It is always tragic when parents lose a child due to a car accident. In such cases, the parents understandably want to hold everyone and anyone accountable for their child's death. But there are limits to what the law can do for aggrieved parents, as a recent decision by a federal appeals court illustrates.
In November 2005, a 17-year-old was driving down a road in the Town of Greece, New York, and collided with another car as he attempted to execute a left turn. The impact “partially ejected” the car's passenger, an 18-year-old woman, from the vehicle, killing her. Local police from the Town of Greece responded at the accident scene and conducted an investigation.
More than two years after the accident, the parents of the deceased woman initiated legal proceedings against the drivers of both cars. The driver of the car in which their daughter was the passenger settled for the limits of his insurance policy, about $38,000 after legal fees. Following arbitration, the insurer also paid about $42,000 in under-insured motorist benefits. The parents also filed at least two lawsuits against the driver of the other vehicle, but they apparently did not obtain a judgment in either.
Finally, the parents filed a federal lawsuit against the Town of Greece and several of its officials, alleging that they “violated their constitutional right of access to courts by recklessly or intentionally failing properly to investigate” their daughter's accident. The parents based their complaint on two reports, one from the New York State Police and the other by the Town's public works director, which found “a full reconstruction of the accident” was “impossible” due to the local police's failure to collect “sufficient evidence.” But based on the evidence the local police did collect, the State Police said there were sufficient grounds to charge the daughter's friend with involuntary manslaughter. Instead, the local police initially arrested the friend with driving while intoxicated but never filed formal charges.
The parents' argument boiled down to that they were denied “access to the courts,” i.e. the ability to file a wrongful death lawsuit against their daughter's friend, because of the Town's botched handling of the accident investigation. The federal courts disagreed. In a2014 decision, a federal judge granted the Town's motion to dismiss, stating that the Town's alleged malfeasance did not “completely foreclose” the parents' ability to identify or sue the individuals responsible for their daughter's death. The government is only liable “if public officials withheld from the plaintiff key facts which would form the basis of the claims for redress.” That was not the case here.
On appeal, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appealsaffirmed the trial court's decision. The court noted the parents' prior insurance settlements and said there was no evidence to suggest “the outcome of any of these claims—adequate or otherwise—turned on the acts or omissions of the police.”
Need Help from a Personal Injury Lawyer?If you have lost a loved one in a car accident, it is important you seek assistance from an experienced New York personal injury attorney who can help you identify any responsible parties and seek appropriate justice through the courts. Contact the offices of Waldhauser & Nisar, LLP, today if you need to speak with an attorney today.