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Gores v. Miller - Use Caution Inking Car Accident Settlements

The majority of Hartford car accident injury claims end in settlement - most of those well before trial. What's more, a substantial number of injury claims are resolved in settlements before an injured person even has to file a lawsuit.

That said, claimants must be cautious when entering a crash settlement agreement. Particularly if the injuries associated with the collision were severe, one should not enter a settlement without at least a cursory review by an experienced injury attorney.

As the Hartford accident attorneys at The Law Offices of Mark E. Salomone & Morelli know, the language contained in some agreements could preclude claimants from pursuing other avenues of recovery.

One perfect example of this was seen recently in the case of Gores v. Miller, before the South Dakota Supreme Court. Although this is an out-of-state case, the same legal principles are applicable here in Connecticut.

Court records reveal plaintiff's minor child, a teenage girl, was injured in a 2010 car accident in which a teen male was driving. Driver lost control of his van, and plaintiff's daughter suffered lacerations to her right arm.

Immediately after the crash, a physician at the hospital treated the girl's wounds. The next day, the girl returned and the doctor conducted a procedure known as an excisional debridement, which involves removing dead, dying or infected tissue with a knife or scissors in an operating room under anesthesia. Usually, the procedure involves reconstruction with flaps or skin grafts.

A second excisional debridement was performed two weeks later. The girl continued to see the doctor for treatment of her arm for six months until it had completely healed.

A few months later, the girl's mother sought approval of a settlement with the teen boy's insurance company policy limit of $25,000 (the minimum limit of coverage in that state) in exchange for a general liability release.

The court approved the settlement, and the release was executed.

Plaintiff subsequently collected on a $100,000 underinsured motorist coverage policy that covered her daughter - less the $25,000 she received from the teen driver's carrier.

Then, two years later, the girl and her mother (in her individual capacity and on behalf of her daughter) sued the doctor who had performed surgery on her arm, as well as the surgical associate firm for whom the doctor worked. They alleged the doctor had provided substandard medical care following the car accident. In particular, they alleged the doctor failed to properly perform the skin graft and did not adequately instruct the teen how to dress her wounds. Had she done so, plaintiffs alleged, the teen's arm would have healed faster and required less treatment.

The physician responded with request for summary judgment. She did not expressly deny the allegations. Instead, she pointed to the general release plaintiff had signed in the car accident settlement. She alleged this discharged all claims against the doctor and the hospital.

But how could that be?

It has to do with the unambiguous language of the settlement agreement contract. It clearly states the plaintiffs will release and forever discharge not only the policy holder (teen driver's mother), but also her heirs, executors, administrators, agents, insurers and "all other persons, firms or corporations liable or who might be claimed liable... from any and all claims, demands, damages, actions, causes of action or suits of any kind or nature whatsoever... which resulted or may develop as a result of (the accident)." The agreement goes on to say that this was a full and final compromise and settlement of any and all claims and precluded forever any further or additional claims arising out of the aforementioned accident.

Of course, when she signed it, plaintiff no doubt assumed and intended only to sign away liability for the driver, his mother and others connected with the actual accident - not the doctor who treated her daughter afterward.

But in fact, the doctor was included in this release because the treatment "arose as a result" of the crash. That's what the trial court ruled and that's what the South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed on appeal.

The court conceded that the language of the release was broad, but including these words in a general release will discharge any additional claims against non-named third parties. Justices rejected plaintiff's argument that the medical providers were independent tortfeasors who caused injuries that were separate and distinct from those incurred in the crash.

This case is a strong example of why Hartford car accident settlements should be carefully reviewed by a lawyer before signed.

Contact us today for a free consultation at 1-800-WIN-WIN-1.

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If you were injured or a loved one was injured or killed in an accident in Boston, Worcester, Springfield or Holyoke, a personal injury lawyer can fight to help you obtain compensation you deserve. At the Law Offices of Mark E. Salomone, serving Massachusetts, our personal injury attorneys have an impressive record of trial verdicts and settlements.