January 19th, 2017

But For Video (Pedestrian Rundown Version)

The moment before this woman was run down while in the cross walk

The video is graphic. Too graphic. A woman clearly in the cross walk gets hit by a mini school bus.

The story from this Brooklyn accident at Nostrand Ave. and Ave. M, comes courtesy of the Daily News.

Why write about it? Two reasons.

First, because the initial police report claimed the woman was out of the cross walk. Buried deep in the article:

The initial police report said the victim was “not in an intersection” but the video shows her clearly walking in the crosswalk. Police could not immediately account for the discrepancy.

How and why could that “error” happen?

The victim, Ayse Ayaz, suffered four broken ribs, a broken collarbone, a broken leg, and a swollen bloody eye. Ayaz woke up in the emergency room. The information about being out of the cross walk, in other words, was unlikely to come from her.

Rather, the false information most likely came from the driver of the bus. The video was found later by a local business.

I’ve covered bus accidents in the past on this blog, on the subject of trying to alter the “facts” in favor of the bus company and against the victim. Most notably, I wrote up in 2012 how NYC Transit Authority bus drivers weren’t permitted to call the police after collisions, as required by law, but rather, had to radio in to a supervisor who would come “investigate.”

The questions for this bus collision would follow the same path: Who was the first person the driver called? Was it 911 or some dispatcher? If 911, was the story told at first different from the one told to the police later? If it was to the dispatcher first, why?

This is the nature of litigation. People will lie to protect themselves, which appears to be what happened here. Except now there is something very rare — hard proof of what actually happened.

Over the years readers have seen me approach many litigation issues here with a cynical eye, not quite trusting the statements that may be made in support of what position or another. There’s a reason.

It’s not in the least bit uncommon for a driver to tell a wholly different story than the victim, or the eyewitness standing on the corner, if that person actually sticks around and the police actually write that person’s name down in a report.

I know, you think the cops always write down the names of witnesses. It ain’t so. And the failure to take a couple of minutes to do so can cause years of litigation.

In fact, this same scenario happened to me, when I witnessed a pedestrian hit by a car. I gave my name to both the driver and to the cops. And you know what? I was told by one of the attorneys at my deposition that the cops never wrote my name/number down in the report. If the driver didn’t have my name and number also, this piece of evidence (my eyewitness account) would have been lost to the actual participants.

If not for this video in this bus-pedestrian collision, the bus driver would no doubt have an insurance company attorney accusing the pedestrian of being a liar when she claimed she was in the cross walk. She would, in effect, have been victimized twice.

I said there were two reasons to write, and now comes the second: This is all something to think about when you hear people talk about a “litigation explosion” and tort “reform,” as if problems were caused by the victims themselves.

It’s worth nothing that if the injuries of the victim are bad, it wouldn’t be a private insurance company paying for the losses. Not only could the victim be deprived of full compensation, but also, some of those costs of caring for the injured could be shifted to you and I, the taxpayers.

And so it is that I started this piece with a bus-pedestrian collision. But end it at a public policy discussion, which is important due to the shift in the political winds.

 

December 1st, 2016

Is Uber Trying to Kill You?

uber-drone-ads

An Uber drone advertises uberPOOL above traffic on a highway in Mexico City on June 17. Photographer: Brett Gundlock/Bloomberg

I bet it sounded like a great idea in the boardroom: Hey, let’s find a nasty traffic jam, with lots of stop-and-go traffic and fly some drones over it with advertising!

Wow! Great idea! Captive audience! Stuck in their cars!

And they will just look up in the air at our drones while in this stop-and-go traffic and read our advertisements about car-pooling!

What could possibly go wrong?

I once ripped on Geico and the Port Authority, for stupidly planning to put Geico ads in a crowded toll booth plaza. The signs would have touted “safety” while diverting the attention of drivers to read the signs in that crowded plaza. Genius.

Human error from distracted driving is the leading form of injury from vehicle collisions. Advertising schemes that distract drivers on crowded roadways can only makes things worse.

So Uber is taking things to the next level past Geico and the Port Authority, cranking stupidity up to 12, because the eventual injuries that would most certainly happen from the continuation of such a program shouldn’t be joked about by saying the stupidity merely goes to 11.

The activity is taking place in Latin America, where Uber hopes to increase their market share.

But can this Latin American experiment be replicated on New York’s roadways? Well, even if they could somehow get FAA approval to do it, my guess is that the company would get sued out of existence for the very predictable, and quite inevitable, injuries that such distractions would be a cause of.

This wouldn’t simply be negligence, but in my view, recklessness, that would subject the company to punitive damages.

And you thought that Uber drivers merely being distracted themselves by looking at their devices was bad.

(hat tip Kashmir Hill via Twitter)

 

 

May 23rd, 2016

Uber Cars are Uber Dangerous (The high cost of cheap taxis)

My dad told me a short story this winter, when three grandkids flew down to Florida to see him. When ready to go to the airport, he offered to call them a taxi. Not needed, they said, we’ll just Uber!

The cars arrived quickly. They were cheaper than taxis. Dad was amazed.

So what is the cost? No, I don’t mean the cost of the airport trip; I mean the cost to society.

The cost is this: Far more people are likely to be injured and killed by companies such as Uber that rely on apps and speed than by regular taxis or car services. And the worst part is, it’s part of the business model.

Uber drivers, you see, must respond quickly to the incoming notification on their smart phones — reportedly within 15 seconds. Otherwise, they lose that fare. Repeatedly make the mistake of failing to quickly respond? Then you lose your ability to work for Uber.

This means that Uber drivers must be diddling with their dinging smart phones while driving and responding. Instead of looking at the road. The Uber business model not only encourages dangerous distracted driving, but actually thrives and profits because of it.

How dangerous is distracted driving?  It’s  three times more dangerous than paying full attention. From the Viriginia Tech Transportation Institute:

The study, entitled The Impact of Hand-Held and Hands-Free Cell Phone Use on Driving Performance and Safety Critical Event Risk, shows that engaging in visual-manual subtasks (such as reaching for a phone, dialing and texting) associated with the use of hand-held phones and other portable devices increased the risk of getting into a crash by three times.

Car and Driver did a test for texting/reading while driving, and compared drunks with a .08 blood alcohol level with those who are sober.  Time and again, those who were texting, or merely reading their texts, took longer to hit the brakes and stop their cars. And when I say longer, I mean the drunks were quicker to the brakes than the text readers. And these were people on a straight road track who knew they were being tested.

Let’s repeat that: Driving while reading texts is more dangerous than driving while drunk.

The conclusion is inescapable: Uber cars are uber dangerous.

There is a deadly cost to getting Uber drivers to their customers so quickly.  And this is a cost not only to passengers, but also to others on the road — most significantly of all, to pedestrians who are not enveloped in that big metal cocoon with seatbelts.

Now take those distracted Uber drivers and put them in New York City, where such vehicles are currently allowed (though they are not yet allowed elsewhere in the state). Our street life hums and thrives on pedestrian traffic.

Uber is significantly more dangerous when people are walking about. The injuries such drivers inflict on pedestrians will likely be far more catastrophic than others, due to the delays in responding to danger by distracted drivers. In other words, an uber accident. (Though collision is the proper word.)

The first lawsuits against Uber drivers are now percolating through the system. They will raise many issues, a few of which are:

  1. Are the drivers employees of Uber or independent contractors? You can be sure Uber wants to call them independent to shield itself from liability as being responsible for their employees’ actions. But just because they want it doesn’t mean they will get it.
  1. Is the Uber app a defectively designed product, as it actively encourages distracted driving? Is it inherently dangerous?
  1. Can Uber be held liable for simply sending messages to people that they know are behind the wheel and moving? I covered this subject last month, with respect to potential liability for friends sending texts to people they know are driving.
  1. Knowing full well the danger, will juries decide that such conduct is reckless, and therefore subject Uber to punitive damages?

Are the issues interesting? You bet they are. For a lawyer. Not so much when you are splayed out on the blacktop waiting for the ambulance.

But perhaps more importantly, Uber will likely go running to the Legislature complaining about its insurance rates —  as it’s inevitable that their drivers will get in more accidents, that the injuries will be more severe, and their insurance will obviously go up as a result. Insurance goes up for drunks, doesn’t it?

Did I say “will” be running to the Legislature? As it happens, they are running there now. A piece in Politico/New York discusses extensive lobbying efforts going on now for them to expand outside New York City. And the bill must go before the insurance committee.

One hopes that, if such bill does appear, and does go before the insurance committee, that legislators pay particular attention to the fact that Uber’s business model is exceptionally dangerous, and that the injuries they inflict to others will be far more catastrophic due to the delays in responding by distracted drivers.

The most dangerous drivers are probably those cruising for fares and waiting for the phone to ding.

If the technology is not going to be outlawed because it’s just too damn dangerous, then Uber (and Lyft and others of their ilk) should be made to carry significantly more insurance than others to cover the costs that they will inflict.

It isn’t enough for Uber to say, “let the injured and killed be damned so that we can make more profit.” And it isn’t enough for the victims and taxpayers to be left paying for the damage that the distracted drivers inflict.

 

April 5th, 2016

Non-Driving Text Sender May Be Liable in Crash

Texting while drivingQuery:  If you’re not the driver of a car, can you be held liable for a collision that occurs when the recipient reads and responds while driving?

Answer: Quite possibly, yes.

In a case last month, not previously reported in any media, a Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas judge wrote that if the sender had reason to believe that the recipient would read the text while driving, s/he could be held responsible in an ensuing accident.

This horrible distracted driving case apparently arose when Laura Gargiulo took a text from her “paramour” Timothy Fend, and while distracted, hit a motorcycle ridden by Daniel Gallatin. Gallatin was pinned under the vehicle, dragged 100 feet and killed.

In addition to suing the driver and owner of the offending vehicle, the Estate sued the texter, Fend.

The Court noted that there was only one other case in the nation that dealt with the subject, in New Jersey in 2013. In Kubert v. Best, the NJ appellate court held, in a matter of first impression in the country, that under certain limited circumstances it was possible to hold the texter liable. T’he court wrote:

The issue before us is not directly addressed by these statutes or any case law that has been brought to our attention. We must determine as a matter of civil common law whether one who is texting from a location remote from the driver of a motor vehicle can be liable to persons injured because the driver was distracted by the text. We hold that the sender of a text message can potentially be liable if an accident is caused by texting, but only if the sender knew or had special reason to know that the recipient would view the text while driving and thus be distracted.

It was this theory that the Pennsylvania court explicitly followed, quoting the NJ court in writing that, “the sender of a text message can potentially be liable if an accident is caused by texting, but only if the sender knew or had special reason to know that the recipient would view the text while driving and thus be distracted.”

The decision of Judge Hodge is here:Gallatin-v-Gargiulo

Does this mean that the texter will  be liable? No, it doesn’t.

The motion came on as part of, what PA lawyers call, a preliminary objection or demurrer. This is similar to the motions to dismiss made in NY practice that are based solely on the filed Complaint.  It isn’t a question of whether the texter will be liable, but rather, if you take all the allegations in the Complaint and accept them as true, is it possible that the defendant is liable? Or should the case be dismissed forthwith because the concept is hopeless?  (The defamation cases against me were both dismissed this way.)

Citing not only to the Kubert case from NJ, but to Section 876 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, the PA court said that alleging the texter was acting “in concert” with the tortfeasor gets the complainant over the legal hurdle:

Section 876 – Person Acting in Concert

For harm resulting to a third person from the tortious conduct of another, one is subject toliability if he

(a) does a tortious act in concert with the other or pursuant to a common design with him, or

(b) knows that the other’s conduct constitutes a breach of duty and gives substantial assistance or encouragement to the other so to conduct himself, or

(c) gives substantial assistance to the other in accomplishing a tortious result and his ownconduct, separately considered, constitutes a breach of duty to the third person

So, will a jury one day find the “paramour” liable? My guess here from the cheap seats: It will depend on what those texts actually said, and if he had actual knowledge that his friend was texting him and driving at the same time. Remember, those allegations are only that, allegations. This case has not gone through any discovery yet and there are no details of what was said (if anything).

Is there another lesson in here other than lawyers jockeying over potential liability? Why yes, there is.

Distracted driving kills, which is why self-driving cars will make our roads safer (and kill off much of the personal injury bar). So don’t tempt your friend/relative with texts if you know they can’t resist checking their iDevices.

The plaintiff is represented by the PA firm of Dallas Hartman, which originally posted about the case on its website.

(hat tip for finding it: Mark Bower)

Addendum (5.23.16): It seems entirely possible that Uber and other car-sharing services that rely on apps and texts may be subject to liability this way. See: Uber Cars are Uber Dangerous

 

December 23rd, 2014

Will Google Cars Eviscerate the Personal Injury Bar?

GoogleSelfDrivingCar-642x500

Google’s prototype released on December 22, 2014.
Image credit, Google.

I hadn’t given much thought to Google’s self-drive cars until they unveiled a prototype yesterday. They call this vehicle “the first real build of our self-driving vehicle prototype.”

And it occurs to me that these drivable computers will result in both many lawsuits regarding them, and simultaneously eviscerate a significant portion of the personal injury bar.

First off, some of these cars will crash and people will get injured. And you can bet your last dollar that there will be lawsuits and some class actions regarding that, with many fingers pointed Google’s way.

The potential for error in such heavily software-dependent systems is extraordinary when combined with the limitless potential for collisions. There will be new meaning to the idea of computer crashes.

Google is working hard on that problem, having driven its test vehicles 700,000 miles already in the Bay Area to prevent this.

But.

The issue of lawsuits regarding the cars will, I think, be vastly overwhelmed by a huge reduction in collisions that result from the most common forms of human error. Each year about 30,000 people will die in the U.S. from car crashes, and about two million are injured, and that is after considering a significant drop in fatalities from safer cars and seat belts over the prior decades.

Aside from the role that alcohol plays in being a cause of collisions (not accidents), many are the result of a simple failure to stop in time that results in a rear-endng, or sideswipes from changing lanes without looking, or hitting the unseen pedestrian.

The last generation’s distractions of radio-tuning, cigarette lighting, and screaming back-seat kids has now been supplemented with email, texts, phone talk and GPS devices. Calling distracted driving an epidemic seems like a cliché, but if you’ve glanced into the windows of your fellow drivers, which my kids tend to do and point this out to me  —  “multi-tasking” drivers is another phrase for distracted and inattentive.

And what will those new-fangled cars do? They will see the other cars/pedestrians and slow down or stop despite the driver being lost in thought elsewhere. Or drunk. Or asleep.

With human error crashes reduced by software that automatically stops or slows the car, the number of broken bodies and cars will be reduced. The number of deaths will be reduced. Your insurance premiums will be (theoretically) reduced.

And that means the need for my services as a personal injury attorney will be reduced.  (Likewise reduced will be the need for  trauma health teams and emergency rooms, not to mention car body shops.)

Has anyone ever cheered being put out of business? I am. Because I drive, too.

I’ve been hit in the rear at least four times in the last few years. Every one no doubt the result of an inattentive driver. Thankfully, all of those were minor and they never resulted in an injury. But my lack of injury is simply my good luck.

This is not to say that there won’t be downsides to driving a Google car, not the least of which is the total abdication of the last vestiges of privacy. Google will know exactly where you are going and how long you have been there, and be more than happy to sell that information to anyone with the Benjamins to spend.

Or give that data to the government when it comes a’ callin’, as the government most surely will.

But from a raw safety standpoint, I am left with no other choice than to cheer the company on. Go ahead, Google, make my day by bringing on safety and putting us personal injury attorneys out of business.

OK, you won’t actually put me out of business because, by the time it becomes a mass market item, I will no doubt be retired.

But if I were fresh out of law school, this isn’t the field into which I would head.

Update 1/14/15: See  The Google Car Is A Huge Threat To The Auto Industry (Business Insider)