Can Your Insurance Company Demand a Statement in Maryland?

As a matter of law, I believe that the uninsured motorist carrier cannot require any statement – recorded or otherwise – from their insured after a car accident. Notwithstanding the fine print language in almost every Maryland car insurance contract that requires a statement, Maryland law requires your own car insurance company to pay all damages that the insured is entitled to from the person that caused the accident up to the uninsured motorist limit, if the “bad guy” has insufficient insurance.

The Maryland high court has affirmed that Maryland insurance law substantially rewrites car insurance contracts and that provisions that are not authorized by Maryland law are unenforceable. This would clearly seem to fall into that category because, if the insurance company is imposing any additional conditions on payment, then it is not providing the compensation required by the statute.

So you can just ignore your own insurance company’s request for a recorded statement just like you can ignore the at-fault driver’s insurance company’s request for a statement, right? Not so fast. The law I just gave you is what I call “The Law According to Laura.” This law comes with an important caveat: it is often wrong. The Maryland Court of Appeals has never ruled on this issue and could disagree completely or limit the coverage without a recorded statement to the minimal limits.

Therefore, you have to balance competing interests in giving recorded statements to the carrier. One compromise that often works: a non-recorded statement which gives the carrier the information they need without the ability to try to hang you later on trivial (or not so trivial) differences between the recorded statement and deposition and/or trial testimony.
Six years ago, my partner wrote a blog post about recorded statements to the UM carrier and to the at-fault carrier that is equally true today and worth reading.

Car Accident Class Action Lawsuit

In every state, there is a stretch of the highway or an intersection where car accidents commonly occur. We certainly have them in Maryland.

A group of folks got together (let’s be honest, a creative car accident lawyer got them together) and filed a class action lawsuit against the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission. The lawsuit claimed that a particular stretch of highway on Interstate 44 was dangerous and the state should have done something to make the road safer.

The trial judge certified a class action finding that there were common questions of fact as to whether the pavement surface lacked proper skid resistance and was otherwise dangerous.

The Southern District Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that there are simply too many crosswinds that vary from accident to accident and, accordingly, each car accident case should be treated separately.
I have to admit, I agree with the appellate court, but I admire the creativity of the plaintiffs’ car accident lawyer in this case.

You can read more about the case here.

Property Damage Claims in Maryland

In the real world, people have damage to their cars that they would just rather not get fixed. They would rather pocket the insurance money and drive around with a big dent in their car.

If there was a liability dispute, it has been hard to pull this off in Maryland because there was no way to get the property damage estimate into evidence unless you brought the guy who did the estimate to trial as a witness (If you actually had the repairs done, you could get the cost in under Maryland Courts and Judicial Proceedings Code Annotated § 10-105).

Now, under a new Maryland law passed last week, you can get a repair estimate into evidence at trial, at least in District Court. Now, a plaintiff can testify that a written vehicle repair estimate, prepared by an insurer or its authorized representative is admissible, without the testimony of the preparer of the estimate, as evidence of the authenticity and the fairness and reasonableness of the estimate that you would otherwise need.

We are proud that John Bratt from our office testified before the Maryland General Assembly and helped get this bill passed. This bill does not help our law firm; we stopped handing state District Court car accident cases some time ago because our firm handles only serious injury and wrongful death accident claims. But, we still fight for the rights of accident victims everywhere.

You can find Maryland Senate Bill 80 here. This bill passed with an amendment limiting it to district court but otherwise I think this is the bill that became law.

Truck Accident Reconstruction Experts: How I Use Them

Accident reconstructionists are often used by lawyers in auto accident and truck accident cases to answer questions about how the accident occurred. An accident reconstructionist might be able to tell you who was driving, how fast the car or truck was going, whether the driver and/or occupants of the vehicle were wearing seat belts, where on the road the accident occurred, and so forth. Sometimes, they are useful in car accident cases on discreet issues. But, there is a growing sentiment in car accident cases that juries just don’t listen to accident reconstruction experts. Juries, this thinking goes, want to figure out how an accident happened on their own. They don’t need any help. (My view is not quite this strong on whether you should use accident reconstruction experts in liability dispute cases. Certainly, I don’t think they hurt in most cases.)

Reconstructing truck accidents is more complicated than car accidents, and there is a larger role for accident reconstruction experts who understand the nuances of truck accident cases and can communicate effectively with a jury. Unlike car accident cases, juries understand that they don’t understand trucks the way they understand cars.

One of the big issues our lawyers typically face in auto accident and truck accident cases is the debate as to the speed of the vehicles. The biggest difference in investigating truck accidents as opposed to car accidents is the number of different variables at play with respect to stopping or slowing. Car accidents are relatively easy, the investigator looks primarily to the skid marks and the type of surface on which the vehicle skid. Truck accidents are far more complex. Trucks generally take 30% to 75% longer to stop than a car. Because large commercial trucks are more difficult to stop, a truck accident reconstructionist must include other variables beyond the usual friction values to calculate vehicle speed, such as brake balance and brake lag time. If speed calculations do not include these adjustments, then the calculated speed of the truck will be off base and Plaintiff’s theory as to the speed of the truck can look ridiculous and inconsistent with the witnesses to the accident. In cases like this, the truck accident lawyer needs to find a neutral accident reconstructionist to recreate the speed of the truck and to take into account all of the relevant considerations.

Settlement Value of Rear End Truck Accident Claim

A Jury Verdict Research study found that the median award in rear-end truck accident cases throughout the country is $93,909. Remarkably, plaintiffs recover damages in only 63 percent of truck accident cases that go to verdict. That study is based on verdicts rendered throughout the United States from 1997 to 2007. I wish I had newer data but this is all we have.

There is a lot of confusion about median and average verdict data in accident cases. Lawyers who are not exactly math wizards, except when computing 40%, use median and average interchangeably. This study provides median, not the average truck accident verdict. Clearly, the average truck accident verdict would be substantially higher because a full twelve percent of the verdicts in rear end truck accident cases are over $1 million. There is a lot of debate about which figure is better but, certainly, the median figure is more useful in computing case values.

Generally speaking, rear end accident cases are less serious than most other types of truck accidents. But, when you are dealing with big rig trucks, that conventional wisdom goes down the tubes. There is a great deal of wrongful death rear end accident truck claims, just because rear end accidents are common and large trucks kill.

Speed Camera in Maryland to Go to Court of Appeals

The Maryland Court of Appeals will jump into the battles of whether it is reasonable to allow speed and red light camera merchants to receive a “commission” every time the camera catches a violator. A group of Prince George’s, Montgomery, Howard, and Frederick county residents say the payments, made by Montgomery County, Gaithersburg, and Rockville, are illegal.

This is the latest in a long, long battle between libertarians and their brethren and the photo enforcement technology industry, that operates speed cameras and red light cameras for local municipalities. The two most common photo enforcement systems are red light cameras, designed to detect motorists who enter an intersection after the light has turned red, and speed cameras, designed to detect motorists going a certain amount over the posted speed limit. In many cases, these two systems are combined at one intersection.

The big cheese in this industry is ACS State and Local Solutions (“ACS”) which provides 80 percent of the red-light cameras operating in the United States. (Interesting fact: ACS is owned by Zerox.) One thing is for sure: the speed camera business is big bucks. ACS Inc., the big red light speed camera vendor in Maryland, gets $16.25 for every $40 speed camera fine. This is a contingency fee that makes every car accident lawyer jealous. In some jurisdictions in Maryland, like Baltimore County, ACS’s percentage of the take is thought to be even higher.

All of this debate over how red light and speed cameras should be set up is above my pay grade. But I do know that we need to have new means of controlling speeders and people who don’t feel compelled to comply with traffic laws, because enforcement of our traffic laws in Maryland are become increasingly difficult to manage with old school conventional means alone. We have to figure out the fairest way possible to do this, and maybe giving companies a percentage of the take is the wrong play. But, we have to do something because these things save lives.

Some speed/red light camera fact/statistics:

  • Red light running causes about 800 crash deaths per year.
  • From 1992 to 2000, the number of fatal car, truck, motorcycle and pedestrian crashes at intersections with signals jumped 19 percent.
  • A $40 ticket every blue moon that you did not deserve is not a big price to pay to save lives (oops, that is not a fact).
  • In addition, the economic costs of crashes that involved speeding were $ 40.4 billion (this is 2004 data, it is probably a lot higher now).
  • At intersections using photo enforcement technology, overall right-angle crashes decreased 25 percent and injury right angle crashes decreased 16 percent. Front-into-side collisions also were reduced by 32 percent overall, and front-into-side crashes involving injuries were reduced by 68 percent.
  • Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson believes there has been a 50 percent decline in all speed camera citations (note: this assertion has been questioned).

Actually, all of these traffic speed camera statistics have been questioned. I appreciate the debate. I don’t take every statistic I read at face value either. Here is what I know believe: speed cameras definitely do not hurt, and they probably do help save lives. They are worth the trouble.

Not for nothing, this comes from someone who makes a living from helping people who are injured in car accidents. I believe speed and red light cameras cause me to lose business, to lose profits. But, this is a good thing for people who love their families and want to keep them safe.

Progressive Bad Faith Claim: New Opinion

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post explaining what car insurance special investigations units (SIU)do and their purpose. Today, I stumbled across a new opinion that went up to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The basis for the lawsuit seems that the plaintiffs were annoyed that Progressive Insurance – undoubtedly an aggressive car insurance company – sent their claim to their special investigations unit.

The case involved the plaintiffs’ claim that someone had stolen and damaged their car. Progressive Insurance referred the claim to its Special Investigations Unit because: (1) the vehicle was for sale at the time of the loss, (2) the column was not compromised, (3) the vehicle was a “gas guzzler” (the claim arose at the height of the gas prices in 2008); and (4) both sets of keys were in the Walkers’ possession at the time of loss.

Progressive Insurance asked the plaintiffs to produce photos from the vacation they were on at the time of the loss. The plaintiffs sent them some pictures which overzealous Progressive thought were altered. Goofy stuff that all got squared away. The Special Investigations Unit concluded the loss was legitimate and paid the claim.

Plaintiffs were not happy and made a federal case out of it, alleging bad faith from Progressive Insurance in paying the claim. It is pretty clear that they did not find a lawyer to make their claim. I guess they were just plain mad and wanted to get back at Progressive.

To establish a first party bad faith claim in Oklahoma and in most jurisdictions (including Maryland), a plaintiff must show that the insurance company’s action were unreasonable under the circumstances, and that the insurer failed to deal fairly and act in good faith in the handling of the claim. Here, Progressive was wrong and admitted they were wrong and paid the claim. But the court found that they were reasonable to investigate further because there were suspicious things about the claim.

There are two take home message here. First, Progressive Insurance is overzealous and difficult to deal with in car accident claims. Alas, this we already knew. The second is another truth that has stood the test of time: filing lawsuits because you are mad is really not a great idea.

You can read the court’s opinion in Walker v. Progressive Insurance here.

Stopping Texting and Handheld Phone While Driving

This is a great way to stop people from texting and using handheld phones while driving.
On the other hand, is a call or a text at a stop light a big deal? They are tough in Canada.

Knee Injuries: What is the Trial and Settlement Value?

Jury Verdict Research reports on a study it conducted that found that in the last ten years, the overall median compensatory award for soft tissue knee injuries, strains, and cartilage and ligament damage is $40,972.

The average trial value of knee injury cases involving knee lacerations, contusions and inflammation is $57,884 ($8,952 median). The average verdict for a knee strain case is $70,055 ($10,412 median). The average verdict for chondromalacia knee injury (abnormal softening of the knee cartilage on the underside of the patella) is $215,434 (median is $45,000).

I think these numbers are a little bit low but they are of interest to lawyers trying to determine how much is the settlement value of their knee injury case.

What Does SIU Mean in Accident Claims?

I disagree with insurance companies as to how prevalent the practice is, but there is no doubt that many people either exaggerate their injuries in car accidents or manufacture the injuries all together. This we know.

Insurance companies set up “special investigation units” called “SIU” (GEICO) or some other similarly covert sounding name to try to determine whether victims in car accident cases are clients that are exaggerating the scope of their injuries, getting unnecessary medical treatment to try to increase the value of their case, or even staging the car accident. The SUI units of insurance companies try, as GEICO puts it, “to detect, deter, and defeat insurance fraud.”

Good car accident lawyers in Maryland know that largely these SIU units are our friends? Why? Because ridding the system of fraudulent accident claims leaves a larger pie – and a more differentiated pie – for people who are really injured in car accidents and deserve compensation.

I have not had a claim that was investigated by an SIU unit of an insurance company in years. We take few soft tissue injury cases without compelling facts these days, because we have figured out that juries view cases without an objective injury almost as skeptically as insurance companies.

That said, insurance companies are often incompetent and put meritorious cases in SIU. Good accident lawyers address the issue head on, investigating the claim, and provide further information to explain where the confusion arises. (If your investigation reveals strong suspicions of fraud, I think you have to back out of the case.)

One thing I found of interest in writing this post is GEICO’s advice on dealing with potential fraudulent claims. They tell their insureds to “look out for large, older vehicles with three or more occupants.” Aren’t you also on the lookout for poor people? I mean, it might be statistically true but it seems a little ill advised to point this out. I mean, really, has anyone ever seen a car on the roadway, identified it as an old car, and avoided an accident by steering clear of it? I bet this has never happened in human history.