Can a Non-Party’s Bankruptcy Put the Brakes On Your Personal Injury Lawsuit?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A personal injury client is injured in a car accident. The at-fault driver was in the course and scope of employment in a corporate car (yay, deep pockets!). Settlement negotiations have gone nowhere and you decide to file suit against the driver and their employer. In the meantime, the employer’s entire business model has been destroyed by a recent technology that makes the company practically obsolete. So the corporation files for bankruptcy. What happens to your case?

I had a nearly identical issue come up in one of my personal injury cases. My client was injured after being rear-ended by an employee of a large corporation. The employee was driving a company vehicle at the time. Shortly before we filed suit, the corporation filed for a Chapter 11 business bankruptcy (mostly because it failed to adapt to the revolutionary business model of the insurgent new - at the time - company, Netflix.). I won’t name names but let’s just call this corporation “Cropduster.”

So Cropduster filed for bankruptcy and at that point, I knew that if I sued Cropduster as well as the driver our case would be put on indefinite hold (possibly for years) while Cropduster’s reorganization dragged along in the system.  I also knew after all that time my client’s claim against Cropduster would most likely be discharged in the bankruptcy anyway.

Armed with this knowledge, we made a strategic decision and filed suit only against the driver.  Our adversaries, adeptly understanding the ramifications of our choice, tried to halt our lawsuit by claiming that the defendant was protected by the automatic stay in Cropduster’s bankruptcy case.  Our contention was that the defendant, as an agent of Cropduster, was separately liable for her own torts and therefore was independently liable for the car accident.

After much back-and-forth, a motion was filed by the defendant to stay our case while Cropduster’s bankruptcy played out.  We knew that if we lost this motion, the case was ostensibly finished.  Luckily, the law in this area was fairly developed and there was a lot of good precedent for us.

In the Ninth Circuit, two cases specifically discuss these issues in some detail:  In re Chugach Forest Products, Inc. and Matter of Lockard.  But I had to convince the court that these cases applied to our situation even though, factually, they were not 100% on point.  Fortunately, the court in Chugach and Lockard outlined the law substantially enough, allowing us to assert our position with confidence.

The law spelled out in the cases is more or less straightforward:  The automatic stay in bankruptcy protects only the debtor and not third-parties who are independently liable to plaintiff.  The courts have created a very narrow exception to this rule in “unusual circumstances” where there is a very close connection in the financial interests of the debtor and the third-party, where it would cause irreparable harm to the bankruptcy debtor to allow the third-party to be sued.  The third-party’s mere right to indemnification from the debtor, however, is not an unusual circumstance that warrants applying the automatic stay.

As a result, I saw this as a simple issue:  Defendant, as Cropduster’s agent, was independently liable for the rear-end collision and my client’s injuries.  As a result, we were free to bring a personal injury action against only the agent and not Cropduster.  Because Cropduster was not a party to this lawsuit, its bankruptcy should not have any effect on our litigation unless Cropduster could show some irreparable harm to its reorganization efforts as a result.  But Cropduster couldn’t do this because a mere employer-employee connection didn’t put the parties in an interlaced financial relationship where transactions affecting one automatically affected the other.  Furthermore, the employee’s right to indemnification simply wasn’t enough of an “unusual circumstance” under the law to justify putting a stop to our lawsuit.

In the end, the court agreed with our reasoning and declined to suspend our lawsuit because of Cropduster’s bankruptcy.  After being allowed to continue the case was ultimately settled resulting in a very happy and grateful client. The lesson, as always, is if you’re hurt in a car accident (or know someone who is) hire (or refer them to) a personal injury attorney that’s knowledgeable in all the different nuances of law because that can be the difference between recovering money for your injuries or walking away with nothing.

How a Personal Injury Attorney Helps You Pay Your Medical Bills After an Accident

After an accident, the victims are in need of medical attention. Medical aid though, like everything else in today’s world, costs money. Fortunately for victims, the costs of medical bills are recoverable when making a personal injury claim. Converting medical bills into damage awards is a tricky enterprise though, because of the wide range of rules involved in calculating such damage awards. A good personal injury lawyer will know how to navigate these rules to get the best possible recovery for their client.

One such rule is the Collateral Source Rule (CSR). The CSR states that victims can have third parties pay for medical bills without having the amount paid deducted from their damage awards. “Third parties” primarily refers to insurance companies, although the term can include anyone who pays for the bills but is not directly involved in the accident. The CSR applies to both the giving of the awards as well as presentation of evidence to determine what the award should be.

The CSR has a limitation though. In Howell v. Hamilton Meats, the California Supreme Court ruled that the CSR only applies to contracted prices of medical aid, not the actual prices. Suppose, for instance, that the reasonable price for a surgery is $250,000. The victim’s insurance company negotiates the price down to $50,000.  Under the CSR, the victim is only entitled to $50,000 because $50,000 is the victim’s medical bill.  The actual market value of the surgery, $250,000, is not recoverable by the victim because neither the victim nor the victim’s insurance company paid the $250,000. Essentially, victims cannot recover more than what they paid or what third parties paid on their behalf for their medical bills.

An exception to this can be found in the recent case Pebley v. Santa Clara Organics. There, an injured person who had medical insurance decided to treat outside his plan because of the seriousness of the surgery involved. The court ruled that an insured plaintiff who treats outside of their insurance plan on a lien is to be considered an uninsured plaintiff for the purposes of determining reasonable and customary value and that evidence of insurance and/or insurance rates are completely irrelevant. This makes sense because the person who treats outside his plan is responsible for his full medical bills since insurance will not be paying for it. As a result the injured person may recover the full cost of the surgery,regardless of what their insurance company ‘would have’ paid under the plan.

The court went on to discuss the reasons why a person would choose to treat outside their plan:

“There are many reasons why an injured plaintiff may elect to treat outside his or her insurance plan. As [plaintiff] points out, plaintiffs generally make their health insurance choices before they are injured. These choices may be based on the plaintiffs’ willingness to bear the risk posed by a health maintenance organization (HMO) rationing system because the plaintiff is healthy and requires little care. This decision may appear much different after a serious accident, when the plaintiff suddenly needs complex, extensive care that an HMO is not structured to provide… The plaintiff also may wish to choose a physician or surgeon who specializes in treating the specific type of injury involved, but who does not accept the plaintiff’s insurance or any other type of insurance. In addition, health care providers that bill through insurance, rather than on a lien basis, may be less willing to participate in the litigation process.”

Another exception to the Howell rule is if the contracted price is a gift. In personal injury cases, “gifts” cannot be given “for commercial reasons and as a result of negotiations.” The CSR does not apply to discounts, a product of market bargaining. Gifts, on the other hand, come from a “donor’s desire to aid the injured,” and can thus be factored into a victim’s damage award. The gift exception exists because it is a policy which encourages charitable action, which the courts view as being in the public interest. (Howell v. Hamilton).

The Howell limitation to the CSR is a far reaching limitation. Howell applies to insurance provided by employers for on the job injuries, like in Sanchez v. Brooke, where the employee suffered burns and smoke inhalation when the building burned down. It also applies to victims covered by Medicare, like in Luttrell v. Island Pacific Supermarkets, where the elderly plaintiff suffered a hip injury after having an automated door hit him four times. Given Luttrell, there does not appear to be a distinction between private and government insurance, at least when calculating damage awards under the CSR.

Howell applies to presentation of evidence of past and future medical services. Calculating what a medical service is worth can be difficult, especially if the service is done in sessions rather than all at once. The patient may decline to finish the sessions or an unforeseen event may prevent the patient from finishing treatment.

In order to calculate treatment payment which has not been finished yet, courts can use evidence of previous medical services used by the victim to determine how much present treatment might be worth. Similarly, courts can call in medical experts to determine what a future medical service might be worth. A personal injury attorney who’s dealt with accident victims can provide the best advice about how to present such evidence.

Being injured in an accident is a traumatic event for most people. Recovering the money lost from such an accident can be very difficult though, especially after the California Supreme Court’s ruling on tort recovery. However, getting a free consultation from a personal injury lawyer after an accident is always a good idea because that’s your best bet for helping to pay your medical bills.

What Your Insurance Agent Doesn’t Tell You Can Cost You Dearly (Part I)

   “You can't get blood out of a stone”

                                          -Italian Proverb       

One of the hardest parts of my job is having to say “no” to potential clients. These usually fall into four categories: The dog; the wobbler; the ‘out of my wheelhouse’; and the no insurance. The first category is the easiest to turn down. If you’ve ever had a Sovereign Citizen call to tell you that they want to sue the U.S. Government and Elvis Presley for a hundred million dollars because “they did a RICO” it’s quite a relief to know that you dodged that bullet up front rather than six months into litigation. The ‘out of my wheelhouse’ cases are tougher because it’s often someone who may have a legit case but I can’t represent them because it’s not my area of expertise and digesting a century’s worth of Maritime Law in a few short months is neither in my or the potential client’s best interests. Same with the wobblers. Those are also legit cases that I can’t take because of economics or just not having the bandwidth for them at that particular moment. The latter two types of cases I’ll try to refer the clients out to another attorney who specializes in that practice area or who has the ability and desire to take that specific case.

By far the most difficult cases are those where a person is seriously hurt in a car accident but there’s no insurance available to compensate them for their injuries. It often goes something like this: A potential client calls up saying they were in a car crash. They were sitting at a red light or in traffic, minding their own business, and all of a sudden they’re rammed into from behind by someone going way too fast. There’s a ton of damage to the cars and the client is in really bad pain so they have to get transported to the hospital. Later they get some imaging done because the pain doesn’t go away (MRI’s, X-rays, etc.) and the tests reveal a serious problem with their spine, often requiring surgery. Because this is a car accident that happened in California, at some point this client will tell me that the driver that hit them didn’t have any insurance. “Ok” I say, “if you have UM/UIM coverage this may not necessarily be a big deal.” Then the client will ask me, “What’s UM/UIM insurance?” Houston…we have a problem.

So what exactly is UM/UIM insurance? Well, if you’re driving around in California and get into an accident it could be the thing that saves you thousands, and maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most folks who purchase an auto insurance policy often only think about what happens if they hit someone, or who’s going to pay for their car. That’s called liability coverage. And if you really like your car you’ll get full coverage so that insurance will fix it regardless of who’s at fault in a collision. But what happens to you if you’re injured? Who will pay your medical bills, your time off from work, and – most importantly – for your pain and suffering, your loss of enjoyment of your life? (Ever try enjoying ANYTHING when your back feels like it’s literally on fire? Kind of takes the jam out of your doughnut as the English like to say.)

In Part II of this blog I’ll get into what UM/UIM insurance is, why you need it, and how insanely cheap it is relative to the benefits you receive from it if you’re ever in a car accident.  

Holding an Employer Liable For Injuries Caused By Employees

Picture this: A pizza delivery driver is running behind on schedule. In order to meet his goal, the delivery driver floors the gas pedal when a signal light is about to turn red. Although the driver gets lucky a few times, eventually his luck runs out. He rams a motorcycle as the next signal light changes.

Who should be held liable for the motorcyclist’s injuries in this situation? The pizza delivery driver is the individual most responsible for the motorcyclist’s injuries, but the delivery driver is unlikely to have the money necessary to compensate for the medical bills, let alone the full damage award. Many personal injury attorneys will focus on the employer in situations like this in order to ensure that their client receives the most compensation possible under the law.

Employers can be held accountable for the injuries their employees inflict on others through one of two different theories: direct liability or vicarious liability.

Direct Liability

Direct liability, as the name suggests, is when the employer is directly responsible for the injury. This sounds odd, given that the employer is only responsible through the employee’s involvement. However, an employer can be directly liable when the “employer violated a duty of care it owed to the injured party and this negligence was proximate cause of resulting injury” (De Villers v. County of San Diego). From this case, we can identify three elements of direct liability. First, the employer must owe a duty of care to the injured party. Second, the employer must be negligent. Finally, the employer’s negligence must be the cause of the victim’s injuries.

The first requirement in this theory of liability is the duty between the employer and the injured party. The employer must have a legal obligation to the injured party to exercise a certain amount of care before the employer can be held directly liable. If there is no duty, the case against the employer cannot move forward.

For instance, in De Villers v. County of San Diego, the victim’s family sued the county of San Diego for negligently hiring a drug addicted employee and for allowing that employee to steal enough toxins to poison her husband, the victim. Although the facts suggested the county had been negligent, the court found that the defendant did not owe any duty to the husband’s family. The court ruled that a plaintiff who sues a public employer needs to show that the duty of care owed came from a statute and not just common notions of duty.

Direct liability typically involves negligent hiring, or failure to take reasonable care when hiring someone. “Under California law, an employer may be held directly liable for the behavior of an unfit employee where the employer was negligent in the hiring, training, supervising, or retaining of that employee” (Keum v. Virgin America Inc). In the pizza delivery example, the company could be directly liable if the company knew or could have known that the delivery driver had been responsible for numerous traffic accidents in the past, but retained him anyway.

Vicarious Liability

Vicarious liability is the process of holding a person accountable for the actions of another person, such as the employer-employee relationship (California Civil Code 2338). Vicarious liability involves the employee acting on behalf of the employer. “It is well established that traditional vicarious liability rules ordinary make principals or employers vicariously liable for acts of their agents or employees in the scope of their authority or employment (Meyer v. Holley). Since the employer is expected to be in control of the employee, the employer is at fault when the employee injures another person while the employee is working for the employer.

There are two elements required to hold an employer responsible for the actions of an employee through vicarious liability. First, the employer must have direction or control over the employee’s work. This element eliminates independent contractors from vicarious liability. The employer must be in control of both the methods as well as the goals of business (Valles v. Albert Einstein Medical Center).

The second element, the scope of employment, is more often contested. This element asks whether the employee was “on the job” when the victim was injured. If the employee was working on behalf of the employer, the employer should be responsible for the victim’s injuries because the employer could predict whether the accident would have occurred. One way to determine whether an employee acted within the scope of employment is by deciding whether the employee was on a detour or a frolic. A detour is a minor departure from duties while a frolic is a major departure from duties.

If the pizza delivery driver hit the motorcyclist while driving to a gas station, the delivery driver would be on a detour because gas is necessary for the driver to fulfill complete his job. If the delivery driver had hit the motorcycle on the way to his girlfriend’s house, the delivery driver would be on a frolic.

An employee on a detour is more likely to be in the scope of employment than an employee on a frolic. An employee on a frolic is typically on the frolic for personal reasons unrelated to business. An employee on a detour, however, is still a representative of the employer. For example, in Vasey v. Surrey Free Inns, a manager assaulted a guest after the guest failed to leave the inn. Although the manager was on a detour from typical responsibilities, assaulting a guest was not part of the manager’s job, the manager was still representing the inn during the assault and thus the inn was vicariously liable.

Although the distinction between frolic and detour appears to be clear, technology has made the line fuzzy. In Miller v. American Greetings Corp, the manager of the company was involved in an auto accident on his way to meeting with a probate attorney. Prior to the accident, the manager was on his cell phone with subordinates. However, the phone call was made a few minutes before the crash and it was unclear from the record whether the manger was still on the phone when the accident occurred. Although the courts eventually ruled that the manger was on a frolic, the case could have gone either way.

Direct liability and vicarious liability are the two legal theories personal injury attorneys use to hold an employer liable for victim’s injuries. Direct liability is focused on employer negligence in hiring while vicarious liability is focused on the employee as a proxy for the employer. The two theories sometimes overlap, but they are two distinct theories.

The California Supreme Court made this clear in Diaz v. Caramo. The high Court ruled that if the employer admits to one theory, the employer cannot be liable for the other. Employers can only be accountable for one theory of liability because “employer’s liability cannot exceed that of the employee driver who allegedly caused the accident.” In other words, victims cannot collect more than the harm done to them by the employee.

If the employer is found liable though, the victim is more likely to be compensated for the harm done to them. Contact the Pivtorak Law Firm by calling (415) 484-3009, or click here to request a free, confidential consultation online.