WHEN MORE THAN ONE PERSON CAUSES AN INJUry: JOINT AND SEVERAL LIABILITY

Yesterday, The West Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill that could make it much more difficult for many victims to recover medical expenses or other damages after an accident or a crime.  West Virginia H.B. 2002 abolishes “joint liability.”  Reading the bill may be pretty confusing, full of legal terms such as “comparative fault” and “joint liability.”  In this post, I’ll try to explain what it means and how this change in the law could impact you.

Currently, in West Virginia, when two people cause harm to a third person, the victim has a right “to be made whole.”  The victim should receive enough funds to fully recover from the injury.  If more than one person causes the injury, everyone responsible for the injury shares the costs for the victim’s full recovery.  For example, two different vehicles driven by two different people down Interstate 81 cause a third vehicle to wreck.  Suppose one driver had $20,000 in insurance coverage and the other had $100,000.  If the victim has $120,000 in damages, both of the drivers’ insurance policies can pay those bills.   The two drivers are jointly and severally liable for the innocent party's damages.

Under the bill passed by the House of Delegates, this changes.  If the case goes to trial, the jury will have to pick a number that represents what percentage fault each driver had in causing the accident.  To return to our example on the interstate, if one of the drivers switched lanes quickly, and the other was speeding, the jury has to decide what percent fault each of them had in the causing the wreck.  Then, the plaintiff can only recover that percent picked by the jury from each defendant.   In the example above, suppose the driver of the car with the $20,000 worth of insurance coverage (and no other assets) was found by the jury to be 60% at fault.  Suppose the one with $100,000 in coverage was 40% at fault.  The innocent plaintiff would not receive their full $120,000 for their damages.

This change may impact victims of crime.  Suppose a guy goes into a bar and they serve him drinks all night.  He can barely walk out the door as he waves his keys, says "good night," and gets into his unlicensed, uninsured vehicle.    If that drunk driver plows into an innocent victim on the way home, the victim may receive nothing.  The jury could decide that the drunk driver was entirely at fault.  Without insurance or assets, the victim receives nothing from the driver and nothing from the bar owner to pay medical bills or cover property damage.

Sometimes commercial property owners fail to provide enough light and security in parking lots.  If a patron is attacked or robbed in that lot, most juries will hold the criminal, the robber, primarily responsible.  Jurors might pick a lower percentage number for the negligent property owner who didn't light the lot properly.  With the fault placed on the criminal, who may never be caught or have few assets, the victim may receive nothing.

If you have questions about any of the issues raised in this blog post, or any questions about your injuries, please contact us.  We are happy to answer your questions and get you on the road to a full recovery.