Justia Alabama Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Personal Injury
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Defendants D.R.J. and his mother, Dana Sides, petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the Circuit Court to vacate two orders holding that a pro tanto release executed in their favor was void, thus restoring them as defendants in the underlying lawsuit. Kathy and Barry King sued D.R.J. and Sides seeking damages for injuries the Kings sustained as a result of an automobile accident allegedly caused by D.R.J.'s negligence in driving Sides' vehicle. D.R.J. was a minor at the time of the accident. Defendants and their insurer, Alfa Mutual Insurance Company, offered to settle the Kings' claims for $95,000. Counsel for the Kings notified their insurer, State Farm, of the settlement offer, preserving its subrogation rights against defendants. State Farm responded by offering the Kings $25,000 to settle the UIM claim, which the Kings rejected. The Kings then accepted the $95,000 settlement offer without State Farm's consent, expressly reserving their UIM claim against State Farm. The Kings then moved to dismiss all claims against defendants, and the trial court entered an order dismissing defendants with prejudice. When State Farm learned of the pro tanto release, it moved the trial court for summary judgment, arguing the Kings forfeited their rights to UIM benefits by executing the pro tanto release without its consent. The trial court found State Farm validly objected to the Kings' settlement, made no ruling on State Farm's motion, and declared the pro tanto release void, thus restoring the "status quo" of the case. Defendants argued the trial court should have granted State Farm's motion and ended the litigation. The Supreme Court determined defendants' situation was not one in which they had a clear legal right to relief sought but the trial court refused to grant. They thus had not met their burden for the issuance of a writ of mandamus, and the Court denied their petition. View "Ex parte D.R.J." on Justia Law

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Deitrick Bryant ("Deitrick") committed suicide in his cell while he was an inmate at the Greene County, Alabama jail. Deitrick's mother, as the administrator of his estate, sued two jail employees, alleging that their negligence allowed Deitrick's suicide to happen. The trial court entered a summary judgment in favor of the jail employees, and Deitrick's mother appealed. "The controlling factor in determining whether there may be a recovery for a failure to prevent a suicide is whether the defendants reasonably should have anticipated that the deceased would attempt to harm himself." The Alabama Supreme Court determined Bryant failed to put forth evidence that would allow a factfinder to conclude that jail staff could have anticipated Deitrick's suicide. Accordingly, the summary judgment entered by the trial court was affirmed. View "Bryant v. Carpenter" on Justia Law

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Kathleen Hendrix ("Hendrix"), as administratrix of the estate of Kenneth Morris Hendrix, deceased, appeals a circuit court judgment dismissing Hendrix's medical-malpractice wrongful-death claim against United Healthcare Insurance Company of the River Valley ("United"). Kenneth, who was covered by a health-insurance policy issued by United, died after United refused to pay for a course of medical treatment recommended by Kenneth's treating physician. The trial court determined that Hendrix's claim was preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), because the claim "relate[s] to" the ERISA-governed employee-benefit plan pursuant to which United had issued Kenneth's health-insurance policy. In October 2015, Kenneth was injured in an automobile accident. His physician recommended Kenneth be admitted to an inpatient-rehabilitation facility. Hendrix claimed United "imposed itself as [Kenneth's] health care provider, took control of [Kenneth's] medical care, and made a medical treatment decision that [Kenneth] should not receive further treatment, rehabilitation, and care at an inpatient facility." Instead, Hendrix contended United made the decision Kenneth should have been discharged to his home to receive a lower quality of care than had been ordered by his physicians. Kenneth died on October 25, 2015, due to a pulmonary thromboembolism, which, the complaint asserts, would not have occurred had United approved inpatient rehabilitation. The Alabama Supreme Court concurred with the circuit court that Hendrix's claim related to an ERISA-governed benefit plan, and thus preempted by the ERISA statute. View "Hendrix v. United Healthcare Insurance Company of the River Valley" on Justia Law

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Advanced Disposal Services South, LLC, Advanced Disposal Services Alabama Holdings, LLC, Advanced Disposal Services, Inc., Tallassee Waste Disposal Center, Inc., and Stone's Throw Landfill, LLC (collectively, "Advanced Disposal"), petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to order the Macon Circuit Court ("the trial court") to dismiss, an action filed by Jerry Tarver, Sr., because, they claimed, the action cannot proceed in the absence of the City of Tallassee ("the City") as a party. In May 2017, Tarver sued Advanced Disposal, the utilities board, and fictitiously named defendants seeking monetary damages as well as injunctive relief for exposure to allegedly contaminated water that had been illegally "discharged" into the river and ultimately sold by the utilities board for consumption by its customers. The complaint alleged Advanced Disposal unlawfully discharged its leachate into the City's stabilization pond, knowing that the leachate could not be properly treated before the resulting effluent was discharged into the river. Tarver also alleged Advanced Disposal discharged "pollutants" into various creeks and tributaries flowing into the river in violation of its storm-water discharge permit. The Alabama Supreme Court denied relief, finding that this action could proceed in equity and good conscience without the City. "The City's role in the underlying dispute potentially makes the City a joint tortfeasor with Advanced Disposal, the utilities board, and MCWA; it does not, however, make the City an indispensable party under the particular facts of this case." View "Ex parte Advanced Disposal Services South, LLC" on Justia Law

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Aaron Kyle Steward sued Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Company ("Nationwide"), seeking uninsured-motorist ("UM") benefits after he was injured in an accident at a publicly owned and operated all-terrain-vehicle ("ATV") park. The circuit court entered summary judgment in Steward's favor, ruling that the ATV that collided with the one on which he was riding was an "uninsured motor vehicle" for purposes of Steward's automobile-insurance policies with Nationwide, and Nationwide appealed. Because the Alabama Supreme Court concluded that the roads on which the accident occurred were "public roads" under the policies, judgment was affirmed. View "Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Company v. Steward" on Justia Law

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The Alabama Supreme Court granted Mid-Century Insurance Company permission to appeal the denial of its motion for a partial summary judgment in an action seeking underinsured-motorist benefits filed by Rodney Watts, as the personal representative of the estate of his wife Leiah Watts, deceased, and others (collectively, "the Watts plaintiffs"). In 2016, Leiah Watts, Caiden Watts, Jackson Watts, Faye Howard, Mary Adair, Evelyn Watts, Tammy McBurnett, Renee Stone, and Victoria Stone were traveling in a 2014 Ford Expedition sport-utility vehicle when it was struck by a vehicle driven by Wiley "Pete" Whitworth. The collision killed Leiah Watts, Faye Howard, Mary Adair, and Evelyn Watts. Tammy McBurnett, Renee Stone, Caiden Watts, Jackson Watts, and Victoria Stone suffered serious injuries in the collision. The Watts vehicle was insured by a policy of insurance issued by Farmers Insurance Exchange to Rodney Watts, underwritten by Mid-Century. Mid-Century contended that, because the policy allowed for the stacking of up to three UIM coverages, the maximum amount of UIM benefits available under the policy for the accident in this case was $300,000, based on $100,000 per accident. The Watts plaintiffs contended that each of the nine occupants of the Watts vehicle involved in the accident (or his/her personal representative) was entitled to $150,000 in UIM benefits ($50,000 per person limit of the occupied vehicle plus the per person limit of $50,000 for two additional coverages under the stacking provision of the policy). Thus, the total sought by Rodney in UIM benefits was $1,350,000 (9 x $150,000). The case was removed to federal district court, and the federal court granted Mid-Century's motion to dismiss in part, granting the motion as to fraud claims as to Farmers Insurance Exchange and Mid-Century. The court dismissed without prejudice claims of breach of contract and bad faith on ripeness grounds. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the Watts plaintiffs were unable to stack more than three coverages under the uninsured-motorist statute and insurance policy, and the fact that they could not do so did not render the coverage under the policy illusory. The Court reversed the trial court's order denying Mid-Century's motion for a partial summary judgment as to the UIM claim and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Mid-Century Insurance Company v. Watts" on Justia Law

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Defendants below, Sam Smith, director of the Calhoun County Department of Human Resources ("CCDHR"); Pamela McClellan, an adult-protective-services caseworker with CCDHR; and Teresa Ellis, McClellan's supervisor (referred to collectively as "petitioners"), petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the circuit court to vacate its order denying their motion for a summary judgment in a wrongful-death action filed by William David Streip ("David"), as the personal representative of the estate of his sister, Jerrie Leeann Streip ("Leeann"), and to enter a summary judgment in their favor on the basis of immunity. Leeann suffered from numerous serious physical, mental, and emotional conditions since birth; those conditions were exacerbated by brain surgery in 2013. Following that surgery, Leeann was released to a nursing-home facility before being discharged into the care of her father. Leeann subsequently reported to a CCDHR social worker that her father had raped her. As a result, an adult-protective-services case was opened under Alabama's Adult Protective Services Act ("the APSA"), and McClellan was assigned as Leeann's caseworker. Upon the conclusion of the ensuing investigation, CCDHR removed Leeann from her father's care. Leeann was placed at a Leviticus Place, a boarding home where she remained for approximately one week. There were no concerns about Leeann's well being, but McClellan was notified Leann had left Leviticus Place and did not return. A body located in Birmingham was later identified as Leeann's; her cause of death remains "undetermined." After review, the Alabama Supreme Court determined petitioners established they were entitled to statutory immunity. They had a clear legal right to a summary judgment in their favor on that ground. The trial court was accordingly directed to vacate its order denying the petitioners' motion for a summary judgment and to enter a summary judgment in the petitioners' favor. View "Ex parte Sam Smith" on Justia Law

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Synergies3 Tec Services, LLC ("Synergies3"), and DIRECTV, LLC ("DIRECTV"), appealed a circuit court judgment in favor of Lisa Corvo and Thomas Bonds and against Synergies3 and DIRECTV based on the doctrine of respondeat superior and a claim alleging negligent hiring, training, and supervision. Corvo and her fiance Bonds sued Daniel McLaughlin, Raymond Castro, and DIRECTV in the trial court, asserting claims of conversion and theft as to a diamond that had been removed from an engagement ring and $160 cash that, they alleged, had been taken from the master bedroom of Corvo's house on Ono Island when McLaughlin and Castro, employees of Synergies3, installed DIRECTV equipment in Corvo's house. Corvo and Bonds asserted the conversion and theft claims against DIRECTV under the doctrine of respondeat superior and, in addition, asserted claims against DIRECTV of negligent and wanton hiring, training, and supervision. They also sought damages for mental anguish and punitive damages. While the Alabama Supreme Court found the trial court did not err in denying Synergies3 and DIRECTV's motion for a judgment as a matter of law as to Corvo and Bonds's claim of negligent hiring, training, and supervision of Castro, but that punitive damages were improperly awarded. Judgment was reversed insofar as it held Synergies3 and DIRECTV vicariously or directly liable on the claims of theft and conversion, and insofar as it awarded punitive damages. The judgment was affirmed insofar as it held Synergies3 and DIRECTV liable for the negligent hiring, training, and supervision of Castro and awarded compensatory and mental-anguish damages. View "Synergies3 Tec Services, LLC, et al. v. Corvo" on Justia Law

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Sandra Shinaberry petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for certiorari review of the Court of Civil Appeals' no- opinion affirmance of a circuit court's judgment awarding a fee to a guardian ad litem appointed to represent four minors for the sole purpose of making a recommendation to the circuit court on whether a proposed settlement was in the minors' best interest. In 2012, Shinaberry's automobile rear-ended an automobile being driven by Sherri Guy. Guy's three minor children and a minor stepchild were in her car. The children were treated for soft-tissue injuries. The children, by and through their parents, sued Shinaberry and her insurer. In April 2015, a settlement was reached between Shinaberry and her insurer and the four minor children. Mark Wilson was appointed as guardian ad litem for the four children for the purpose of determining if the settlement was fair to the children. By 2018, a final pro ami hearing was held to approve the settlement and Wilson's fee for serving as guardian ad litem. Wilson was awarded $8,000 for his services as guardian ad litem based on his affidavit that he worked 32 hours at a rate of $250 an hour; it was undisputed that Wilson never prepared a report with a recommendation as to whether the settlement was in the best interest of the minors. Shinaberry objected to Wilson's fee, and complained that he unnecessarily delayed the settlement. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, finding the circuit court exceeded its discretion in awarding Wilson $7,750 as a fee because the record contained insufficient evidence to support that fee. View "Ex parte Shinaberry." on Justia Law

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Defendants Curt Freudenberger, M.D., and Sportsmed Orthopedic Surgery & Spine Center, P.C. petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the Madison Circuit Court to vacate its October 10, 2019, protective order to the extent it imposes conditions upon ex parte interviews defense counsel intends to conduct with physicians who treated one of the plaintiffs, Rhonda Brewer, in connection with her injuries. In August 2019, Rhonda and her husband, Charlie, sued Dr. Freudenberger and Sportsmed Orthopedic (collectively, "defendants"), asserting claims of medical malpractice based on injuries Rhonda allegedly suffered during the course of a surgical procedure performed by Dr. Freudenberger. Charlie also asserted a claim of loss of consortium. Before discovery, defendants moved for the entry of a "qualified protective order," pursuant to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 ("HIPAA"), and filed a proposed order with their motion. The trial court entered a qualified protective order authorizing the disclosure of Rhonda's protected health information; the order, however, imposed conditions on defense counsel's contacts with her treating physicians. Defendants moved the trial court to reconsider its order, contending that Alabama law allowed ex parte interviews with treating physicians, that HIPAA did not prohibit ex parte interviews with treating physicians, and that the restrictions imposed effectively deprived them from conducting ex parte interviews. The trial court denied reconsideration. The Supreme Court determined the trial court exceeded its discretion by requiring the Brewers' counsel to receive notice of, and have an opportunity to attend, ex parte interviews that defense counsel intended to conduct with Rhonda's treating physicians. Accordingly, the additional conditions imposed by the trial court were not justified based on the Brewers' objection that ex parte communications would violate HIPAA and the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court granted defendants' petition and issued the writ. The trial court was directed to vacate its order to the extent it imposed conditions upon defense counsel's ex parte interviews with Rhonda's treating physicians. View "Ex parte Freudenberger" on Justia Law