Posts Tagged ‘Riverside Auto Accident’

Recent Changes to Jury Fee Rules

October 1, 2012

by Jean-Simon Serrano

In California, if you demand a jury trial, you are required to pay a deposit for exercising that right.  In recent years, prior to June 5, 2012, the Code of Civil Procedure § 631(b) read:

 

“Each party demanding a jury trial shall deposit advance jury fees with the clerk or judge.  The total amount of the advance jury fees may not exceed on hundred fifty ($150) for each party.  The deposit shall be made at least 25 calendar days before the date initially set for trial…” [emphasis added].

 

Earlier this year, Code of Civil Procedure § 631(b) was amended to read:

 

“(b) Each party demanding a jury trial shall deposit advance jury fees with the clerk or judge. The total amount of the advance jury fees shall be one hundred fifty dollars ($150) for each party.

(c) The advance jury fee deposit shall be made on or before the date scheduled for the initial case management conference in the action. If no case management conference is scheduled in a civil action, the advance jury deposit shall be made no later than 365 calendar days after the filing of the initial complaint. If the party has not appeared before the initial case management conference or has appeared more than 365 calendar days after the filing of the initial complaint, the deposit shall be made as provided in subdivision (d).” [emphasis added].

 

There are three things to note: (1) the “fee” is non-refundable; (2) each party is responsible for depositing this fee; and (3) the fee is required to be paid on or before the first Case Management Conference or within one year of the filing of the action.

 

Under the June 5, 2012 Amendment, every plaintiff is required to pay $150.00, in addition to the $450.00 filing fee (Riverside County), simply for bringing a civil action – this could amount to many hundreds of dollars in non-refundable fees being paid in a case where multiple plaintiffs are injured.

 

Additionally, because the vast, vast majority of personal injury cases in California settle before trial (indeed many statutes are engineered to promote the goal of settlement), this non-refundable fee gets paid to the court, never to be used to pay for the plaintiff’s non-existent jury and never to be returned to him/her.  Previously, the jury fees were only to be paid 25 calendar days before the initial trial date and, in many cases, an action would settle before such fees were deposited.  Now, the fee must be paid very early in litigation, often before any meaningful attempts to settle can be made.

 

As a result of much discontent regarding the June amendment to Section 631(b), Assembly Bill 1481 was introduced, passed, and signed into law on September 17th 2012, to take effect immediately.  Code of Civil Procedure § 631(b) now reads:

 

At least one party demanding a jury on each side of a civil case shall pay a nonrefundable fee of one hundred fifty dollars ($150), unless the fee has been paid by another party on the same side of the case. The fee shall offset the costs to the state of providing juries in civil cases. If there are more than two parties to the case, for purposes of this section only, all plaintiffs shall be considered one side of the case, and all other parties shall be considered the other side of the case.” [emphasis added].

 

The language of the Section now requires only one party per side to pay the jury deposit fee.  Unfortunately, the requirement that these fees be deposited on or before the date of the first Case Management Conference remains (a few narrow exceptions are listed in Section 631(c)).

 

It seems clear that the recent changes to these rules were designed to provide the Courts with more funding.  It is also clear that, given the early requirement for depositing such non-refundable fees, this is another non-recoverable cost that must be incurred by a plaintiff in bringing an action for damages.  What are less clear are the implications these rules have on one’s Constitutional Right to a jury trial and whether we will see further outrage like that which resulted in AB 1481.

Five Things To Do After an Accident

July 9, 2012

Should you have the misfortune of being involved in an auto accident, it is important that you gather information and undertake a few responsibilities.

These are the most important steps to take following a collision. Click here for a useful form that you can keep in your vehicle. This form will help you gather important information at the scene of the accident.

1.         Obtain the information listed on our form:

Name, address, telephone number, driver’s license number of all drivers.

Insurance information from all the other drivers (Ins. co. name, telephone number and policy number).

License plate number and (VIN) for all other vehicles.

Name, phone number and address of any eyewitness to the collision.

2.         Report the accident:

immediately to the police and cooperate with them in preparing an accident report. If no police are available to respond to the scene, consider contacting the local police agency to determine if you can complete a report at a later time.  You will also need to fill out and file an SR-1 with the DMV.

to your insurance company, even if you are not at fault. If your insurance policy provides medical payments coverage and you require medical treatment because of the accident, your insurance company will provide you with information about how to use that coverage. Additionally, you may need to make a claim under your policy’s uninsured coverage (if your policy provides such coverage).

3.         Photograph:

Vehicles involved in the accident. Take several photographs that clearly show any damage. Take photographs from different angles and all four sides of the vehicles. Consider keeping a disposable camera in your car for this purpose, although a cell phone that takes quality pictures will work too.

Your injuries.

4.         Seek medical treatment without delay if you are injured or experiencing pain.

5.        Obtain legal advice by calling Heiting & Irwin before meeting with any insurance company representative, filling out insurance documents or giving a recorded statement or medical authorization to any insurance company (even your own). You have no obligation to provide this information before you have had the opportunity to speak with an attorney. If an insurance company representative contacts you before you are prepared to discuss your claims, politely explain that you do not wish to discuss the matter at this time, and you will contact them in the very near future to discuss your claims.

We suggest that you consult with an experienced personal injury firm.  Heiting & Irwin, offers free, no-obligation initial consultations. Our experienced attorneys will provide you with a thorough, thoughtful case evaluation that will help you to decide how best to proceed with your claims. Call (951) 682-6400, email or visit our website for more information.

ARE LAWSUIT SETTLEMENTS TAXABLE?

June 22, 2012

By Dennis R. Stout

The simple answer to the question regarding the tax consequences of a settlement claim is it all depends on the nature of the settlement!

 

Generally speaking, settlement money received from cases involving personal physical injury or physical sickness can be excluded from taxation (IRS Code sect. 104(a)(2)). Certain other types of settlement awards, (considering the nature of the item that the settlement replaces), may be taxable, including compensation for lost wages or lost profits; breach of contract damages, employment discrimination, emotional distress (if not related to physical injury or sickness); and punitive damages just to name a few.

 

In conclusion, only settlements from physical injury or sickness are non-taxable; generally all other types of settlements are taxable. Given the complexity of litigation, settlements and tax consequences, it is important and prudent to speak to an attorney, accountant, or tax advisor for clarification on this issue. Attorneys at Heiting & Irwin are always available to assist our clients with all of their legal needs and questions.

The Benefits of a Large Auto Insurance Policy

February 3, 2012

 by Jean-Simon Serrano

If you own and drive a car in California, not only does the law require that you have auto insurance, it is also a good idea.

 Technically, the law doesn’t require you to have an auto insurance policy.  In fact, as an alternative to insurance, one can post with the DMV a thirty-five thousand dollar ($35,000) bond or a thirty-five thousand dollar ($35,000) cash deposit.  Or, if you qualify, you may be issued a certificate of self-insurance from the DMV.  Realistically, an insurance policy is the only option for many.

 It is good to have an insurance policy and there are myriad reasons for this.

 Protection from Personal Liability

The first reason is probably the most obvious: protection from personal liability should you cause an accident.  If you are deemed to be at fault for an accident, you want an insurance policy to protect you and your assets for the damage caused.  This means picking a policy with appropriate limits.  How much is appropriate will depend partly on the assets you wish to protect.  For example, if you have multiple vehicles, a house, and/or other real property, a minimum policy of $15,000.00 per person/$30,0000.00 per incident will not adequately protect your assets if the accident you have caused does damages in excess of these minimal limits.  I have heard insurance defense attorneys joke that carrying a minimal policy is wise as it can lead to faster settlement in some cases and that attachment of assets is rarely sought.  This is not good advice.  Not only do many plaintiffs’ firms, such as the one where I work, regularly seek attachment of assets where necessary, carrying a minimal policy will limit the amount of underinsured motorist coverage you can carry, the benefits of which will be discussed later in this article.

 You should carry as large a policy as you can afford – the benefits of a large insurance policy go beyond mere asset protection.

 Civil Code § 3333.4 “Prop 213” Considerations

There is another very important reason to carry automobile insurance that is not well known to those outside the legal and insurance industries: Civil Code § 3333.4 or “Proposition 213” as it is commonly known.

 Civil Code Section 3333.4 states that a person “shall not recover non-economic losses to compensate for pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, and other nonpecuniary damages if… (2) The injured person was the owner of a vehicle involved in the accident and the vehicle was not insured…” Civil Code § 3333.4 [emphasis added].

 Thus, even if you did not cause the motor-vehicle accident, you may be unable to recover for, among other things, pain & suffering, physical impairment, and disfigurement, if your vehicle was not insured at the time of the accident.

 You could become horribly disfigured because someone was texting while driving and not be able to recover for this disfigurement because you were not, yourself, carrying an insurance policy at the time of the accident.  This is certainly a drastic example; however, it should be reason enough to ensure that your vehicle is always insured – at any level of coverage.

 Protection Against Others (Uninsured/Underinsured Coverage)

A third, extremely important, reason to have auto insurance is to protect yourself against the harms caused by others.

 Won’t my injuries be covered by the at-fault party’s insurance?  Yes, no, and maybe.  As mentioned earlier, California permits one to carry an insurance policy as low as $15,000.00/$30,000.00.  If this is the only insurance policy held by the at-fault party, and they have no assets, this may not be enough to compensate you for your damages.  Furthermore, what if the other party has no insurance!?

 Fortunately, Insurance Code § 11580.2 requires every policy of auto insurance issued in California to include coverage equal to the minimum required coverage ($15,000/$30,000) against owners or operators of uninsured motor vehicles.  Therefore, if you are insured, but the at-fault party is not, you should at least be covered for the minimum amounts allowed by law… unless you specifically decline this coverage in writing.  I cannot fathom why anyone would decline this type of coverage in exchange for minimal savings on their insurance premium.  Do not decline this coverage – you are only hurting yourself.

 Additionally, uninsured motorist coverage can also be accompanied with “underinsured” coverage.  This type of coverage will protect you in the event that the at-fault party has neither an insurance policy large enough nor other assets available to fully compensate you for your injuries.  If you sustain serious injuries for which you will require life-long care, discovering that the at-fault party has no assets and only carries $15,000.00 of coverage only adds insult to injury.  With underinsured motorist coverage, you can protect yourself against such a scenario.  Using the previous example, if you carried $500,000.00 in underinsured coverage, you would still have $485,000.00 in coverage after the at-fault party’s minimal insurance was depleted.

 Protect yourself against those who do not fully insure themselves!  Many people on the road carry only minimal insurance policies.  The risk is too great that you will be injured by someone with low to minimal policy limits.  It does not make sense to decline uninsured motorist coverage or to carry anything other than maximum underinsured coverage.

 In addition to compliance with the law, these are only a few of the many reasons it is a good idea to have an insurance policy with maximum coverage.  Not only will you be protecting yourself, you will also be protecting others.

The Howell Decision: Is it Worse for Plaintiffs than MICRA?

November 4, 2011

By Jean-Simon Serrano

The Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) was passed in 1975 and limits non-economic damages (pain, suffering and death of a loved one) in California medical malpractice cases to $250,000.00. Prior to December 1975, juries were free to weigh all evidence and award an amount of non-economic damages appropriate for the injury to the victim.

The $250,000.00 cap on non-economic damages has never been re-evaluated since its imposition in 1975 and, due to inflation, is now less than $70,000 in 1975 dollars. As if this wasn’t outrageous enough on its own, MICRA also served to alter the collateral source rule.

“Under the traditional collateral source rule, a jury, in calculating a plaintiff’s damages in a tort action, does not take into consideration benefits, such as medical insurance or disability payments, which the plaintiff has received from sources other than the defendant, i.e., collateral sources, to cover losses resulting from the injury. Cal. Civ. Code § 3333.1 [MICRA] alters this rule in medical malpractice cases. Under § 3333.1(a), a medical malpractice defendant is permitted to introduce evidence of such collateral source benefits received by or payable to the plaintiff; when a defendant chooses to introduce such evidence, the plaintiff may introduce evidence of the amounts he has paid, in insurance premiums, for example, to secure the benefits. Although § 3333.1(a), does not specify how the jury should use such evidence, the legislature apparently assumed that in most cases the jury would set plaintiff’s damages at a lower level because of its awareness of plaintiff’s net collateral source benefits. “ Fein v. Permanente Medical Group, (1985) 38 Cal. 3d 137, 164-165

Thus, MICRA served to both severely limit the non-economic damages recoverable by plaintiffs in medical malpractices cases and limit the amounts recovered by plaintiffs whom were responsible enough to have procured insurance to guard against losses. Fortunately, MICRA allows plaintiffs who had health insurance to recover the costs incurred in procuring such a benefit, in the form of amounts paid in insurance premiums.

Recently, the California Supreme Court has issued another blow to the collateral source rule and to responsible plaintiffs. In Howell v. Hamilton Meats and Provisions, Inc., (2011) 52 Cal. 4th 541, the Court held that a plaintiff could recover as damages for her past medical expenses no more than her medical providers had accepted as payment in full from plaintiff and her health insurer.

Unlike MICRA, which permits plaintiffs to introduce evidence regarding expenses incurred in procuring their insurance, plaintiffs in non-medical malpractice personal injury cases receive no such benefit. Thus, under Howell (supra), defendants receive the benefit of plaintiff’s thrift in being liable for greatly reduced medical expenses without having to reimburse plaintiffs for the (often substantial) costs of procuring such a benefit.

As it relates to the effect on the collateral source rule, the recent Howell (supra) ruling is potentially more damaging to plaintiffs than MICRA.

Under MICRA, a perpetrator of medical malpractice receives the benefit of lower medical damages if the victim had health insurance; however, he must reimburse the victim her costs of procuring such insurance.

Under Howell, one causing injuries to others receives the benefit of lower medical damages if the victim had health insurance and, as an added bonus, does not have to reimburse the victim of procuring such insurance.

Sadly, Howell is a win-win for those causing injuries to others in California.

We, at Heiting & Irwin specialize in personal injury cases and are on the cutting edge of personal injury law in California.  While this decision is upsetting, we are undeterred in making sure our clients are fully compensated for their injuries.

James Heiting interviewed regarding recent article in National Law Journal

April 13, 2011

James Otto Heiting was recently interviewed regarding the article which was published in the National Law Journal.  Click here to see/hear the interview.

California Supreme Court Finds Liability for Tractor-Trailer Parked Along Freeway

March 17, 2011

by Jean-Simon Serrano

On February 28, 2011, the California Supreme Court decided the case of Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Co. (Docket No. S178799).  This is another case revolving around a deadly motor vehicle accident in which a tractor-trailer was involved.  See my previous article here

In Cabral, Plaintiff’s husband, the decedent, was driving his pickup truck home from work, when he suddenly veered off the freeway and collided, at high speed, with the rear of a stopped Ralph’s Tractor Trailer.  Mr. Cabral was killed instantly.  According to investigation, Mr. Cabral was not intoxicated at the time of the accident and experts opined that the accident occurred after he (a) fell asleep at the wheel; or (b) lost control due to an undiagnosed medical condition.  Just prior to the accident, the driver of the tractor trailer pulled over to the side of the freeway in order to have a snack.

The jury determined that the decedent was 90% at fault for the accident and apportioned 10% of the fault to the driver of the tractor trailer.  The trial court denied Ralphs’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and entered a judgment awarding Mrs. Cabral damages for the wrongful death of her husband.

Ralph’s appealed the Superior Court ruling and the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment on the jury verdict and denial of the employer’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.  Ralph’s successfully argued that it owed no duty to persons such as the decedent as it was not foreseeable that persons such as Mr. Cabral would veer off course and collide with a tractor trailer parked along a freeway. The plaintiff appealed this ruling and thus the matter was put before the California Supreme Court.

The California Supreme Court held that the employer (Ralph’s) owed a legal duty to avoid a collision between the decedent, who was found 90 percent at fault, and the employer’s stopped truck.  In so holding, the Supreme Court cited Civil Code, § 1714, subd. (a) which established a general duty of reasonable care for the safety of others.  The Court stated that there were no grounds in the current case to find an exception to this general duty of reasonable care.  The Court stated:

“That drivers may lose control of their vehicles and leave a freeway for the shoulder area, where they may collide with any obstacle placed there, is not categorically unforeseeable. Nor does public policy clearly demand that truck drivers be universally permitted, without the possibility of civil liability for a collision, to take nonemergency breaks alongside freeways in areas where regulations permit only emergency parking.  Were we to recognize the categorical exemption from the duty of ordinary care Ralphs seeks, no liability could be imposed even when a driver unjustifiably stops his or her vehicle alongside the freeway in particularly dangerous circumstances. For example, parking a tractor-trailer for the night immediately next to the freeway traffic lanes on the outside of a poorly lit downhill curve, merely in order to save the cost of a spot in a truck stop, could well be considered negligent. Yet the parking truck driver in that scenario would as a matter of law bear no responsibility for a collision if, as Ralphs contends, no duty exists to exercise reasonable care, in parking alongside a freeway, for the safety of motorists who may unintentionally leave the freeway.  We therefore decline to create a categorical rule exempting those parking alongside freeways from the duty of drivers to exercise ordinary care for others in their use of streets and highways.”

The court also held that substantial evidence supported a finding that if the tractor-trailer had not been stopped where it was, the other driver likely would have come to a stop without a fatal collision.

As a result, the court reversed the judgment of the court of appeal.

This is not too dissimilar from the Court of Appeal decision in Lawson v. Safeway Inc., (2010) 191 Cal. App. 4th 400, which essentially held that tractor-trailer drivers had a duty to not only park legally, but also, to park safely. 

We, at Heiting & Irwin, specialize in tractor-trailer accidents.  If you or anyone you know has been in an accident involving a tractor-trailer, please do not hesitate to contact our office at (951) 682-6400 or visit our website: www.heitingandirwin.com

New California Case Holds Tractor-Trailer Drivers to Higher Standard

March 1, 2011

By Jean-Simon Serrano

The California Court of Appeal for the First District (which includes San Francisco and neighboring areas), recently decided a case, [Lawson v. Safeway Inc., (2010) 191 Cal. App. 4th 400] holding drivers of tractor trailers to a higher standard than some other motorists.

In the Lawson case, the plaintiffs were the driver of a motorcycle and his passenger.  “A large Safeway Inc. tractor-trailer was parked legally on the side of U.S. Highway 101 (101) close to an intersection near Crescent City. The position of the tractor-trailer blocked the view of oncoming traffic for a driver attempting to cross and turn onto 101. The driver’s pickup truck collided with motorcyclist Charles Lawson whose wife Connie B. Lawson was riding with him as they traveled on 101. The Lawsons filed suit for personal injuries against Safeway, the driver of the Safeway truck, the driver of the pickup, and the State of California. A jury awarded substantial damages to plaintiffs and apportioned 35 percent fault to Safeway, 35 percent to the State of California, and 30 percent to the driver of the pickup.”  Lawson, at 404 [emphasis added].

The issue before the Court on Safeway’s appeal was whether the driver of the tractor-trailer owed a duty of care to those injured in the accident when he parked in an area that was not prohibited by the Vehicle Code or any other statute or ordinance.  Safeway argued that they should not have been found at fault because their driver, in parking alongside the 101 fwy, had done nothing illegal.

The Court of Appeal ultimately held that, although the tractor trailer was parked legally on the side of the highway, the driver had a duty to park safely, as well as legally, in this particular case.  The driver had parked a 65 foot long, 13.5 foot tall, 8.5 foot wide commercial truck and the evidence showed that: the drivers of such trucks were or should be professionally trained to be aware of the risk of blocking other drivers’ sight lines when parking.  The evidence further showed that the truck was parked at a high-speed well-traveled intersection and a safe parking spot was available right around the corner.  Because of these facts, the Court held it was readily foreseeable that parking a large, commercial truck near an intersection might obstruct the views of passing motorists and cause them to collide.

In affirming the lower Court’s ruling, the Court of Appeals held that the risk of harm that was sufficiently great that a jury should have been allowed to determine whether the truck driver, in parking where he did, bore some responsibility for the accident.

Thus, it appears that, according to this ruling, drivers of tractor-trailers, because of their unique training and experience, will be held to a standard that not only requires them to be parked legally, but also, that they park safely.

We, at Heiting & Irwin, specialize in tractor-trailer accidents.  If you or anyone you know has been in an accident involving a tractor-trailer, please do not hesitate to contact our office at (951) 682-6400 or visit our website: www.heitingandirwin.com

What You May Not Know: 998 Offers

January 27, 2011

by Jean-Simon Serrano

Something that is often encountered in personal injury litigation in California is what is commonly referred to as a “998 Offer.”  Clients are constantly surprised by the 998 Offer as many have never heard of it.  Code of Civil Procedure § 998 is quite lengthy; however, the part that relates most pertinently to plaintiff’s personal injury practice is the following:

(c) (1) If an offer made by a defendant is not accepted and the plaintiff fails to obtain a more favorable judgment or award, the plaintiff shall not recover his or her postoffer costs and shall pay the defendant’s costs from the time of the offer… the court or arbitrator, in its discretion, may require the plaintiff to pay a reasonable sum to cover costs of the services of expert witnesses, who are not regular employees of any party, actually incurred and reasonably necessary in either, or both, preparation for trial or arbitration, or during trial or arbitration, of the case by the defendant.

C.C.P. § 998(c)(1) [emphasis added].

This Section has the potential to have serious consequences for plaintiffs (and defendants if plaintiffs file a 998 offer).  Assuming the defense has made a 998 offer of $25,000.00, this is what such an offer could mean to the plaintiff:  If you  proceed to trial and receive less than the $25,000.00 offer, the plaintiff is potentially liable for the costs incurred by the defendant after the time of the offer.  Thus, in this scenario, the plaintiff would have to pay her own attorneys’ fees and costs, as well as the costs incurred by the defense.  The defense’s costs in such a scenario could easily be in the tends of thousands of dollars.  Bear in mind that this is true even if the final award or judgment is $24,999.99 and even if you “win” your case.  This leaves a plaintiff with the spectre of getting a jury verdict in her favor yet receiving nothing by way of judgment after costs and fees are paid.

Thus, the 998 Offer creates a substantial disincentive to “roll the dice” and take one’s case to trial if one is unsure of the probability of recovering more than the 998 offer.

The 998 offer is not just a tool to be used by the defense.  At Heiting & Irwin, we regularly send out 998 offers to defendants, demanding they offer the plaintiff a reasonable settlement.  When made by plaintiffs [under Section 998(d)], these offers work essentially the same way outlined above, creating financial disincentives for the defendant to proceed to trial when the plaintiff has made a reasonable demand for settlement.  If the plaintiff ultimately recovers greater than her own 998 Offer, the defendant may have to pay the costs incurred by the plaintiff since the date of her offer.

DEMAND EQUAL PROTECTION

December 22, 2010

By: Dennis R. Stout

Equal protection is a clever and timely catch phrase and legal issue in these times of gay rights and mandatory health care. The issue also arises in the purchase and maintenance of UM/UIM (uninsured and underinsured) motorist coverage in the State of California.

 Following up on the prior blog re: UM/UIM coverage, automobile liability insurance or proof of financial responsibility is required on any vehicle operated in the State of California. Minimum requirements are $15,000.00 for injury/death to one person; $30,000.00 for injury/death to more than one person; and $5,000.00 for damage to property. By purchasing the minimum coverage or any greater insurance coverage limits, the driver/owner is protecting the interest of others, should they sustained injury or damage. But what about equally protecting yourself?

Uninsured motorist/underinsured coverage is not mandated. If you are injured in an automobile accident involving an uninsured or underinsured driver, are you protected? You must have the proper coverage and the proper limits of coverage to equally protect yourself.

To purchase automobile liability insurance coverage only, a waiver is required of UM/UIM coverage. If you carry greater liability coverage than the minimum limits requirements in California (15/30/5) you definitely need UM/UIM coverage. With liability limits in larger amounts, to carry UM/UIM coverage in less than limits of $30,000.00 per person/ $60,000.00 per event, another waiver is required.

To make a long and complicated story short, drivers of vehicles in the State of California need to protect themselves equally by acquiring UM/UIM coverage in limits equal to the liability coverage limits they purchase to protect others. Waivers can be complicated in insurance purchases but, insurance claims, litigation for personal injuries and damages, and not having the proper insurance coverage and limits of coverage can be an even more complicated process.

Protect yourself with equal coverage and limits that you protect others! Check your automobile insurance policy(s) with your agent. All automobile liability issues, insurance claims, and other injury matters can be handled by competent legal counsel. Heiting & Irwin in Riverside, CA can and will handle all your insurance and injury claims to conclusion. Contact us at any time you are in need of assistance.

What do I do after an accident?

August 16, 2010

by Jeffrey A. Boyd

-Assess your health and the health of anyone else involved in the accident. If any injuries appear to be serious, you should arrange for medical care immediately (dial 911).

-Remain calm and non-confrontational. Getting into an argument with the other driver, eyewitnesses, or medical personnel will not help the situation in any way.

-Get the information from the other driver (driver’s license number, license plate number, insurance company and policy number). Get information from the any eyewitnesses (including name, address, and telephone number).

-Make sure the police are called and that the officer files a report. If an officer will not respond to the scene, visit a police station within 48 hours to file an accident report.

-Make sure you receive necessary medical treatment. Just because you were not taken from the scene in an ambulance does not mean you are not injured. Sometimes a person will brush off pain as simple soreness from an accident. If you are not checked out by a medical professional, you will not know whether it is something more than normal soreness.

-Never give the other driver’s insurance company a recorded statement (see my previous article for the reasons behind this).

-The insurance company will likely handle the property damage claim separate from your claim for bodily injury. This is acceptable, but the insurance company is not entitled to ask you questions regarding your bodily injuries.

-Do not rush to settle your bodily injury claim until you have been examined by a medical professional and have talked with an attorney.

While handling a property damage claim may be fairly straightforward (ie. my car needs a new bumper), injuries to a person may be complex. A person may need physical therapy, medication, or even surgery. Just as a car may sustain damage to its frame that may not be visible to the body of a vehicle, people can sustain internal damage that is not present to the untrained eye. Settling a claim without being examined is risky and could leave you in the lurch if you need future medical care.

The Hawthorne Court: Civil Litigation Goes Back to School

July 2, 2010

By Jean-Simon Serrano

Many civil trials in Riverside County are presently being held in the Hawthorne Court – a recommissioned elementary school in Riverside.  In the past two months, my office has had the opportunity to try no less than three cases in this court.  Though it is, for all intents and purposes, a civil courthouse, there are a few peculiarities to having a civil trial in a former elementary school that bear mentioning.

Space is at a Premium

While the courtrooms are decorated and configured as such, there will be times when it is difficult to forget that you are in a rearranged classroom.  If your clients wish to have family members present, or if you are working with an insurance adjuster who wants to tag along, you should know that seating is extremely limited.  Only two persons can sit at each counsel table.  In one of my trials at Hawthorne, I was representing three clients – one client could accompany me at the counsel table but the other two had to sit at the back of the classroom (where there is room for only one row of hardback, uncomfortable, metal chairs).

It is often recommended that an attorney familiarize themselves with the courtroom before trial – this is especially true of Hawthorne, where it should take about fifteen seconds to do so.  A cursory inspection of the courtrooms will reveal that the witness stand is on wheels and is located inside the well, between the judge and counsels’ tables.  While portable in nature, the stand is difficult to configure such that witnesses can be simultaneously facing both the jury and anything projected via the overhead projector.  Projected images are almost always directly behind the witness stand, and some jurors complain they can’t see the witness at all because the court reporter is obstructing their view.

What you may not notice upon initial inspection of Hawthorne is that train tracks run directly behind the school.  Be prepared to pause hourly as freight trains blare their horns and roar by the building.

There are no judges’ chambers per se.  Rather, discussions that are regularly heard in chambers or at side bar, are likely to be heard outdoors, on a walkway that runs alongside the building between the classrooms.  Naturally, the court reporter is not present as it would be too cumbersome to bring the machine, etc., outside.

The Jury

It has been my experience, and perhaps this varies depending on the judge, that jury selection is done in the courtroom and not in a jury assembly room.  This will probably have little effect on your voir dire; however, it could be a surprise if you are not expecting it.  Additionally, I got the impression that counsel, and jurors alike, were taken aback by the school-like atmosphere of the court; and we all had to take pains to inform the jury that, while lacking the hardwood, marble, and tall ceilings of other courtrooms, matters heard in the Hawthorne Court were no less serious or important than matters heard in more aesthetically impressive forums.  Unfortunately, I am doubtful as to the effectiveness of this admonition.

Limited Privacy

Be mindful that, when court is not in session, the jury will be mulling about the area just outside the courtroom.  The “jury assembly” room and courtrooms are separated by a small courtyard, with picnic tables in between.  It is in this courtyard where the jurors usually gather during breaks and before court.  It is through this same courtyard that you, your clients, and your witnesses will have to walk should you wish to use the children’s restrooms, also shared with the jurors.  If you wish to talk to your clients or meet with witnesses, you will have to walk behind one of the various buildings or stand in the parking lot.  Likewise, there is no area designated for witnesses to wait prior to being called.  A jury selection room may be available but this, again, opens onto that same courtyard where the jury is waiting.  Prepare your witnesses for the idea that they will be testifying at an elementary school and perhaps have them wait in the parking lot until you are ready for them to be called.  They will likely be shocked at the courtroom configuration and witness stand.

With respect to parking, it is important to note there are essentially two parking areas.  You will want to park in front of the school, near the area where school buses picked up and dropped off children in years past.  You will likely be instructed to have your clients and witnesses do the same.  This is because the jurors park in the dirt lot on the east side of the school grounds.  Having your clients and witnesses park in front of the school will keep contact with the jury to a minimum.

Suggestions for Improvement.

I have spoken with several attorneys about their experiences at the Hawthorne Court.  Despite the negativity of their responses, all were mostly tolerant of their experiences, and each had similar suggestions as to ways in which the Court could be improved.  These were:

Larger Courtrooms.

Many of the attorneys who had been in the judges’ offices adjacent to the courtrooms had noticed that these offices are significantly larger than the courtrooms.  It appears the offices were enlarged by removing the wall along the back of the classroom and extending the offices into the other side of the building.  Similarly, extending the courtrooms in this fashion would yield courtrooms double the present size and probably make them adequate.  They are not adequate now.  As a (very) temporary approach, they were tolerable.  It is time to make them at least adequate.

Space to Meet with Clients and/or Witnesses.

This was probably the most common criticism.  Again, there is no place to meet with clients or witnesses out of the jury’s view.  A simple room provided for this purpose, away from jurors’ and others’ prying eyes and ears, would be greatly appreciated.

Area for Preparation/Research.

Several attorneys indicated they wished to have facilities available for last minute preparation or research – especially during lunch.  Currently, there is no place to do this other than at picnic benches with the jurors or in your car.  Some room(s) should be provided, perhaps with some internet access, such that preparation, communications with the office, or legal research could be conducted.  Such a room is a small request and should be a mandatory consideration.

The Temporary Nature of the Court Should be Reassessed.

Every courthouse has its idiosyncrasies, and I intend this article not to highlight only the shortfalls of the Hawthorne Court.  When the court was opened in January 2008, it was intended as a temporary (six month) solution to the judicial backlog in this county.  Now, more than two and a half years later, the temporary nature of court is questionable and the shortfalls are increasingly difficult to overlook.  This is not to speak ill of the court staff – whom were all very accommodating and extremely professional.  Clearly, we still need the Hawthorne Court to help alleviate the civil trial backlog in Riverside; however, permanent changes to the court are needed to make adequate this “temporary” solution.