Georgia convenience stores can be held liable under “Dram Shop” law.

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The Georgia Supreme Court ruled 6-1 on Tuesday (7/5/11) in Flores v. Exprezit! Stores 98-Georgia, LLC, that a convenience store can be held liable for selling a 12-pack of beer to a noticeably intoxicated customer who was involved in a motor vehicle wreck which killed five other people.  The Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that the Dram Shop Act, O.C.G.A. Sec. 51-1-40 does not apply to the sale of closed or packaged containers of alocoholic beverages.   The families of those injured had sued, but the trial court and Georgia Court of Appeals awarded summary judgment to the store on grounds the beer was not sold for consumption on premises.  The Supreme Court disagreed and held that sellers of closed or packaged containers of alcohol can be held liable for the damages caused by a noticeably intoxicated customer they sell to, knowing that he will soon be driving.

North Carolina Governor Vetoes Tort “Reform” Legislation

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The Greensboro News & Record (6/24, Binker) reported on its “Capital Beat” blog that North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed a medical malpractice bill she said must be “revised to adequately protect those that are catastrophically injured.” Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger called the move “a severe blow.” Berger argued that “the legislature passed a strong bipartisan bill allowing patients to recover full medical expenses and lost wages, and up to $500,000 for additional ‘noneconomic damages’ including pain and suffering.” The measure also included protections for physicians and other medical staffers “from frivolous lawsuits that force them to perform unnecessary procedures and tests.” NC Advocates for Justice spokesman Dick Taylor praised Perdue’s decision.

Tennesseans do not approve of limiting pain & suffering awards

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Although a $750,000 cap on non-economic damages is now the law in Tennessee, according to a recent Vanderbilt University poll only 41% of respondents approve such limitations, while 46% disapprove.  This interesting survey was reported in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on June 19, 2011.   Support among the public for the Tennessee legislature plummeted over the period of January to May during which the lawsuit “reforms” were enacted.

Non-ecomonic Damages Now “Capped” in Tennessee

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On Thursday, June 16, 2011, Governor Bill Haslam signed into law the lawsuit “reform” bill that caps non-economic damages (pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and so forth) at $750,000. The Tennessee legislature, now dominated by Republicans, had passed the legislation “with comfortable margins” in both houses despite strong opposition from the Tennessee Association for Justice (TAJ) and the AARP. The legislation was the new Republican Governor’s “legislative centerpiece”.  It does allow for up to $1,000,000 in non-economic damages in certain catastrophic injury cases.  While the legislation may be good for business it is bad for accident victims and their families.  No matter how bad the injury, no matter how devastating the loss, non-economic damages in Tennessee are now limited to $750,000 in most cases, or $1,000,000 in catastrophic injury cases.

Other bill provisions include “capping” punitive damages at $500,000, and the prohibition of punitive damages “in product liability actions unless the seller had substantial control over the design and manufacturing of the product or had actual knowledge of the defect in the product at the time it was sold.”  The new legislation takes effect on October 1, 2011.

Such “caps” have been successfully challenged in the courts in other states, such as Georgia. The Mississippi Supreme Court will soon determine the constitutionality of lawsuit damage caps in that state.  They are considering the constitutionality of a $1,000,000 noneconomic damage cap, following a request by the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals. The requests stems from a Mississippi woman’s injury lawsuit against Sears, Roebuck and Co. after she collided with a company van. A jury initially awarded the plaintiff $2.2 million in noneconomic damages but a judge subsequently reduced the award. The issue is whether “the Legislature overstepped its authority in passing the law and whether the law violates a constitutional right to have a jury determines the facts of a case, including damages.”

New rules for hours of service for truck drivers are due by July 26, 2011

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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is under a court imposed deadline to adopt new regulations relating to hours of service (HOS) by July 26, 2011.  The proposed changes are summarized at:

http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/rules-regulations/topics/hos-proposed/hos-proposed.aspx

One of the major issues is whether the maximum hours for driving should be set at 10 or 11 within the “Driving Window.”  This issue is being hotly debated among the various interest groups, with the trucking industry favoring the longer 11 hour period, while safety advocacy groups favor the shorter 10 hour period.  FMCSA seems to be favoring the shorter, 10 hour, period.  There are other proposed changes to the existing HOS rules, which are complicated, concerning the definition of the “driving window,” when the time limits “restart”,  when time in the vehicle as a passenger is considered on-duty time, and so forth.  There is a good summary of all the proposed changes on the FMCSA website.  Public comment is being welcomed.

CMS announces suspension of reporting requirements for settlements.

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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) implementation of the reporting requirements of the Medicare Secondary Payer Act (MSP) for liability settlements and the penalties associated with improper lien resolution has created turmoil and delay for many lawyers and their clients trying to reach a settlement in a negligence case.

Today, November 15, 2010, CMS is announcing a one year delay in implementation on the reporting requirements for claims involving liability insurance, retroactive to October 1, 2010 through October 1, 2011. This delay should facilitate settlements and allow for faster resolution of certain cases. In addition, it is hoped that during this period, CMS will suspend the issuance of MSP guidance documents, which have often been contradictory and a source of confusion.

Trucking cases are not the same as car accident cases!

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Huge tractor-trailers speed up and down our highways, frequently running at speeds far beyond the posted limit, and often tail-gating, weaving in and out and engaging in other dangerous maneuvers.  These commercial vehicles may weigh up to 80,000 pounds when loaded.  If not operated carefully and safely on our roadways, they present a clear and present danger to all of us.  Professional drivers are held to different standards than ordinary automobile drivers, and trucking companies are required to carefully screen and monitor their drivers.   Motor carriers are required to make sure that their drivers comply with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR), 49 CFR Sec. 390.11, and it is illegal for anyone to “aid, abet, encourage or require” a driver to violate the regulations (49 CFR 390.13).  A trucking company must perform an annual review on each driver to make sure the driver is still qualified and competent to drive a commercial vehicle after he or she is hired, 49 CFR Sec. 391.25.  And, before hiring a driver, the trucking company must make inquiries of a driver’s prior employers for a three year period preceding the driver’s application for employment and run a moving violation report (MVR) to determine the qualifications of the driver, 49 CFR Sec. 391.23.

Engaging counsel experienced in battling the trucking industry is essential to success in accident cases involving tractor trailers and other large commercial vehicles.

Don’t text while driving in Georgia! Pickup drivers-buckle up!

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O.C.G.A. Sec. 40-6-241.1, effective July 1, 2010, prohibits ALL drivers from texting with a wireless telecommunications device while operating a motor vehicle in Georgia.  The Georgia State Patrol has stopped issuing warnings and will now write $150 tickets for violations.  And, those under 18 cannot use a cellular telephone at all while driving.  Adults can use cell phones while driving, but the use must be “proper” and must not be distracting.  Headsets are now permitted by O.C.G.A. Sec. 40-6-250 provided they do not impair the driver’s ability to hear.

Georgia law also now requires adults in pickup trucks to wear seat belts.  Georgia has had a primary seat belt law since 1996 but pickup trucks were exempted until this year.

Texting Driver Found Grossly Negligent for Fatal Crash

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A Texas jury recently ordered a college student to pay over $21 million in damages after finding him guilty of gross negligent for texting while driving and causing a fatal crash.  This is one of the largest verdicts ever obtained in a texting-while-driving case. (Small v. Vestal, No. 08-01-18000-CV (Tex., Robertson Co. Dist. Ct. Mar. 17, 2010).)

In 2007, Jason Reed Vestal was driving his pickup truck down Highway 6 near Calvert, Texas, when he crossed the center-line and hit an oncoming car head-on. The crash killed the other driver, 21-year-old Megan Small, a student at Baylor University. It also injured Small’s friend Laura Gleffe, who was driving behind her and was run off the road by Vestal’s truck.

The Plaintiff’s lawyer became suspicious when he deposed Vestal, who insisted that he did not have his phone with him when he was driving.  His phone records were subpoenaed and it was discovered that Vestal had made 7 phone calls and sent 15 text messages during the 45 minutes he was on the road. Some of the messages were sent and received moments before the crash.

$792,500 Verdict for Motorcycle Rider Not Appealed

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No appeal was filed from the $792,500 jury verdict returned in Walker State Court last month for Clinton “Buck” Currie.  Buck was riding his motorcycle along Highway 341 just outside Chickamauga, GA two years ago, when a Buick Skylark suddenly turned left directly in front of him.  The car struck the motorcycle and Buck went flying through air.  Fortunately, he survived, but the impact with the car shattered his left ankle.  Buck did nothing wrong, but the injury dramatically affected his life.   Justice has now been served.

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