Police are searching for a hit-and-run driver who crashed into an SUV and pushed it into a South Los Angeles bus stop.
The wreck occurred on West 54th Street in Vermont Square. According to first responders and witnesses, a Buick sedan rear-ended an SUV as it attempted a right turn. The force of the collision propelled the SUV into a bus stop, where it smacked into an elderly couple in their 70s and their daughter, who is in her 50s. All three people were seriously injured and rushed to a local hospital; the man was subsequently pronounced dead. Although he was injured, the SUV driver immediately called 9-1-1 and tried to help the victims. The female Buick driver abandoned her vehicle and fled the scene on foot.
None of the names were released.
About 50 percent of hit-and-run drivers are caught and prosecuted in criminal court. The percentage is probably higher in civil court, because there is a lower standard of proof and victims’ attorneys can be more aggressive than prosecuting attorneys. Regardless of whether the tortfeasor (negligent driver) is apprehended or not, victims have legal options in these cases.
First responders are on scene to secure the area and tend to those who need help and not to help a person win a future court case, so evidence collection is not a priority. In these situations, lawyers often partner with private investigators. Many times, witnesses who will not speak to first responders, or at least hold something back when they are interviewed, are more forthcoming and willing to cooperate with private investigators. These individuals often do other things as well, such as:
Once evidence is assembled, the lower standard of proof comes into play. In criminal court, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in civil court, the plaintiff must only establish that the tortfeasor was liable by a preponderance of the evidence, which means more likely than not.
In practical terms, if a victim identifies the car with reasonable certainty, such as the last two or three digits of a license plate number, and the owner has no alibi for the time of the crash, most jurors will award damages. In most cases, damages include compensation for both economic losses, such as physical rehabilitation expenses, and noneconomic losses, such as emotional distress.
Additional punitive damages are often available in these cases as well. Under California Civil Code Section 3294, these damages are available if the tortfeasor acts with oppression or malice; both these words are very broadly defined.
Punitive damages are intended to punish the tortfeasor and deter future wrongdoing, so these awards are often substantial. Procedurally, the victim must prove malice or oppression by clear and convincing evidence. A damage cap may apply in some cases.
If the tortfeasor is not identified, most victims can file claims against their own insurance company. These cases basically proceed like any court case, except that instead of a trial, any disputes are resolved by binding arbitration, at least in most cases. As an added bonus, these types of claims often settle rather promptly and on terms favorable to the victims, because the insurance companies want to keep their policyholders as paying customers.
Because of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad (1928), tortfeasors are responsible for damages they indirectly cause. So, in the above story, the Buick driver is liable for the injuries that occurred to the pedestrians.
This case involves facts that are almost too much to believe. Helen Palsgraf and her daughters were waiting for a train to Coney Island. On the other side of the platform, a somewhat overweight passenger tried to board a train as it pulled away. One railroad worker tried to push the man in from below while another one tried to pull him in from above. During the commotion, the man dropped a package of fireworks. The explosion caused a shock wave that knocked over some large scales on the other side of the platform; the scales toppled onto Ms. Palsgraf.
At trial, the court ruled that the railroad company was not responsible for Ms. Palsgraf’s injuries, because the falling scales were not a foreseeable consequence of the workers’ negligently assisting a passenger.
A dissenting judge would have held the railroad company liable under a broader “zone of danger” test. This idea never gained much traction, except in cases that involve some illegal activity. For example, a New York judge recently green-lighted a DUI manslaughter prosecution, even though the defendant was not even in his car at the time. The same idea could apply in hit-and-run cases. However, even under the more narrow rule, drivers are liable for injuries if there is no more that one or two degrees of separation between the negligent act and the injury.
Seemingly routine car crash cases often involve complicated legal issues. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in Los Angeles, contact Glotzer & Leib, LLP. We do not charge upfront legal fees in negligence cases.
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