On September 6, 2013 there was a serious semi-truck accident involving a car operated by William Roak Zeller. According to reports, Mr. Zeller was operating his vehicle westbound on Interstate 76 in Tallmadge, Ohio when he slowed down for the traffic in front of him. The at-fault semi-tractor trailer driver, who was apparently not paying attention, failed to see that Mr. Zeller had slowed and rear ended his vehicle. Mr. Zeller did not survive the crash. As a result of the car accident, the highway was closed and traffic backed up for miles.
Ohio Revised Code Section 4511.21(A) is Ohio’s “assured clear distance” law. The law states:
“No person shall operate a motor vehicle… at a speed greater or less than is reasonable or proper, having due regard to the traffic, surface, and width of the street or highway and any other conditions, and no person shall drive any motor vehicle… in and upon any street or highway at a greater speed than will permit the person to bring it to a stop within the assured clear distance ahead.”
All indications are that the truck driver in question violated this traffic law which in turn led to the accident. This means that the truck driver was negligent per se.
Negligence per se means “negligence in and of itself.” In Ohio, the violation of a specific safety statute (such as the assured clear distance law) is negligence per se. Therefore, in a civil lawsuit arising out of this accident, the victim’s next of kin will be able to prove that the defendant was negligent merely by showing that the defendant broke the assured clear distance traffic law that was designed to prevent this type of crash. The plaintiff will not be required to show what negligent act or omission of the defendant (inattention, tiredness, speeding, etc.) caused the traffic accident – the violation of the traffic law is enough.
Legal Issues Arising From This Accident
Several questions arise from accidents such as this incident involving a commercially owned and operated truck.
First, the truck drivers and trucking companies want to protect themselves and their highly valued Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDL) and will often do everything they can to blame anyone else for the accident other than themselves or their drivers. Their claims adjusters, lawyers, and accident reconstructionists are on the job from day 1 – all in an effort to assign blame to anyone other than the truck driver and company. This is why it is critical for the injured victim to obtain a lawyer to protect his or her interests immediately.
Second, the issue of the potential for punitive damages arises. Oftentimes in these types of accidents, the at-fault truck driver turns out to have been sleep deprived, impaired, or otherwise not in compliance with basic safety standards and trucking industry regulations. When such a driver causes an injury or death, the harmed parties may be entitled to recover punitive damages above and beyond any award of standard compensatory damages. These damages are awarded to deter the driver, company, and other drivers and companies from making the same mistake – and causing senseless injuries – again. Therefore, even if the truck driver was negligent per se, investigation as to whether the driver was distracted, too tired, or was speeding is still important, because these factors may open up the door to the next of kin being able to recover punitive damages.
Third, no statements should be given to any insurance companies until after the next of kin have spoken with an attorney. Insurance company representatives will sound sympathetic, polite, helpful, and friendly on the phone, but they are not an advocate for the families of those killed in an accident. In fact, the adjuster’s goal is to use written or recorded statements in an effort to pay the least amount of money possible. Some insurance companies even give adjusters bonuses based on how little money they pay out on claims – especially potential high value wrongful death claims.
Fourth, the next of kin should not sign any authorization for any insurance company until after speaking with an attorney. Signing authorizations will give the insurance company a “free pass” to obtain any and all information regarding the deceased’s confidential and private past medical records as well as other information that they should not be entitled to. They will then attempt to use this information to minimize the value of any legal claim.
Fifth, in the event of money to be held in trust for a child, the estate representative will have to navigate the probate court process. (Ohio law requires that the probate court approve any settlement entered into on behalf of a minor in the state of Ohio.) Allocating the amount of money to be set aside for the child upon his or her eighteenth birthday versus the amount of money to be given to the adult caregivers is often a point of contention. An attorney can help guide the process through the court to an acceptable resolution.
These are just some of the legal issues that arise when there is an accident of this type. Unfortunately there are many more, and the situation can often seem hopelessly complicated and be a huge burden on a grieving family. This is where a knowledgeable and experienced attorney can make all the difference and lighten the load for a family who has just experienced a catastrophic loss.
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If you have questions about any of the legal issues raised in this blog, contact Dodosh Law Offices, LLC at (440) 298-2344. Or, you can fill out a contact form and Attorney Dodosh will get in touch with you.