Wrongful Death Lawsuit Gets Family Crosswise
December 3, 2007Last week the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s front-page article examined the complex legal issues that arise when two family members are involved in a single car collision. Sisters Yvonne Woods and Janice Carroll were traveling cross-country in Janice’s SUV. While driving her sister’s vehicle, Yvonne fell asleep. The SUV left the road and crashed. Yvonne was killed in the accident and Janice was injured.
The AJC article focused on the outrage from Yvonne’s family when Yvonne’ eldest daughter (probably the executor of the estate) was served with a personal injury lawsuit filed by Aunt Janice. Apparently, the family had no idea that Aunt Janice was suing the estate for her injuries. Further, the family was shocked that Aunt Janice would sue when her sister had been doing her a favor (helping her drive cross-country) when she was killed.
The online version of this story lists twelve pages of reader comments. From reading these comments, it is clear that many people do not understand the basics of personal injury claims. Liability and insurance issues are confusing. While it is impossible to know all the issues from the limited facts made available by the AJC, here is short summary addressing many of the legal issues raised.
1. Liability Insurance Policies Do Not Pay Claims of the Named Insured.
Many readers were incensed that State Farm would not pay the claim of Janice. Janice owned the vehicle involved in the collision and it was covered by a policy provided by State Farm. Typically, in Georgia, insurance follows the car. Thus, the automobile policy of the car involved would be primary. The liability policy for the car would not cover Janice because she was not a third party to the accident. She may have been a passenger, but she was also the owner of the car and therefore, a first party to the policy. In other words, she cannot sue her own liability policy. She may recover the limits of medical payments coverage for this, but she cannot recover liability coverage.
Yvonne had an automobile liability policy with Liberty Mutual Insurance. Janice also attempted to negotiate a pre-suit settlement with that insurer. However, Liberty Mutual denied the claim. The reasons for this are unclear. It may be that there is a coverage issue with this policy. It may be that the insurer questions Yvonne’s negligence, or it may be that the policy limits have been exhausted already.
2. Insurance Companies Providing Liability Coverage Cannot Be Sued as Named Parties
Many people posting comments were appalled that Janice sued her sister’s estate rather than suing the insurance companies. Janice cannot sue the insurance companies. Her claim is against her sister’s estate for the negligence caused by her sister when she fell asleep at the wheel. Liability insurers provide a defense to liability claims. Insurers will pay per the policy contract, but they are not parties to lawsuits. The lawsuit is against the negligent driver. Granted, Janice should have informed her family that the suit was coming, but she was not required to either.
If there were a judgment against Yvonne’s estate, then the estate would be obligated to pay it. However, liability insurance would cover that type of judgment provided it was a covered event. Also, the insurer would not be obligated to pay beyond the limits of the policy.
3. Adult Siblings Can Sue One Another as a Matter of Law
One person posted an interesting question as to whether the family purpose doctrine prevented family members from suing one another. First, the family purpose doctrine relates to the agency relationship in families where there is a common family car. The question should be whether there exists family immunity or sibling immunity in Georgia. For the purpose of this case, two adult sisters living together as roommates are not immune from tort suit by one another.
Family immunity prevents an unemancipated child from suing his or her parents or vice versa. However, nothing prevents two siblings from suit, particularly where they are both adults. See Stepho vs. Allstate Ins. Co., 191 Ga. App. 494 (1989). This applies even if they live together. However, some policies of insurance do prohibit interfamily lawsuits. In this case, the public policy of mandatory insurance dictates that the exclusionary clause allows insurance up to the minimum limits of coverage required in Georgia, in this case $25,000.00.
4. Suits Are Brought Where the Defendant Resides
Another person insisted that Alabama law applied because the accident occurred in Alabama. This is incorrect. Presumably, both contracts of insurance were written in Georgia. For insurance coverage issues, Georgia law will apply. As to legal issues of negligence, the suit is brought where the defendant resides. In this case, the article tells us that suit was filed in Fulton County, Georgia. Thus, the defendant, in this case the estate of Yvonne, is domiciled in Fulton County, Georgia. Thus, Georgia law applies to this action. Sometimes when a person is traveling across state lines and is involved in a car accident, then venue may be brought where the accident occurred under the law of the Nonresident Motorist Act (O.C.G.A. 45-13-26 et seq.). But that is not the case here.
5. The Purpose of Personal Injury Actions Is To Compensate for the Loss Caused by Another’s Negligence
Many readers were incensed that Aunt Janice sued in the first place. While it is terrible that her sister Yvonne was killed in this single car accident, and nothing can change that, Janice had injuries as well. Serious car accidents can cause lifelong debilitating injuries that put people out of work and in serious debt with large medical bills. Even medical co-payments for those with insurance can be significant. Not only is Janice entitled to recover for out of pocket expenses, but she is also entitled to be compensated for pain and suffering as well.
While pain and suffering constitute non-economic damages, Georgia law recognizes it as a genuine element of loss. If Yvonne fell asleep at the wheel, then she was negligent, and her negligence not only caused her own death, but injury to Janice as well. The purpose of personal injury claims is to help make people whole again. While money cannot make up for the loss of a sister, it can alleviate the troubles caused by mounting medical bills, lost wages, and personal anguish. One of the reasons that automobile liability insurance is mandatory in Georgia is to provide compensation for this type of loss.
Hopefully, the two families will come together again even after this devastating loss. But understanding the law better would also help them.