January 21st, 2019

The Death of the Stick Shift (Blame Safety)

My first car looked a bit like this. Loved it.

My first car was a 1982 Honda Accord hatchback. Five-speed stick. Roll down windows. Manual locks. No A/C.

I learned to drive stick when my older brother needed me to drive his manual transmission car back from Philadelphia to Long Island. I got a lesson on Saturday. And drove it solo out of Center City Philly to New York on Sunday. Only stalled once.

My theory in buying my no-frills Honda was simple: The fewer things that were automated the fewer things there were to break. And nothing ever broke in that car. It was a great car and I took many a trip back in it back and forth to Buffalo during law school.

But cars and Manhattan are not a good match and when I moved there in 1986 it was time to kiss it good bye. When I needed a car I would rent one and those rentals were far cheaper than the cost of garaging it.

(Hang with me a bit here and I’ll get to the safety and personal injury stuff.)

When I moved to the suburbs after 13 years of city living it was time to motor up again. But I had a problem, and part of that problem was a pipestem driveway. And Mrs. NYPILB (she loves that acronym!) didn’t drive stick, didn’t know from clutches, and didn’t want to learn the three-pedal two-step. In twenty years of marriage that’s the worst I can say about her so I figure I’m pretty far ahead of the game.

Having a two-car family and a pipestem driveway would mean constant car shuffling. I let the fun of driving stick slip away since my car was mostly going to the train station anyway. And that’s just the way it was.

When Dear Daughter was old enough to drive, she followed in her mother’s footsteps.

But Dear Son thinks differently. He’s a car guy. Want to know what that car in front of you is? He’ll tell you in two seconds based on the tail lights. At night. Ask him what he wants to be when he gets older and he’ll tell you a McLaren owner. But he’ll settle for a Lambo if he has to.

Until he started talking car stuff, I had no idea that tail lights could be an art. Or that there really was much difference. I was simply oblivious since I’m not a car guy.

So with the lease being up on my Subaru Impreza hatchback, I needed to go car shopping. But I confess that I love this vehicle because of its all wheel drive and the car’s many safety features, which you can’t dismiss when you’re looking at teenagers coming of driving age. Dollar-for-dollar you get a lot of bang for the buck.

I took Dear Son with me to look at a couple of cars, including the next gen Impreza. Guess who wants to drive stick? Yeah.

But the salesman I spoke with let me know the deal: If I want the stick and clutch, I can’t get the Eye Sight Driver Assist. What’s Eye Sight? That’s the computer that not only beeps when you change lanes without signaling, but more importantly will automatically brake when a car or pedestrian is too close in front.

So if a car coming at you in the opposing lane suddenly makes the dreaded left turn in front of you, or a drunk pedestrian steps off the curb in front, the computer might well react before you. Split seconds can make a difference. Literally.

As you might assume from the bear bones ’82 Honda I started with, I’ve never been one for tech features in a car — I’m the type that never uses the cruise control. Digital doodads don’t light my fire. I want to drive a car, not be driven. And I think self driving features are dangerous because they promote inattention.

That’s one of the things about driving stick — you can’t be inattentive. Unless you are cruising on the highway you are constantly engaged. You’ll never see someone driving stick and texting, or eating a hamburger, or even drinking coffee. Not in local traffic, anyway.

Most collisions (not accidents) happen due to driver inattention, and driving stick is the opposite of inattention.

But there’s no getting around the fact that the Eye Sight Driver Assist is not only good tech, but tech that remains invisible until called into play. It’s part of the wave of advanced safety features that are coming as car companies automate their vehicles.

It’s part that same tech wave that will decrease traffic into emergency rooms, and the offices of personal injury lawyers. If you’re in law school thinking this is what you want to do, I strongly suggest you make a sharp turn sooner rather than later.

That tech, however, is incompatible with a manual transmission. You can choose between a valuable safety feature — one that will become far more ubiquitous as the years roll by — or the fun and engagement of driving stick. But you can’t have both.

Last year Motor Trend wrote that Subaru might kill the stick altogether in the name of safety. And Motor Trend wasn’t the only one reporting the news of the likely demise of the company’s stick.

(Another tech development that will help drive a stake through the stick is an app on your phone that allows you to remotely start your car minutes before you get there. When it’s 100 degrees outside, or 10 degrees, that’s going to be a valuable and desired feature. But manual transmissions get parked in gear, not neutral, and you can’t remotely start a car that’s in gear.)

Driving a manual transmission is not only fun, but a valuable skill. It allows you to feel how the car works, and be more engaged with your surroundings, even if you are clueless under the hood.

Manual transmissions have, of course, been declining in the United States for several decades, due to ease of use for the automatic. They used to at least have the advantage of being cheaper engines and better on gas, but even that has changed. The computers on the automatic can nowget better mileage that you can with the clutch.

When you add up the long term decline of stick due to ease of use of the automatic, with the breakneck speed of technological safety improvement, you get a recipe for stick-the-fork-in-its-done.

In ten years the manual transmission, beloved by a decreasing percentage of car drivers, will be little more than a specialty item that needs to be custom ordered. It pains me to say it, but the stick is dead. Ultimately killed by safety.

 

October 23rd, 2017

Court: Junk Science Tossed Into Junker

Fun in Hollywood, not so much in the courtroom.

Most people when they hear about “junk science” assume that plaintiffs’ attorneys are trying to fabricate some pseudo-science to make out a case, usually in the context of a novel class action theory.

But those of us in the trenches know otherwise, that this isn’t the main problem. Junk science, on a day-to-day basis, is far more likely to spill from the mouths of defense experts in routine cases. I showed this a few years ago in a multi-part series dedicated to quickie medical exams by doctors hired by the defense. A three minute exam and presto!  — a finding that the plaintiff either isn’t injured, or that any injuries s/he has were pre-existing.

Some doctors are doing 1,000+ exams per year like this in the service of the insurance defense industry, which is quite the living if you don’t mind sacrificing your conscience.

Today I turn my sights on the biomechanical engineer. This is the person that will generally look at the vehicles in a crash (not an accident), and deconstruct it in such a way to determine that the victim wasn’t really injured by it. Four years ago Justice Arlene Bluth deconstructed that collision deconstruction for one such engineer, essentially showing the bogusosity of it all. (Is bogusosity a word? It should be.)

Last week the Appellate Division (Second Department) weighed in on that subject. And they were no more kind to the defense “expert” than Justice Bluth was.

Dovberg v Laubach was a hit-in-the-rear collision on the Long Island Expressway that pushed the plaintiff’s car into a tow truck in front of her:

The accident occurred when [the defendants’ vehicle] struck a vehicle operated by Scott Ramunni in the rear, propelling it into the rear of the plaintiff’s vehicle. The plaintiff’s vehicle was then propelled into a tow truck in front of her.

The key part of the story was how the plaintiff said that the injuries to her knees occurred — by striking the steering wheel or dashboard.

Dr. Alfred P. Bowles, II

So far, nothing out of the ordinary, right? But then the defendants said they would produce Dr. Alfred Bowles as an expert, he being a biomechanical engineer and board-certified surgeon. And he would testify “that the force generated by the accident could not have caused any of the plaintiff’s alleged knee injuries, and that those alleged injuries were the result of wear and tear from athletic activities.”

And how would Dr. Bowles do that? By looking at the medical records and the depositions.

Really. According to the decision of the appellate court, that was what he would rely upon. Not even an analysis of the damage to the vehicles themselves? Or the position of the body? This is science?

Oh, and some books. As per the decision, Dr. Bowles would also rely upon:

scholarly works that were published in the fields of medicine and biomedical engineering, and had gained general acceptance in those fields. In support of this claim, the defendants listed the names of three works, which, according to their titles, involved head, neck, and mandible injuries. The authors, years of publication, and contents of these works were not set forth. [emphasis added]

The trial court permitted this dubious testimony to go forward, allowing him to testify “with a reasonable degree of engineering certainty, [that] the force generated by a low speed rear-end collision that propelled a vehicle into a 2000 Ford Taurus would not have caused the driver of the Ford Taurus to hit her knees against the dashboard.”

A defense verdict resulted on the issue of causation.

But on appeal the Second Department was, shall we say, less than impressed with this testimony. And this was likely the reason:

Although Bowles did not know how close the plaintiff’s seat was positioned to the steering wheel and dashboard at the time of the accident, he maintained that moving the seat up would not increase the likelihood of a driver’s knees hitting the dashboard in a rear-end collision.

So no one asked the plaintiff how far forward the seat was — which is to say the actual position of the injured driver  — and then the expert testified that it didn’t matter? Distance to the dashboard didn’t matter? One inch and twelve inches are the same? Can you say bogusosity?

After a brief discussion of the long-recognized rule of Frye v United States — in that expert testimony must be based on scientific principles or procedures and is admissible only after a principle or procedure has gained general acceptance in its specified field — the court swiftly deconstructed Dr. Bowles’ testimony.

The court noted that the

“expert disclosure notice simply stated that Bowles analyzed the medical and engineering aspects of the accident. While the defendants cited to three works in opposition to the motion in limine, they did not identify the authors, years of publication, and contents of those works, or any explanation as to their relevance in evaluating the cause of knee injuries. Moreover, the defendants provided no description of the methodology Bowles utilized to determine the force of the accident, and the biomechanical engineering principles he relied upon in reaching his conclusion that the force generated by the accident could not have caused the plaintiff’s knees to come into contact with the vehicle dashboard.

The court didn’t use the phrase “junk science,” or bogusosity, but I will. Because that’s the way I read this opinion.  Your mileage may vary but, frankly, I don’t see how.

So the next time you hear about junk science, you should understand and appreciate that, on a day to day basis, this is not some plaintiffs’-side invention.

The essential business model of insurance companies is to collect as much as possible in premiums and pay out as little as possible (while investing the money in the interim). Many insurance companies, and adjusters, and their syncofantic witnesses who profit from this form of testimony, don’t seem to particularly care how that preservation of premiums is accomplished. Or who gets screwed by their process.

 

June 1st, 2017

Crashing Through the House

Daniel Sajewski drover his mother’s Mercedes right through a house

When I write a headline entitled “Crashing Through the House,” it’s most likely because the car and driver literally crashed through a house.

We start our little story back in 2012 when 23-year-old Daniel Sajewski, Jr. crashed his father’s Mercedes in through the front picture window of a home and right out the back. You can see the picture here — in through the front and right out the back.

Ya’ think there might be some law out of this? That’s why I’m here. You’re welcome. Let’s get started.

First off, and coming as no great surprise to anyone, Sajewski was bombed out of his mind, blowing .30 on the breathalyzer, more than a wee bit over the limit in any jurisdiction that has any laws at all. (Depending on which story you read, he was downing shots of Jack Daniels, tequila and drinking beer.)

And then there was the part about Sajewski asking his then-girlfriend Sophia Anderson to take the rap, and claim she was the driver. He promised, according to news reports, to cover her legal bills and take her on vacation.

I’m betting you’ve already guessed that this deal, shall we say, came apart.

Sajewski had, at the time, six outstanding warrants on six different cases, suggesting he was not exactly a leading light in his community. He’d been charged with drinking on the subway, possession of marijuana and failure to complete community service for a previous conviction.

He had a record for petty theft and other drug possession charges, as well.

Sajewski ultimately pled guilty to driving while intoxicated, reckless endangerment and making false statements. He was sentenced to one-and-a-half to three years behind bars.

Now this is the part where I come in, the civil side. State Farm, which insured the house, coughed up 180K in insurance proceeds resulting from Sajewski’s demolition derby. (The two 90+ year old sisters who lived there were both unharmed.)

State Farm wanted its 180K back, and sued the driver, Sajewski, Jr. as well as his father, Daniel Sajewski, Sr., as Papa actually owned the car.

Papa Sajewiski said, in effect, let me out of this suit because my ne’er-do-well kid took the car without permission.  Not my fault!

Junior Sajewski supported his papa, and agreed that he took the car without permission. (I know! You’re shocked that Junior would help out his papa after wrecking the house of a couple of 90+ year old sisters and wrecking dad’s fancy car!)

But. Not so fast. In New York, it’s not just drivers of cars that are liable for the damage, but the you see, the owners also. (VTL 388(1)). This makes sense because owners are in the best position to evaluate the competence of the people they lend their cars to.

In the trial court, the judge said in legally sounding language, no way, no how, you ain’t getting out of this suit. Owners are responsible too.

But Papa pointed out that, while there is a strong presumption of permissive use of the vehicle, that presumption is rebuttable. And look here at the two affidavits of Papa and Junior, both saying that there was no permissive use.

Papa appealed. And yesterday, he got shot down again, this time by the Appellate Division, Second Department.

The court was pretty clear about this. For even though the testimony of no permissive use was un-rebutted by any other source, that is not always enough. While the court didn’t write the back story with four-part harmony (and feeling), it had the briefs. And they noted that the improbability of a story, or the interests of the witnesses, could effect how a jury perceives the evidence. The court wrote that:

 [i]f the evidence produced to show that no permission has been given has been contradicted or, because of improbability, interest of the witnesses or other weakness, may reasonably be disregarded by the jury, its weight lies with the jury’

So the question will, one day, go to a jury, where it belongs. Because questions of fact aren’t for the court.

And given the long history of legal trouble that Junior’s been in, I’m willing to bet that a jury will wonder why Papa didn’t hide the keys if he really didn’t want Junior to drive. And I’m not the only one to wonder why, as the court noted:

Daniel [Junior] had access to the appellant’s [Papa] residence. Further, the key to the vehicle was kept in a “central location” inside a bin located in the kitchen of the appellant’s residence. Additionally, on previous occasions, Daniel had been permitted by the appellant to drive other vehicles owned by the appellant.

Just remember this story the next time you loan a car to someone that might be somewhat less than reliable. Because you can be on the hook.

 

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)