A $1 million settlement, reached just days before a scheduled trial, averted further litigation in a case involving claims that a woman’s decision to loan her car to a friend after a night of hard partying led to a nasty head-on collision wreck that left a woman with multiple broken bones and permanent injuries.
The settlement last Friday obviated a DeKalb County trial set to begin Monday in which the lawyers for plaintiff Alice Ward were prepared to argue that the at-fault driver and the car’s owner “had been sitting around all night drinking and smoking a lot of pot,” said Buckley Beal partner Andrew Beal.
“The owner said she passed out and never gave consent to drive her car, but the other one said she gave her the keys to go get some more,” Beal said.
The driver, Dora Sosa-Aguilar, ended up driving the borrowed Mercedes around for several hours before slamming into a Mini Cooper waiting at a Chamblee, Georgia, stoplight.
The impact drove the small car’s front end and engine block back into the passenger compartment, shattering the legs and ankles of driver Alice Ward and fracturing several vertebrae as well as bones in her hand and shoulder and tearing a rotator cuff, among other injuries.
“It was an interesting case; what it came down to was negligent entrustment and the law on permissive use of a vehicle,” said Beal, who handled the case with firm partner Nicholas Smith.
Sosa-Aguilar’s lawyer, R. Christopher Harrison of Marietta’s Downey & Cleveland, did not respond to a request for comment.
The Mercedes’ owner and co-defendant Norien Aboneaaj—who at one point claimed that the car had been stolen while she slept—was represented by J. Blake Ledbetter and Joseph Conoscienti of Decatur’s Conoscienti & Ledbetter; Jason D. Darneille of Gower Wooten & Darneille; and Brantley Rowlen and Michael Denney of Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith.
Rowlen said his firm was brought aboard by the excess-coverage insurer for Aboneaaj’s father, “but we all worked together in protecting and furthering [the family’s] interests.”
Aboneaaj always wanted to resolve the case and attended two unsuccessful mediations, Rowlen noted.
“While the case had a relatively simple fact pattern, its practical real-world application presented the possibility of some very complex coverage and collection issues, and we believe all parties understood their relative risk and the benefit of resolving the case on their own terms rather than on those of a DeKalb County jury,” he said via email.
According to Beal and court filings, the accident happened one morning in May, 2016 after Aboneaaj and Sosa-Aguilar had spent the evening drinking and smoking marijuana.
“Aboneaaj was fully aware that Sosa-Aguilar could not drive because of the drugs and alcohol she had taken in her presence,” the plaintiffs portion of the pretrial order said. “Further, she that defendant Sosa-Aguilar was an unfit driver because of her numerous accidents and traffic citations, which the two had discussed.”
The plaintiff’s account said Aboneaaj had sent her friend to buy more rolling papers and “so she could be alone with her lover.”
After driving around for about 9 a.m. Sosa-Aguilar hit Ward’s car.
Beal said both drivers were taken to Grady Memorial Hospital’s emergency room, where Sosa-Aguilar was found to be intoxicated.
She was cited for failure to maintain lane and causing an accident but was not charged with driving under the influence, he said. Ward spent 11 days in Grady’s Intensive Care Unit and more than a week at the Emory Rehabilitation Hospital “followed by months of rehabilitation at home and in physical therapy.”
Ward’s husband used up his paid time off to care for her, ultimately taking early retirement from his position at Emory University to care for her full-time, the order said.
Her medical bills exceeded $311,000 and would continue to accrue, it said.
Aboneaaj’s portion of the order said Sosa-Aguilar “stole her vehicle before the subject incident, and was operating her vehicle without her expressed or implied permission” when she hit Ward.
“After a social evening that admittedly resulted in intoxication, [Aboneaaj] allowed defendant Sosa-Aguilar to sleep on her couch,” it said.
Aboneaaj denied giving Sosa-Aguilar alcohol “with actual knowledge that Defendant Sosa-Aguilar would soon drive a motor vehicle.”
Aboneaaj filed a police report that the car had been stolen after she learned of the accident, it said.
Sosa-Aguilar’s account admitted that her negligence caused the accident and said Aboneaaj gave her permission to borrow the car, but she challenged Ward’s claimed medical damages.
Beal said Sosa-Aguilar’s insurance had lapsed and she was without coverage; Aboneaaj had primary coverage with Progressive and excess coverage through Hudson.
The coverage issue was “heavily disputed,” Beal said.
“There’s a wrinkle in the umbrella policy that said there has to be permissive use of the vehicle, and that it has to be intended by the lender,” he said.
Aboneaaj’s stolen car report “went nowhere,” said Beal, with no further investigation and no charges filed.
Ward sued Sosa-Aguilar and Aboneaaj in DeKalb Superior Court, arguing that the latter was liable under the doctrine of negligent entrustment, described in the Georgia statute as rendering someone liable if he “entrusts someone with an instrumentality, with actual knowledge that the person to whom he has entrusted the instrumentality is incompetent by reason of his age or inexperience, or his physical or mental condition, or his known habit of recklessness.”
The case had been set for trial April 22 before Judge Courtney Johnson when it settled late on Monday, April 19.
Beal said more than $1 million in coverage was available, “but my client had set a number with umbrella carrier” she wanted, and that demand was met.
“Mr. Beal and I were able to navigate some difficult hurdles and reach a resolution both sides could respect,” said Rowlen, “and it’s always attractive to be able to resolve a case with injuries as severe as those Ms. Ward claims to have sustained and eliminate your clients’ downside risk.”