The vast majority of car accident lawsuits settle out-of-court. That means before the case goes to trial, both sides collaborate to reach a fair conclusion. The defendant(s) agree to pay a certain amount, and plaintiffs agree to release those defendants from future liability.
Even if you have no intention of taking your case to court, you will need an experienced injury lawyer to help walk you through this process. One of the many reasons is the language of that settlement agreement can contain a few costly pitfalls.
That was the case in the recent medical malpractice lawsuit of Gores v. Miller, which was filed subsequent to a car accident settlement signed on behalf of an injured 15-year-old girl.
This was a case in South Dakota, but the same basic legal principles are applicable here in Alabama.
Court records in the Gores case reveal it started with a teen driver car accident in a rural area. A 17-year-old boy was behind the wheel and plaintiff’s 15-year-old daughter was in the passenger seat. The vehicle, a van, belonged to the boy’s mother and was insured by her insurance policy.
As a result of the crash, the girl sustained serious injuries, in particular lacerations to her arm. She was rushed to the hospital emergency room, where a doctor recommended skin grafts.
It took the girl months, another skin graft operation and further treatments before she was considered fully recovered.
Nearly a year after the crash, the girl’s mother, as the court-appointed conservator for the girl, filed a lawsuit on her behalf against the teen driver and his mother. (Auto insurance companies aren’t named in initial actions, and are only added later if they refuse to pay.)
Ultimately, the case did not go to court. Both sides settled with the driver’s mother’s insurance policy for the policy limit of $25,000. Of course, this wasn’t near enough to cover the full cost of medical bills and other expenses, but luckily, plaintiff had her own underinsured motorist coverage. In total, she was able to collect $100,000.
As part of that settlement, plaintiff signed a broad but unambiguous release. The language of that liability release indicated the plaintiff forever discharged not only the driver, the driver’s mother, and her insurance company, but “all other persons, firms or corporations liable or who might be claimed liable” for any lawsuits of any nature whatsoever which resulted or might develop in the future from the crash.
Plaintiff’s mother signed. However, she did not realize – and probably never intended – to release from liability the doctors who treated her daughter after the crash. But that is effectively what she had done.
When plaintiff then sought legal action against the doctor, alleging he had negligently conducted the skin graft and failed to inform her daughter how best to care for the wound, the doctor used that settlement agreement.
But this was a separate action, plaintiff argued, and she never intended to release individuals from wholly separate acts. But the trial court sided with defendant, and so too ultimately did the South Dakota Supreme Court. The settlement was binding, and because the language of the contract was clear, plaintiff’s subjective intent didn’t matter.
This is why we recommend car accident victims be exceedingly cautious with these settlements because failure to do so can have unintended consequences.
Call Allred & Allred P.C. at 334.396.9200 to speak with a Montgomery personal injury lawyer.