As far as pedestrian accidents go, the one at the center of Carrel v. Serco Inc. was not as bad as it could have been. The driver of a pickup truck allegedly ran over the foot of a pedestrian in a parking lot. But just because the injuries weren’t life-threatening doesn’t mean the victim should be left without recompense, particularly because the injury resulted in hospitalization and a broken foot.
At issue in the matter as it went before the Nebraska Supreme Court was whether a default judgement in plaintiff’s favor for $210,000 against the driver’s purported employer was improper. The state high court ruled the trial court’s denial of motion to vacate the default judgment was wrong because the company notified plaintiff of a meritorious defense. Specifically, it asserted it didn’t employ the driver of that pickup truck, nor did it own the truck. Allowing the default judgment to stand, the court ruled, would unfairly deprive defendant of due process and would have an unjust result.
That doesn’t mean plaintiff has lost the case. It just means the default judgment has been scrapped, so now the case will continue with litigation. That could end in either a settlement (if both parties agree to it) or a trial, where the court will decide negligence and/or damages.
According to court records, the pedestrian accident in question occurred in August 2008. A driver allegedly drove a pickup truck over plaintiff’s foot in a parking lot outside of a local bar.
The truck was registered to defendant company.
Attorney representing plaintiff sent a letter to the company in early 2010, notifying it of the incident and asserting a claim for damages. A corporate claims manager for the firm responded it had never employed the driver in question and it wasn’t aware of any of its company vehicles being located in Nebraska (where the incident took place).
Nonetheless, a personal injury lawsuit was filed against said company and the driver. The company was sued under a theory of vicarious liability, which allows employers to be held responsible for the negligent actions of its employees, even if the company didn’t directly act with negligence.
Defendant company never filed a responsible pleading, and plaintiff moved for a default judgment. A hearing was held on the matter, and defendant company did not attend. Court entered a default judgment in excess of $200,000, which covered medical expenses and lost wages. Judge also tacked on a post-judgment interest of 3 percent annually.
Garnishment proceedings were initiated against defendant company in 2014 in Pennsylvania, where the corporation headquarters is located. General counsel for the company allegedly first learned of the default judgment at that time. That’s when the firm filed a motion to vacate the default judgment. In support, it provided the court with affidavits indicating it didn’t employ the driver and didn’t own the truck and therefore was not the correct defendant in this action.
A temporary restraining order was placed on the garnishment proceedings while the motion was pending. A hearing was held in which defendant noted the correct defendant was a different company located in another state that goes by the same initials. Defendant company also said it had responded initially to the notice by plaintiff attorney, but didn’t respond to the default judgment hearing notice because a newly-employed paralegal had intercepted the notice and didn’t appreciate its significance.
District court denied the company’s request, calling its neglect severe and calling its shift of blame to another firm “hollow.”
Defendant company appealed and state supreme court reversed. The court noted the meritorious defense presented by defendant and also the fact that it had responded timely with this information to the initial claim for damages. In essence, defendant was a “complete stranger” to the claim and plaintiff had sued the wrong defendant.
This is an unfortunate outcome for plaintiff because it’s likely the statute of limitations on any future claims has run out, and therefore, he will probably not collect on damages when he likely could have had the right party been sued.
Although the state high court’s ruling doesn’t eliminate the possibility of compensation from the named defendant, if defendant’s assertions are true, compensation is unlikely.
This is why we always recommend injury victims seek an experienced, competent personal injury lawyer who will be committed to a thorough pre-trial investigation.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (888) 751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Carrel v. Serco Inc. , June 15, 2015, Nebraska Supreme Court
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