Suing Yourself and Other Unusual Personal Injury Claims

Numerous sources are referring to the American case of Barbara Bagley, who was granted permission by the Utah Court of Appeals to proceed with a wrongful-death lawsuit against herself for alleged negligence, which resulted in the death of her husband.

The case relates to a road traffic accident which occurred on 27 December 2011 in a desert in Nevada, where Barbara Bagley had lost control of the vehicle and collided with a sagebrush, causing the car to flip over. Her late husband was a passenger in the vehicle. He sustained serious injuries as a result passed away on 6 January 2012.

Bagley is pursuing the matter as a personal representative of her late husband’s estate, and also as his widow. The latter element of the claim is being represented by the insurance provider. It is understood that they have only agreed to cover the vehicle damage so far, and are refusing to pay out in respect of the funeral expenses, medical bills and creditors, until the court finds Bagley to have been a negligent driver, meaning that the financial responsibility would rest with her insurers.

Whilst the bold headlines make the claim sound almost outrageous, it seems to be no more than a formality, stemming from the insurer’s unwillingness to pay out. Further, when you examine the circumstances in detail, it is not that unusual.

Barbara Bagley’s late husband was a passenger in the vehicle at the time of the accident. Any valid motor insurance provides cover for the injuries caused to third parties, which includes the passengers. Under normal circumstances, a passenger is entitled to pursue a claim against the negligent driver of the vehicle, or, in the case of a deceased claimant, the matter would be pursued on behalf of their estate. This is particularly relevant if no other cars were involved in the accident. Barbara Bagley appears to be her late husband’s only next of kin, thus she is having to represent the interests of his estate. She also happens to be the defendant, which complicates matters.

It is difficult to envisage the same scenario being permitted by the UK courts. There is clearly a conflict of interest, and it would be in the best interests of the estate to be represented by an independent party, but the principle still stands that an innocent passenger is rightly entitled to be compensated for the injuries and consequential losses caused by the negligent actions of the driver.

Even if no other cars are involved, for instance if a driver loses control of the vehicle and crashes into parked cars or a wall, the passengers are entitled to pursue a claim for their injuries. It is immaterial whether the driver is a relative, a family member or a friend. Further, the passenger may still have a good claim even if the driver was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident, although some deduction may be applied to reflect contributory negligence. According to the case of Meah v McCreamer [1985] 1 All ER 367, such deduction should not exceed 25%.

There are, therefore, no rules to prevent family members from pursuing claims against each other, albeit many people consider it to be unethical. What needs to be borne in mind, however, is that a claim for compensation is not intended to punish the tortfeasor (the wrongdoer), but to compensate the injured party, and there is nothing immoral in the wish to be compensated, or seek an appropriate remedy in law, for an unjust loss.

Many also disregard the fact that the compensation is actually sought from the insurance companies, as opposed to the individuals directly. Such insurance cover is specifically in place to indemnify against accidents and other losses. If your property was stolen, would you think twice about making a claim on your contents insurance? Or what if someone smashed your windscreen – would you simply rectify the damage yourself, knowing that you have paid money to the insurance company to protect yourself from this exact scenario?

Passengers’ claims against the driver is one example of a less common type of cases. Other unusual claims involve accidents at friends’ houses, or even in your own home, but the prospects of success would depend on the availability of adequate insurance cover in place, as well as being able to prove negligence.

To illustrate, we once represented a client who had unfortunately sustained a serious injury whilst attending a party at his friend’s house. He stubbed his toe on a sharp concrete corner outside a door, because it was painted in the same colour as the floor and was almost impossible to notice. Our client suffered with a pre-existing chronic vascular disease, which aggravated the consequences of something which may appear to be a very minor incident. Luckily, his friend had valid home insurance in place, and his insurers have agreed to deal with the claim straight away. Our client was awarded £2,000, and as far as we know, his friendship with the ‘defendant’ was not affected by the claim.

Another example could be a claim by someone injured after slipping on spilt water in their relative’s home, the relative having created a slipping hazard. This would be a straightforward claim, because the relative would be an occupier, within the meaning of the Occupier’s Liability Act 1957, and she had a duty under section 2 of the Act to her daughter, who was a visitor, ‘… to take such care as in all the circumstances of the case is reasonable to see that the visitor will be reasonably safe in using the premises for the purpose for which he is invited or permitted by the occupier to be there’.

It should be made clear that this article does not intend to encourage fanciful claims, but it is important to know your rights, when it comes to unusual accidents. Suffering an injury may have drastic consequences on a person’s life, from unpleasant physical symptoms to the loss of employment, with the resulting financial hardship. If you have been seriously injured as a result of someone else’s fault, it is only prudent to consider all possible options to get your life back on track.

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