Lawyers for the La Puente family heirs agreed to terms with Caltrans and Glen’s tires just as trial was about to begin in Los Angeles Superior Court.
A jury had already been seated when the parties announced that they had resolved the case. The dispute began in 2012, when Salvador Alvarado Ramirez, his wife, his daughter, and his father were all killed in an SUV rollover crash; two other family members suffered serious injuries. Investigators later determined that the two rear tires were defective and blew out, causing Mr. Ramirez to lose control of the vehicle, which plummeted down a three-story embankment. In addition to the allegations regarding the defective tires, the plaintiffs alleged that the roadway was defectively designed, since there were no beams or guardrails.
Three other defendants — BF Goodrich , Ford Motor Co., and Discount Tire Co. — were originally named in the suit as well.
What Causes Wrongful Death?
Unintentional injury is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for more than 136,000 fatalities and over 31 million emergency room visits. The three leading categories (in order) are:
- Poisoning: Some common household chemicals contain formaldehyde and other dangerous ingredients. But most poisoning deaths are either unintentional overdoses or medicines used in the wrong combination.
- Motor Vehicle Crashes: This category was the leading cause of injury-related death until just a few years ago. Human error, like speeding, distracted driving, and drowsy driving, causes the vast majority of motor vehicle crashes.
- Falls: A fall from four stories is typically fatal, and the death rate increases substantially at each higher altitude.
Sometimes, the categories overlap; for example, some drivers are impaired by medication and subsequently cause car crashes.
Establishing Liability for Wrongful Death
Individuals have a duty of ordinary care when they drive cars. “Basically, that means they must follow the rules of the road and be on the lookout for ways to avoid possible accidents,” according to attorney Sherwin Arzani, who handles wrongful death cases at Citywide Law Group. Individuals can establish liability through either a negligence case (the other driver had a legal duty to behave a certain way, the driver breached that duty, and that breach caused the victim’s damages in both a factual and legal sense) or negligence per se (negligence as a matter of law due to a statutory violation).
Certain professionals, such as doctors and commercial drivers, have a higher duty of care in some situations.
A slightly different analysis applies to swimming pool drownings, shopping center falls, and other such injuries that occur on someone else’s property. Under California law, landowners have a duty of care based on:
- Property Location: A different duty of care applies to property inside the city limits or near a transportation artery and rural land in a remote area.
- Likelihood of Visitors: People are much less likely to visit private, non-commercial property than public property or private commercial property, like a hotel or a store.
- Knowledge of Hazard: This element is often the key in landowner liability situations, because owners must have actual or constructive knowledge (Knew or should have known) about the defect.
- Likelihood of Harm: All buildings contain some inherent risks, but facilities with stairwells, lots of walking space, or swimming pools are especially dangerous if not properly maintained.
- Cost of Preventative Measures: Building a ten-foot concrete wall around a swimming pool would probably prevent accidental drownings, but such a measure is not cost effective for the owner.
- Extent of Control: The building owner has very little practical control over the conditions in individual apartment units.
Additionally, landowners may be legally responsible for certain third-party crimes that occur on their premises, such as a mugging or shooting, if the resulting wrongful death was legally foreseeable.
Some Common Defenses
If possible, the insurance company tries to shift blame for the wrongful death onto the victim. For example, in a poisoning case, the insurance company may argue that the victim ignored warnings or dosage directions on the label. In this case, the jury would divide fault between the victim and drug maker.
California is a pure comparative fault state, so the judge divides damages based on the relative percentage of fault. So, if the jury divided fault 50-50 and the plaintiff’s damages were $1 million, the plaintiff would receive $500,000. Many other states have a liability cutoff, such as 51 percent. If this same case took place in Nevada, the plaintiff would get nothing, because the SIlver State is a modified comparative fault state with a 51 percent threshold.
Assumption of the risk is another common defense, especially in fall cases. To avoid liability, the insurance company must prove that the deceased victim voluntarily assumed a known risk. Many times, the assumption was not voluntary because the victim had to sign a waiver to participate in the activity; other times, the risk was not apparent (e.g. a defective elevator).