It’s hard to imagine anything worse happening to a family. Losing a parent and a pillar of the community is horrible. There’s no easy thing about it. And when the driver at fault is barely insured, the additional financial burdens facing the family make it even harder for them to heal and move forward.
Our goals as Ohio wrongful death attorneys are to help ease those burdens and help families begin to heal.
David Morton* was a pastor with a wife, two children, and a congregation that loved him. He had deep roots in the community and a strong faith in God. He was a great father, not only to his own children, but also to kids in the community through his mentoring efforts. Through his pastoring, he touched a lot of people in the area he lived in. He even ran an auto body shop on the side. David was the epitome of a good person: gregarious, warm, giving, and always concerned about those around him.
Early one morning, David’s car was rear-ended on the highway. Both drivers pulled to the side of the road. David got out of his car, called his wife to let her know what happened, and then called 911.
While David spoke to the dispatcher, the other driver, a 19-year-old who had spent the night drinking, decided to flee the scene. He pulled out quickly, swerved around David’s car, and, in doing so, struck David. David got caught under the fleeing car, and his body was dragged down the highway before it came loose. By then, David was dead.
A lack of insurance magnifies a tragic loss
As is often the case with irresponsible, young drivers, the person who killed David had minimal insurance coverage. The state minimum, $25,000, comes nowhere close to taking care of a family who loses a breadwinner. Even the uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage that David carried was oriented more towards the costs of replacing or repairing a vehicle, and was of little value in helping the family focus on healing from this tragic loss.
Nevertheless, an agreement with David’s insurance company was just the first settlement we reached on behalf of the Mortons. We knew we had to look deeper to find all the responsible parties and hold them accountable for their actions.
When negligent entrustment leads to wrongful death
Though the drunk driver had little insurance, he did have a long list of traffic offenses, alcohol citations, and criminal arrests. More importantly, he was driving a car that belonged to his father.
In Ohio, there’s a legal claim called negligent entrustment. If the owner of a vehicle knows (or should have known) that a person has a history of negligent, irresponsible, or criminal behavior but entrusts a vehicle to that person anyway, the vehicle owner can be held liable for any negligence that occurs through the use of that vehicle.
Negligent entrustment claims are not pursued very often because they can be difficult to prove. But given the driver’s long criminal and traffic record, we were able to create a convincing case that led the father’s insurance company to settle the claim. This was the second settlement the Mortons received, but we weren’t done yet.
Sending a message to irresponsible party hosts
In our investigation into the accident, we discovered that just before the collision, the driver had been at an all-night party, where he drank until his blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit. What’s more, many people at the party, the driver included, were under the legal drinking age.
David Morton had strongly believed that every life matters and is worth saving. For his family, this case turned from finding the guilty parties to saving the lives of others. They asked us to help send a message that hosting these kinds of parties and disregarding the aftermath is reprehensible.
In Ohio, it’s the responsibility of a building owner (in this case, an apartment complex) to ensure that all-night parties featuring alcohol and other drugs, particularly to minors, don’t occur on their premises. It’s also the responsibility of the hosts of the party to not let an obviously intoxicated party-goer get behind the wheel of a vehicle (and to not serve alcohol to a minor in the first place).
By receiving a third settlement from the building owner and a fourth from the party hosts, we were able to help the Mortons send an important message: You are responsible for what happens at your party and what your guests do afterwards.
Wrongful death cases are painful and difficult for families, and the settlements reached can only help smooth out the road to healing. The message that such large-dollar settlements send, however, can last a long time and save countless other lives.
At Cooper & Elliott, we want to take on the difficult cases, because we’ve seen the positive effect that justice can have in helping families and communities rebuild and grow.
*Names in this article have been changed to protect our client’s privacy.
The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.