You may know that the majority of personal injury lawsuits never make it to trial. A big reason for that is that many are settled out-of-court before they ever reach that stage.
All civil lawsuits have to meet the basic merit requirements before proceeding. Motions to dismiss and for summary judgment can be filed by the defendant prior to trial. Both are essentially requests to the judge to toss the plaintiff’s case. In order to succeed in a summary judgment motion, defendant has to convince the judge:
- There is no dispute as to the material facts of the case;
- Plaintiff failed to meet his or proof burden;
- Defendant should prevail as a matter of law.
Courts are not supposed to hand down a summary judgment if there continue to be disputes of material facts in the case. However, it’s not uncommon for a defense lawyer to file a summary judgment fairly early in the proceedings and set a hearing prematurely on the issue. The strategy is to get the issue before the judge before there is ample evidence to show a dispute of material fact.
In these cases, if the court does grants summary judgment prematurely or while matters of material dispute exist, plaintiffs have the option to appeal.
That’s what plaintiff in Kendrick v. City of Midfield argued after she sustained serious injuries when a police officer en route to a domestic disturbance call struck her at an intersection.
According to records with the Alabama Supreme Court, the car accident happened in October 2011. Defendant police officer was dispatched to a call in his city-owned police cruiser. He testified that after receiving the call, he activated his lights and sirens.
Meanwhile, plaintiff was on her way to work in her mother’s sport utility vehicle. She was traveling on the cross street, preparing to turn left, which would have had her traveling in the same direction of the officer.
The officer approached two intersections, one right after the other, with plaintiff stopped at the second intersection. The officer stated the first light was red and he slowed down, but then it quickly turned green and he accelerated. He then proceeded toward the second intersection. He said he spotted plaintiff about 30 feet away. He saw she was stopped and assumed she had seen and heard him and was waiting for him to pass.
However, plaintiff, did not hear the siren and nor did she see the flashing lights until after she started through the intersection. By that time, she saw a brief flash just seconds before impact.
Another motorist, who was traveling behind the officer, said she also did not hear the siren, even though her windows were down and her radio was off. She said he was “flying” down the road at approximately 50 mph, which was in excess of the speed limit.
That other driver stated she believed the accident could have been avoided had the officer slowed down while going through the intersection.
The impact knocked plaintiff unconscious and sent the officer into the other lane of oncoming traffic, where he struck a third vehicle.
Plaintiff filed a complaint against the officer and the city. After several months of discovery, defendants filed motions for summary judgment. Trial court ruled there were no material facts in dispute that would prevent the officer from being protected via sovereign immunity.
On appeal, plaintiff argued this was an error because there was a material fact in dispute: The officer’s alleged non-use of his siren. Although an officer might normally be entitled to immunity for an accident that occurs while he or she is engaged in essential job functions, there is an exception for willful, malicious, fraudulent or bad faith behavior or actions that are beyond his or her authority. In this case, plaintiff alleged the officer acted beyond the scope of his authority in operating his emergency vehicle because he failed to turn on his emergency sirens.
The state supreme court agreed that this was indeed a dispute of material fact. Trial court’s summary judgment ruling was reversed and the case remanded.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Kendrick v. City of Midfield , April 15, 2016, Alabama Supreme Court
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