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Florida Man’s Failure to Use Seatbelt Rendered Inoperable by Jammed Coins Results in Finding of 70% Comparative Negligence in Wrongful Death Suit – Jones v. Alayon

coinsFlorida is what is known as a “pure comparative negligence” state. This means that a party’s recovery in a lawsuit can be reduced in proportion to the party’s own fault. This and other issues were discussed in a recent case handed down by the District Court of Appeal for the Fourth District of Florida.

In the case of Jones v. Alayon, the plaintiff was the daughter and personal representative of the estate of a man who had died in a car accident. In the accident, the man’s car was struck from behind, causing him to hit a guardrail, overturn his car, and be ejected. It was unclear whether the man was killed when he initially hit the pavement or when he was hit by other cars shortly thereafter. The defendant in the case was an off-duty policeman who fled the scene and told authorities that his car had been stolen. He later admitted that he had been dishonest and, at the time of trial, was in jail on charges pertaining to the accident.

The Trial Court’s Rulings on Admission of Controversial Evidence

Before trial, the defendant asked the trial court to prohibit testimony concerning the defendant’s occupation or the fact that he had fled the scene. As grounds, the defendant admitted liability for the accident and urged that admission of his occupation and post-accident behavior would unfairly prejudice him in front of the jury. The plaintiff countered that the family’s mental anguish had been increased by knowing that the accident was caused by a law enforcement officer who left the scene instead of trying to help the man. The trial court agreed with the defendant and granted his motion to exclude evidence concerning his being an off-duty officer who fled the scene.

At trial, the defendant read a portion of a deposition in which one of the deceased man’s adult children testified that her father had “financial issues” and that the personal representative had told her that their stepmother probably spent the man’s money on drugs and alcohol. The plaintiff objected to the statements as hearsay, but the trial court determined that they were admissible as the admission of a party opponent and that the statements were relevant to the estate’s claim of lost income.

With regard to the defendant’s affirmative defense of comparative fault from the deceased man’s failure to wear a seatbelt, the plaintiff presented evidence that the man usually wore his seatbelt but that it became inoperable due to a jammed coin shortly before the accident and he had not had time to get it replaced. The plaintiff sought a directed verdict on the seatbelt defense, but the trial court denied the motion because it found that the jury should be allowed to decide the issue.

The jury’s verdict was in favor of the plaintiff, but it assigned only 30% of the fault to the defendant. The remaining 70% was assigned to the deceased man. The plaintiff herself was not awarded anything on her loss of services claim, but the jury did award money to the estate and to the man’s wife and minor daughter for funeral expenses, lost net accumulations, loss of support, and pain and suffering.

The Decision on Appeal

The appellate court affirmed the judgment of the trial court, holding that it had decided correctly on all of the issues complained of by the plaintiff. In so holding, the court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in disallowing evidence of the defendant’s occupation or his fleeing of the scene, nor did it commit reversible error in allowing into evidence the plaintiff’s comments to her sister about their stepmother. The jury also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that she was entitled to a directed verdict on the seatbelt issue, stating that both case law and statutory law permitted the jury to consider more factors than simply the availability and operability of the seatbelt.

To Speak to an Experienced South Florida Car Accident Lawyer

Car accidents can be complicated, especially when issues of comparative fault are raised. An experienced attorney can thoroughly investigate a case to determine the effect that such factors are likely to have on the value of a case. To talk to one of Cohn & Smith’s assertive and determined car wreck attorneys, call 954-431-8100 for a free initial consultation. We represented injured people throughout the Fort Lauderdale area, including North Dade County, Pembroke Pines, and Weston.

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