California Man Awarded Millions In Motorcycle Accident After Defendant Refused To Negotiate A Settlement

Modesto motorcycle accident attorney knows that Modesto’s area summer weather brings out the motorcycles. Modesto and its ideal central California location, being 90 minutes from San Francisco and within an hour of various mountains, make it a motorcycle enthusiast ideal location. Stanislaus County extends into the foothills where motorcycle are often ridden into Jamestown, Sonora and other Mother Lode neighboring cities. More motorcycles means more motorcycle accidents. According to the National Highway Safety Administration, half of all fatal motorcycle collisions involve other vehicles. Fatal motorcycle accidents can lead to wrongful death lawsuits. Serious motorcycle accidents can cause loss of life and loss of limb.

Where the other party is negligent in causing such injury, the plaintiff can be awarded money damages after a trial. Most cases do not go to trial but are settled after negotiating with insurance or other companies. However, when John Hendrickson had his leg crushed on August 27, 2009. He was hit by while riding his motorcycle while riding in a remote area of California’s San Diego area. A Border Patrol Officer in a truck came around a sharp turn at an unreasonably high rate of speed. The officer did not see Hendrickson and the truck collided with the motorcycle.

Hendrickson suffered severe fractures and had one of his legs amputated below the knee, forever changing his life. As a recording artist and motorcycle enthusiast, his lingering pain and the emotional trauma keep him from working and partaking in the same activities he always enjoyed. He went through 6 months of post open treatment for a comminuted distal femur fracture and dealt with several other injuries. Hendrickson filed a negligence lawsuit against the United States government and on June 20, 2014, the court awarded him 5.4 million dollars. This large verdict was reported by ABC New 10 in San Diego.

Federal Tort Claims Act
One may think that the almighty government is an ironclad battleship, impenetrable to lawsuits, but that is not true. Although it is not as simple to sue the government as it is to sue a citizen, it can be done, as Hendrickson demonstrated.

Under the 11th Amendment, sovereign immunity prohibits citizens from suing a state. However, in 1948 when the Federal Tort Claims Act was enacted, it allowed citizens to sue the United States in federal court for torts committed by persons acting on behalf of the government. A tort is a civil wrong for which no criminal punishment will remedy the harm.

In this case, the Border Patrol Officer was acting on behalf of the government because his duty was to patrol areas around the U.S. border and prevent illegal entry into the country. Furthermore, he was driving a Border Patrol issued Chevrolet Silverado truck around the Otay Mountain Truck Trail, which demonstrates he was under the color of the government at the time and place of this incident.

Failure To Negotiate Backfires
The defendant in this case was the federal government and their agent, the driver of the other vehicle who injured Hendrickson. The defendant in the case refused to negotiate with Hendrickson or his lawyers, offering no money damages for the case. If this were a normal case where an insurance company was involved, the defendant might bring a bad faith denial claim against the insurance company for opening the defendant open to serious liability because the insurance company failed to negotiate in good faith. However, this was not the case here, and that discussion will need to wait to another blog entry.

Federal Courts
The federal judiciary comprises the United States Supreme Court, United States Court of Appeals, and United States District Courts. Hendrickson’s case was heard in the Untied States District Court for Southern California. So, although it was in a federal court (federal law), California tort law (negligence) applied because the case was brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The Federal Tort Claims Act does not open the floodgates for endless suits against the government every time a police officer or postal worker is rude to you. Rather, it provides a platform to recover for harm suffered at the hand of the government due to egregious behavior. Several constraints are listed below:

  • Liability will not include interest prior to judgment or for punitive damages. This means that the Hendrickson’s judgment did not include interest from the time of his injury to the time of the judgment. Punitive damages are designed to punish the tortfeasor and deter such conduct.
  • The law of the state where the act or omission occurred will apply. This means that although the case was heard in a federal court, the law of California will apply because that is where the act of negligence by the Border Patrol Officer occurred.
  • Claims based upon performance or failure to perform a discretionary function or duty are exempt. This means that a citizen cannot sue the government for a government agent making a discretionary judgment that is part of their job.
  • A number of intentional torts are exempt. Intentional torts require the element of either specific or general intent. Under the common law of torts, an intentional tort is typically deemed to be a substantial deviation from the scope of employment, and therefore the superior is not usually held liable.
  • Intentional torts of investigative or law enforcement officers are not exempt. This means that if a government agent with authority to enforce the law commits an intentional tort then the limitation will not apply

In this case, the Border Patrol Officer was found liable for negligence. Since we already established that the officer was acting on behalf of the government, the government is liable for the damages award.

Negligence requires (1) A Duty Owed To Someone (2) Breach Of Duty Owed (3) Actual Causation; (4) Proximate Causation; and (5) Damages.

The court in this case found that the Border Patrol Officer had a duty to the plaintiff to exercise ordinary caution as a fellow driver on the road. The officer breached that duty by driving at excessive speed and failing to adhere to his training of driving as slowly as possible around blind turns. He was the actual cause of Hendrickson’s injuries because but for speeding around the corner he would not have collided with Hendrickson; he may have had time to swerve around him or apply the breaks. The officer was a proximate cause because it was foreseeable that speeding around the mountains on rough terrain with blind turns and drop-offs could result in a sudden collision and major injuries.

Actual damages must be proven in a negligence case. Here, Hendrickson had a lengthy list of injuries and medical bills. The court also found specials in evidence of almost $590,000, which contributed to the total award.

Comparative Negligence
California adheres to the pure comparative negligence theory. Under this principle, if the plaintiff is at fault to some degree, he may still recover damages minus his degree of fault. Here, it was found that the officer was 85 percent liable and Hendrickson was 15 percent liable. Therefore, Hendrickson’s net award of about $5.4 million was calculated by reducing the $6.3 million sum of damages by 15% (Hendrickson’s degree of fault), leaving him with 85 percent of that amount.

In sum, the Hendrickson decision revealed that the government can be sued for tortious acts committed by their agents and that all drivers need to be aware of motorcyclists. Those who have been or know somebody is has been injured in a motorcycle accident should contact the The Bogan Law Firm, A Professional Corporation immediately.

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