in Millersville. It is also the point where a driver entered the wrong side of the highway in January 2012, resulting in a head-on collision that killed four people. A second fatal wrong-way collision in the same area caused Maryland safety officials to consider whether the exit ramp poses a danger because it can be mistaken for an on-ramp. While they maintain that driver error caused both crashes, these cases demonstrate the role that road signs and highway markings can play in preventing accidents.

The first accident occurred in the early morning of January 28, 2012. A nineteen year-old driver turned off of Veterans Highway onto what she apparently thought was the ramp to the southbound lanes of I-97, but was actually the exit from the northbound lanes. She drove south for over nine miles before colliding head-first with a vehicle traveling north at about 3:30 a.m. She and the three occupants of the other vehicle died in the crash. Toxicology reports showed that both drivers were intoxicated. The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) concluded at the time that alcohol was the principal cause for the driver’s error.

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July 12, 2012

Maryland Appeals Court Rules on Issue Preclusion and Contributory Negligence in Auto Accident Case

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

320px-Freeport%2C_NY_Nautical_Mile_001.jpgAn interesting decision by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals addressed the applicability of an out-of-state jury verdict in a Maryland lawsuit concerning issue preclusion. In Bryan v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., the court found that a New York verdict finding a driver negligent precluded the driver from claiming on his insurance policy in Maryland. The court applied the doctrine of contributory negligence, which is still on the books in only a handful of states, including Maryland.

Brenton Bryan was driving in Freeport, New York on May 29, 2006, with his wife and two children in the car. According to Bryan, a “phantom vehicle” cut him off by changing lanes unexpectedly. This caused Bryan’s car to strike two other vehicles. The driver of one of those cars was Juan Chevez. Chevez and his wife, Ines Chevez, who was a passenger in the vehicle, sued Bryan in Queens County, New York, alleging that he was negligent and therefore responsible for the accident.

A jury trial in December 2010 focused exclusively on the question of Bryan’s liability. The jury found that Bryan operated his vehicle negligently that night, and that this was a “substantial factor in bringing about the accident.” Bryan and the Chevezes subsequently agreed to settle the matter for $30,000 in exchange for a general release.

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June 21, 2012

If a Maryland Employees Gets Into A Distracted Driving Accident, When is the Employer Liable?

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

u5oa55cm.jpgThe problem of distracted driving, or driving while also trying to use a cell phone or other mobile device, has gained significant attention in recent years. States and cities have passed laws restricting use of mobile devices in an effort to curb distracted driving and improve safety. Distracted driving continues to play a role in thousands of automobile accidents, some of them fatal.

The federal government reports that distracted driving-related accidents killed at least 3,092 people in 2010. Around 416,000 drivers, passengers, and pedestrians were injured in crashes where at least one driver was not paying complete attention while behind the wheel. In claims for personal injuries in distracted driving accidents, the driver who caused the accident is almost always the main liable party, but in some cases a driver’s employer may also be liable. With greater attention being given to distracted driving, many employers are enacting cell phone policies in an effort to limit their own liability for their employees’ distraction-related accidents.

Employers may be liable for the negligent or unlawful actions of their employees in certain circumstances, according to the legal doctrine of respondeat superior. This doctrine holds an employer liable for accidents that occur while an employee is performing ordinary job duties in the regular course of operating their business. Courts have tended to take an expansive view of what activities are related to an employee’s job duties for the purpose of determining liability under a theory of respondeat superior. doctrine. Generally speaking, courts will apply the doctrine in a situation where an employee might engage in work-related activities, or where an observer might reasonably think the person is involved in work-related activities.

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June 15, 2012

Maryland Driver Convicted for Car Accident that Severely Injured a Police Officer

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

320px-Baltimore83.jpgA district judge in Baltimore convicted a man of three traffic violations over a June 2011 car accident that caused disabling injuries to a police officer. The man, 23 year-old Robert Vanderford, admitted to speeding and also failing to control his speed to prevent a collision, according to the Baltimore Sun. The judge also convicted him for a third offense: driving on a suspended license. The officer injured in the crash filed a civil suit against Vanderford about a month before the criminal trial.

The accident occurred in rainy weather on June 21, 2011. Officer Teresa Rigby, a 28 year-old Baltimore police offers only three years out of the academy, was reportedly assisting a motorist whose car had become disabled in the northbound lane of an elevated portion of Interstate 83. As a tow truck driver was hooking up the motorist’s vehicle, Rigby stood on the shoulder of the highway. Vanderford’s Saab collided with Rigby’s parked police cruiser. The cruiser then hit Rigby, causing her to fall over a barrier to a parking lot at least twenty feet below.

Vanderford’s attorney said that his client was driving northbound on I-83 in the middle lane when he saw the lights on Rigby’s cruiser. The defense lawyer said that Vanderford sped up to pass another vehicle and merge into the left lane, but that his rear tires began to spin, and he lost control of the car. The skid sent his vehicle into the police cruiser. Vanderford acknowledged that he was driving above the speed limit when he lost control.

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May 29, 2012

Maryland Gets Touger on Distracted Driving

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

distracted_05212012.jpgDistracted driving, defined as operating a motor vehicle with one’s attention split between the road and a mobile electronic communication device, is responsible for a significant number of accidents and fatalities on Maryland roads. The Maryland State Highway Administration identified 24,769 automobile accidents in 2008 that involved distracted driving. Those crashes killed thirty-four people and injured 11,578. That year, almost 6,000 people nationwide died in distraction-related crashes, with distraction playing a role in twenty-five percent of all automobile crashes. The total number of fatalities dropped to about 5,500 in 2009 and 3,000 in 2010, but those are still enormous numbers, making distracted driving nearly as big a threat as drunk driving. Recent events and legislative efforts have brought distracted driving into the spotlight again.

An accident in Connecticut demonstrates the danger posed by distracted driving. A jogger, 44 year-old Kenneth Dorsey, died on March 24 after a vehicle driven by a 16 year-old girl struck him. The girl was allegedly talking or texting on a handheld cell phone at the time. Police have not said specifically what she was allegedly doing, except that evidence suggests she had used the phone’s keypad before the accident. Prosecutors in Norwalk, Connecticut charged the girl with negligent homicide with a motor vehicle and with violating the state’s ban on use of a cell phone by novice drivers.

Thirty-one states prohibit use of handheld cell phones while driving for all drivers, including Connecticut and Maryland. Distracted driving laws vary from state to state, but no states have banned use of cell phones entirely. Maryland drivers may use a cell phone with a hands-free device like a headset, although use of a cell phone in any manner by drivers under the age of eighteen will be prohibited beginning October 1, 2012. School bus drivers are currently prohibited from using a handheld cell phone while working. All drivers are prohibited from writing or sending text messages while driving, except for the purpose of contacting a 9-1-1 emergency system.

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May 21, 2012

City of Baltimore Approves $340,000 in Settlements for Traffic Accidents Involving City Vehicles

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

Baltimore_Tunnel_05212012.jpgThe City of Baltimore approved settlements in three civil claims filed against the city, totaling $340,000. The city’s Board of Estimates, a five-member board that includes the mayor, the president of the City Council, and the city comptroller, approved the settlements by a unanimous vote. The three claims all involved traffic accidents with city vehicles, including a 2007 collision between a fire truck and a car that killed three people.

Sovereign immunity, the legal principle that the government cannot be sued unless it consents to the lawsuit, governs claims made for accidents involving public vehicles, and requires that injured persons or their representatives file claims with a designated government agency before attempting to file suit. In Baltimore, for example, claims go through the city’s Law Department.

The fire truck accident occurred early on Sunday, December 9, 2007, when a fire engine ran a red light on Park Heights Avenue and struck a vehicle. The fire truck was reportedly responding to a report of smoke in an apartment building, and had its emergency lights and siren activated at the time. The smoke turned out to be from burning food in an apartment unit. Traveling at forty-seven miles per hour, the fire truck hit a Nissan Murano traveling at twenty-three miles per hour.

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April 19, 2012

Maryland's Graduated Driver's License Law Helps Prevent Teen Fatalities in Car Crashes

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

TeenDriverChallengeGraduated driver licensing laws (GDL) in Maryland contribute to one of the lowest rates of automobile accident fatalities involving teen drivers, according to a recent study. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), working with State Farm Insurance, reviewed data on nationwide traffic accidents involving teenagers between 2009 and 2010. The study defined “teens” as people ages 15 to 19. Maryland has one of the lowest rates of teen-driver-related fatalities in the nation, and the rate has substantially declined in the past five years. Robust GDL laws, in which teen drivers initially receive highly-restricted driver’s licenses and gradually earn additional privileges, show a strong correlation with low rates of fatal automobile accidents involving teen drivers.

CHOP’s report, entitled “Miles to Go,” provides a “yearly snapshot of teen driver safety for the nation.” The study found over 55,000 serious injuries among teens due to car accidents in the period from 2009 to 2010. Thirty percent of those injuries involved head trauma, such as skull fractures or traumatic brain injuries. Head trauma is the leading cause of death for teens in traffic accidents.

A total of 3,413 car crash fatalities involving teen drivers occurred in 2010. Fatalities include teen drivers, passengers of teen drivers, people in other vehicles, and people not in a vehicle (e.g. pedestrians). The report notes that three out of ten teen fatalities in 2010 involved people outside the teen’s vehicle. The total number of fatalities involving teen drivers nationwide declined by over thirty-five percent between 2005 and 2010.

Nationwide, the fatality rate for auto accidents involving teen drivers was 9.5 per 100,000 people. Maryland had the fifth-lowest rate in the country, with 5.8 per 100,000 people. This is a decline of more than forty-eight percent from 2005. The study’s authors credit strong GDL laws in the states with the lowest fatality rates.

Maryland’s GDL law, known as the “Rookie Driver” program, issues a driver’s license to teens in three stages: a learner’s permit, a provisional license, and a full driver’s license. A teen can apply for a learner’s permit at age 15 years and 9 months. A learner’s permit holder can only drive with a person age 21 or older, who has had a full license for at least three years (known as a “qualified supervising driver”), in the front passenger seat with them.

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March 28, 2012

After Accidents, Auto Safety Advocates Push for Federal Regulation of Car Rental Industry

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

857409_d29620ea_03262012.jpgA tragic 2004 car crash has led to calls for federal legislation and regulation of the rental car industry. Two sisters, Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, 24 and 20 years of age respectively, rented a PT Cruiser from an Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Capitola, California. The car was under recall at the time because of a problem with its power-steering, but the rental company had not performed any repairs. Since the issuance of the recall, it had reportedly rented the car to three other people before the Houcks. The power-steering fluid began to leak while they were driving, and it caught fire. This caused them to lose control of the car. Their car collided with a semi trailer, killing both of them. Enterprise admitted to liability, and a jury awarded $15 million in damages to the Houcks’ mother, Cally Houck, two years ago.

In an effort to prevent accidents like this one, which resulted from a failure to perform necessary repairs on a recalled vehicle, several United States senators introduced the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2011. This law would have granted regulatory authority to two federal agencies to ensure that rental car companies performed repairs on any vehicles in their fleets under recall before renting them to consumers. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would be able to regulate the industry using existing deceptive trade practice laws, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) would be able to track and monitor safety features in vehicles rented to the public.

Under current law, the NHTSA can require auto manufacturers to repair vehicles under recall before distributing them to dealers. Dealers that sell new vehicles must also perform recall repairs before selling to consumers. None of these laws currently cover rental car companies, although they are reportedly the continent’s largest purchaser of new cars and supplier of used cars.

Out of the 1.6 million vehicles owned by American rental car companies, almost 184,000 were subject to a recall in 2011, according to USA TODAY. Toyota issued a recall in 2010 that affected around twenty-two percent of the total number of rental cars in the country. The main trade group representing rental companies told USA TODAY that the industry has a better track record for recall repairs than most vehicle owners. Still, the industry operates with almost no oversight, which concerns some safety advocates, and even some in the industry itself.

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February 20, 2012

Four Die in Car Crash in Anne Arundel County, Maryland

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

Crofton Parkway springA tragic head-on collision in the early hours of Saturday, January 28 took the lives of four people on a highway south of Crofton, Maryland. A Chrysler Sebring sedan driven by a 19 year-old with two teenage passengers was heading the wrong way on eastbound U.S. 50. The recent high school graduates were going home after a birthday party. A BMW driven by a 55 year-old warehouse manager was going east on the same road. Its driver was also going home after dinner with friends in Virginia. The cars collided at about 3:30 a.m., causing the Sebring to catch fire. The three teenagers were pronounced dead at the scene, apparently dying on impact. The other driver died in the ambulance and was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Investigators think the Sebring may have crossed a median to turn around or taken an exit ramp the wrong way in order to head west in the eastbound lane. This suggests that they were going the wrong way for almost five miles before the crash. Multiple other drivers reportedly called 911 in the moments before the crash to report a car going the wrong way on the highway. At least one 911 caller suggested that the driver did not know she was going the wrong way after he narrowly avoided colliding with the car.

A preliminary toxicology report released on January 31 showed that both drivers had blood alcohol content (BAC) above the legal limit of .08 percent, although police did not state the precise amount found in the tests. Police also said they found a small quantity of marijuana in the teens’ car. Police still have not issued any statements as to the reason why the Sebring was traveling the wrong way on Route 50 or how it got into that lane.

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January 23, 2012

Maryland Traffic Cameras Seek to Deter Speeding, Promote Safe Driving

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

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To combat decreases in revenue from the state and county, the town of Takoma Park, Maryland has turned to traffic cameras as a source of city funding. City officials maintain that their main purpose is to promote driving safety. The city has installed at least six cameras at major intersections. Locations were chosen, the city says, based on the prevalence of past speeding offenses. Between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011, the city reportedly collected almost $1.74 million in traffic fines from tickets issued through camera evidence. After administrative costs paid to the vendor that manages the system, the city’s net revenue was $898,018. Maryland law requires that money obtained from traffic camera citations go solely towards public safety projects.

The city issued 6,530 tickets for violations captured by the cameras between October 1 and November 22, 2011. Not all tickets are paid, of course, but the system has apparently given the city a much-needed boost in revenue.

Despite any possible concerns over enforcement of criminal issues, the effect of the cameras on public safety, according to city officials, has been profound. Takoma Park Police Chief Ronald Ricucci told Gazette.net that the city’s two main “target areas,” New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard, have seen reductions in auto and pedestrian accidents since the city began using the cameras. It is not entirely clear how the cameras could improve driving safety while also increasing revenue from speeding tickets, unless a reduction in auto accidents is not directly related to the amount of speeding in those locations.

The cameras may prove to be useful when traffic accidents do occur, as a source of evidence. Traffic cameras typically take a photograph of an intersection or stretch of road with a wide enough angle to capture a vehicle and its surroundings, but also with enough detail to see features like license plates numbers. Images from the cameras could assist in resolving disputes over whether a driver ran a red light, which driver had the right of way, whether a driver made an improper merge, and so forth. This is still a new technology, especially in our legal system, which is slow to adapt to many new technologies. As such, evidence rules and court procedures are still adapting to this new type of evidence.

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January 9, 2012

Elderly Man Sued by Passengers of the Thief Who Stole His Car

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

ouchie :(George Hinnenkamp was probably not having a very good day. The 89 year-old left his house to travel to nearby Lorane Valley, Oregon one day in June 2009. When he returned home later the same day, he found that his 1991 Thunderbird was not where he left it. He reported it stolen to the police and, at 10:30 p.m., learned from them that the person who took his car had crashed it while under the influence of alcohol. The car thief, 35 year-old Joseph Dinwiddie, had done occasional odd jobs for Hinnenkamp in the past. As attorneys, people often ask us if they can be sued for one thing or another. As this case demonstrates, people can file lawsuits against almost anybody, but the case must have merit to survive.

Prosecutors charged Dinwiddie with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, reckless endangerment, and two counts of third-degree assault for injuries sustained by two passengers, Nicole Annette Cunningham and Delano Oscar. Dinwiddie’s defense largely relied on the fact that the elderly man had given him permission to drive the Thunderbird in the past when he was working for Hinnenkamp. He argued that he had Hinnenkamp’s permission to use the vehicle the night of the accident. He told police at the time of the accident, however, that he did not have permission from Hinnenkamp, and evidence indicated that the two passengers knew he was intoxicated, even drinking while driving. Dinwiddie was convicted and is now serving a 25-month prison sentence.

The saga did not end there for either Hinnenkamp or Dinwiddie. Two years later, in the summer of 2011, both of them were sued by the two passengers, Cunningham and Oscar, for the injuries they claim to have sustained in the crash. Cunningham is seeking $145,000 and Oscar is asking for $75,000 in damages. Oscar alleges that he suffered various “sprains or strains” in his neck, back, and elsewhere. Cunningham alleges similar injuries, plus pelvic fractures, headaches, dizziness, and more. Their arguments appear to rely on the claim that, since Dinwiddie had driven Hinnenkamp’s car with Hinnenkamp’s permission while working for him in the past, Hinnenkamp could be held liable for Dinwiddie’s actions while driving the car. Hinnenkamp’s insurer stepped in on his behalf and asked the court to declare that he has no liability for the injuries claimed by the plaintiffs.

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September 20, 2011

Two Senior Citizens Killed in Benedict, Maryland, Car Accident

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

A four-vehicle automobile accident in Benedict, Maryland, around noon on Friday, September 9, 2011 killed two local senior citizens and injured at least three others. Franz and Evelyn Isabelle Sommer, a married couple, were driving east on Route 231 in their Ford Focus near the Patuxent River Bridge when a Penske rental truck rear-ended their vehicle. The collision caused the Sommers’ vehicle to veer into the westbound lane of Route 231, where it collided head-on with a Mitsubishi Galant. The Penske truck went on to strike a Saturn L200 in the westbound lane. The Sommers’ car and the Saturn L200 were wedged under the Penske truck.

IMG_4353a09202011.jpgFive people were taken to the hospital for injuries: Deborah Ellen Parkinson, the driver of the Galant; Kimberly Leighanne Garcia, the driver of the Saturn and two children who were in her car; and Michael Anthony Duckett, the driver of the Penske truck. Police report that none of the injuries were life-threatening. A passenger in the truck was unharmed, according to police on the scene. According to witnesses, Parkinson’s vehicle flipped over in the accident, and she had to be pulled out by firefighters.

Investigators have concluded that Duckett’s failure to control the speed of the truck caused the accident, and that alcohol was not a factor. Criminal charges have not yet been filed, pending the completion of the investigation. Duckett could potentially face up to ten years in prison if he is charged under Maryland’s “manslaughter by vehicle” statute, which covers deaths resulting from “driving, operating, or controlling a vehicle or vessel in a grossly negligent manner.”

In addition to any potential criminal charges, the driver of the truck could also face civil liability to all of the people injured in the accident, from a wrongful death claim by relatives of the Sommers to injury claims by the other drivers and their passengers. The driver of the truck is responsible not only for the actual rear-end collision of his truck and the Sommers’ vehicle, but for every collision directly caused by that collision. At least three collisions occurred in this case, causing multiple injuries.

A popular notion is that a driver who rear-ends another driver is by definition “at fault.” This is not always the case, but it is a useful principle. If the driver of the rear-ended vehicle behaved negligently, such as braking abruptly without good cause, then both drivers may be at fault. If a driver swerves into a lane of traffic and is rear-ended by a car already in that lane, the swerving driver is probably 100% at fault. A driver who rear ends a vehicle because he was pushed into the car after being rear-ended himself should not be liable, but the driver doing the original rear-ending might be liable for all collisions in that situation. A better general principle to apply to rear-end collisions might be that the driver who creates the conditions leading to the rear-end collision should be primarily liable, and that the driver is liable for injuries caused by those collisions.

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