Client Alerts

Bibbs v. Toyota Motor Corp.
June 29, 2018

In Bibbs v. Toyota Motor Corp., No. S18Q0075, 2018 Ga. LEXIS 443 (Ga. June 18, 2018), the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia certified two questions to the Georgia Supreme Court:

Under Georgia law, are the damages that may be recovered in a wrongful death action brought by survivors of a decedent limited by a settlement entered into by the decedent’s guardian in a previous personal injury suit settling all claims that were or could have been asserted in that suit?

If the answer is yes, what components of wrongful death damages are barred?

The 2018 opinion arises from a 1992 car accident that resulted in Delia Bibbs sustaining a head injury that left her in a coma. Bibbs’ husband filed a lawsuit within months after the 1992 accident, seeking to recover damages for her personal injuries. The case went to trial and ultimately settled through a “high-low” agreement. In the settlement agreement Toyota denied wrongdoing and was released from all claims and damages arising from the accident. Specifically excluded from the release was “any claim for Delia Bibbs’ wrongful death, inasmuch as [she] has not died and no such claim was made or could have been made in the [personal injury lawsuit].” Two decades later, Delia Bibbs died and her family filed a second lawsuit, this time seeking wrongful death damages for the full value of her life.

The Georgia Supreme Court answered the first certified question in the affirmative, stating damages in a wrongful death action are limited by Bibbs’ settlement in the earlier filed personal injury lawsuit. The Supreme Court went on to explain the damages that may recovered in the later filed wrongful death lawsuit. In a lengthy opinion, the Supreme Court stated:

Having fully settled her personal injury lawsuit, Bibbs is presumed to have recovered the damages she was entitled to receive at that time as a result of her catastrophic physical injury. She was fully compensated under the law for the fact that she was, and would remain for the rest of her life, totally and permanently disabled — just not for the additional fact of her death. Having thus recovered, she was made whole (in the legal sense) and could no longer recover for the economic and non-economic damages stemming from her disability. To hold otherwise would be to allow impermissible double recovery.

The Court concluded that given the catastrophic nature of Delia Bibbs’ injuries, the settlement in the first lawsuit addressed the full measure of her economic damages, leaving no economic damages for the wrongful death lawsuit. However, the Court went on to state non-economic damages may be recoverable, as the Court cannot say as a matter of law there is no difference in value between living in a permanent coma and not living at all.

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Watson v. The University of Alabama Health Services Foundation, P.C.
May 23, 2018

The Alabama Supreme Court recently addressed a plaintiff’s standing to sue in Alabama wrongful death suits and held the personal representative of the decedent’s estate lacked standing because he had been legally discharged as personal representative prior to filing suit.

In Watson v. The University of Alabama Health Services Foundation, P.C., [Ms. 1170057, Apr. 27, 2018] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2018), Watson filed a wrongful death suit alleging medical malpractice against the defendant healthcare providers arising out of Mary Fejeran’s death. Shortly after Fejeran’s death, Watson was appointed as personal representative of Fejeran’s estate. Significantly, Watson petitioned the probate court for a final settlement of Fejeran’s estate and the probate court entered a final settlement order before Watson filed the wrongful death suit. The defendants moved for summary judgment arguing Watson lacked standing to bring the claim because the final settlement order proved Watson had been discharged as the personal representative of Fejeran’s estate before he filed suit. After receiving defendants’ motion, Watson obtained an order from the probate court seeking to allow him to proceed as personal representative in the wrongful death suit. However, the trial court concluded the final settlement order was a final judgment and entered summary judgment in favor of the defendants because Watson had been discharged as personal representative prior to filing suit and therefore lacked the representative capacity to bring the wrongful death claim.

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Langley v. MP Spring Lake, LLC
May 21, 2018

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently determined the language in a lease agreement can shorten the time in which a tenant can bring a personal injury against the landlord. In Langley v. MP Spring Lake, LLC, No. A18A0193, 2018 Ga. App. LEXIS 258 (Ct. App. May 1, 2018), the plaintiff tenant filed a premises liability action against her landlord for injuries resulting from a fall that occurred on the apartment complex property. The tenant filed the suit exactly two years after the alleged incident. However, the lease agreement between the tenant and landlord had a “limitation on action” provision that stated:

To the extent allowed by law, Resident also agrees and understands that any legal action against Management or Owner must be instituted within one year of the date any claim or cause of action arises and that any action filed after one year from such date shall be time barred as a matter of law.

The takeaway from Langley is to review applicable lease agreements between tenants and landlords to determine whether certain provisions apply to your personal injury cases.

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Cartersville City Schools et. al v. Johnson — The Sky is NOT Falling on Idiopathic Claims
March 28, 2018

Since first defining idiopathic injury, the Georgia appellate courts have refined and attempted to clarify the definition and legal framework for analyzing what has been coined the “idiopathic defense.” At one time or another, the defense appeared to die only to be resurrected. For the most part, it has been a viable defense available to employers and insurers for more than sixty years. The most recent decision by a three-member panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals in Cartersville City Schools v. Johnson seems to at first glance once again call into question the definition of an idiopathic injury. However, a closer analysis of the actual decision, which remains subject to further appeal, indicates not much has actually changed and the analysis of idiopathic injuries based on the standard set forth in Chaparral Boats, Inc v. Heath, 269 Ga. App. 339 (2004) should continue. Despite what you may hear, the sky is not falling, and the idiopathic injury defense is not dead.

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Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. v. Koch
March 23, 2018

In its recent decision, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. v. Koch, No. S17G0654, 2018 Ga. LEXIS 176 (Mar. 15, 2018), the Supreme Court of Georgia further clarified the duties surrounding preservation of evidence rules in Georgia. In Koch, the plaintiff’s husband was involved in a motor vehicle accident when the tread on the left rear tire of his 2001 Ford Explorer detached. Following the accident, the vehicle and some of the tires were crushed for scrap. After Plaintiff filed a product liability suit against Cooper Tire for a tire defect, Cooper Tire filed a motion to dismiss the complaint or impose other sanctions for spoliating the vehicle and tires.

The Georgia Supreme Court concluded that the facts did not give rise to litigation being reasonably foreseeable or that it should have been reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff so as to trigger the duty to preserve the subject vehicle. Importantly, the Georgia Supreme Court noted that the duty of preservation is the same for plaintiffs and defendants: “let us now eliminate any doubt: the duty is defined the same for plaintiffs and defendants, and regardless of whether the party is an individual, corporation, government, or other entity.” However, the Court explained the practical application of that duty may depend on the party’s experience and sophistication in matters of litigation. Therefore – while the duty is “the same” for plaintiffs and defendants – corporate defendants (who are more experienced and sophisticated in litigation than individual plaintiffs), should take heed from the Koch decision and employ prudence when it comes to preserving evidence. When in doubt, preserve the evidence.

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