Did you know that in North Carolina, the deck is sometimes stacked against people who have been injured – through no fault of their own – by negligent drivers? It’s a fairly complex nuance to our state’s laws that many people wouldn’t know unless they have experience with it or are a lawyer themselves. That’s why it’s so important for people who have been injured in North Carolina to seek out an experienced personal injury lawyer if they were injured by another’s negligence.
Insurance Companies Can Play Hide and Seek Against a Jury
One example of the deck being stacked is the state’s evidentiary rule that allows liability insurance companies to essentially “hide” from juries at trial. Specifically, in North Carolina, a jury is not allowed to know that an insurance company has an applicable insurance policy that could cover the money being sought by the injured party in trial. Rule 411 of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence reads as follows:
Evidence that a person was or was not insured against liability is not admissible upon the issue whether he acted negligently or otherwise wrongfully. This rule does not require the exclusion of evidence of insurance against liability when offered for another purpose, such as proof of agency, ownership, or control, or bias or prejudice of a witness. (1983, c. 701, s. 1.)
The stated rationale for this rule is that juries could be convinced to award higher damages to the plaintiff if they know that the defendant’s insurance company is “on the hook” for it, rather than the actual defendant for causing the injury.
NC Juries May Not Know Just How Much Insurance Companies Control
The truth is that in the vast majority of cases, there is liability insurance coverage involved. This means that the insurance company is responsible for paying any awards within the policy limit, and they are also responsible for deciding whether or not to settle the case out of court or to take the case to trial. It is also the insurance company who hires the lawyer who represents the defendant in court. In other words, they call the shots on behalf of the defendant.
The fact of the matter is that the liability insurance company controls every aspect of the case from the defendant’s side — and yet an insurance company cannot be named as part of a lawsuit or referenced in a trial? That’s extremely unfair to the plaintiff and all injured parties.
Effects of Withholding Liability Insurance Information on Juries
Granted, this rule may make sense under certain situations, but it has a significantly pro-defendant effect on juries, and in my opinion, has resulted in many unfair jury awards to plaintiffs who have been seriously injured, especially when a juror is made to believe that the defendant may have to pay the award out of his or her own pocket. And while at the conclusion of the trial, the judge will give the jury an instruction to not consider the defendant’s ability or inability to pay any award reached, in reality, I believe this is always a factor that a jury will consider.
What about when the defendant is a close friend or family member of the plaintiff? The friend or family member certainly does not control whether the insurance company treats the plaintiff fairly. So when the insurance company refuses to fairly negotiate a settlement, your attorney has no other choice but to name that close friend or family member in a lawsuit.
Now who has the upper hand? The insurance company just forced the plaintiff to sue a friend or a relative in court, and that never looks good to a jury. The insurance company is very aware of this tactic, and will not be afraid to use it.
A Real-World Example
About few years ago, there was a case that received national attention when a New York woman sued her twelve-year-old nephew (who was eight at the time of the incident) over a badly fractured wrist she had sustained when he accidentally knocked her over and caused her to try to catch herself with her wrist.
The backlash she received from the public was brutal as they could not understand why she was suing her twelve-year-old nephew for $127,000. How in the world could the boy ever be able to pay that much money? The jury came back and awarded the plaintiff nothing on her claim.
The truth of the matter is that the plaintiff was never seeking any money from her own nephew. She was seeking to get her existing medical bills covered by the applicable homeowner’s insurance policy. Prior to trial, the insurance company offered a measly $1 to settle her case.
Even though plaintiff’s dispute was with the insurance company and not the nephew, New York has a similar rule to North Carolina’s, where the insurance company could not be named as a party to the suit nor could there be any mention of liability insurance.
If the jury were to have been made aware of the full details of this woman’s claim, is there any doubt that there would have been a different result?
North Carolina Personal Injury Cases Can Be Complex – Call a Personal Injury Attorney for Help
If nothing else, this blog should illustrate just one of many complexities of a personal injury lawsuit in North Carolina, as well as why it can be critically important to have an experienced personal injury attorney to guide you through the process.
And while the deck may be stacked against personal injury plaintiffs in the state, there are usually exceptions to many of the rules – depending on the facts and circumstances of your particular case. An experienced personal injury attorney can help level the playing field by identifying those exceptions that may tend to benefit your case and protect you against the insurance company’s tactics.