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Barnes Heyward: Investigating Personal Injury Cases

At Hornsby, Watson & Hornsby, it’s our job to represent clients who were injured through no fault of their own. Maybe they were hit by a drunk driver, maybe they slipped and fell in a building that wasn’t properly maintained, or maybe they were denied money to which they are contractually entitled. 

Regardless of the injury type, our decision to take a case depends on whether we believe it’s a valid claim. If it’s a valid claim, we need to establish liability. And establishing liability requires investigation.

Here, our attorney Barnes Heyward discusses some of the most common personal injury cases and how the law firm of Hornsby, Watson & Hornsby in Huntsville investigates each one.

Automobile accidents

When we investigate personal injuries in the case of an automobile wreck, some of the first questions we ask are:

  • Is there an accident report? “The accident report is kind of the first glimpse into what happened,” Heyward says. “The officer will create a diagram that depicts how the accident happens.”
  • Does the driver own the vehicle? “Once we have the driver’s name, we can check their driving record.” If they don’t own the vehicle, the owner can be held liable.
  • Is this an employer-owned vehicle? If so, the employer may be liable.

Even when there is an accident report, witnesses are a key component to a claim in the case of a car wreck. Police officers will respond to the accident, but “the responding officer almost never sees the wreck,” Heyward says. Or, “the officer may not describe it well, and the witnesses can fill in the blanks.”

Heyward advises accident victims to obtain witness statements if they can. He also suggests either taking or have someone else take photos at the scene. 

“It’s just important to document things,” he says. “People aren’t going to be truthful. Even though most people are honest, there are a lot who aren’t.”

Most accident victims, however, don’t think to obtain witness statements or document the circumstances of an accident. In fact, accident victims usually don’t expect to be in a lawsuit. 

“People don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m going to hire an attorney, and I’m going to need to document all of this.’ But if possible, “they should get the name and contact information for those witnesses.

“Witness statements can be really important. Either I will reach out to a witness directly, or we’ll hire an investigator.

“I have a hit-and-run case where the person fled the scene. Courteous neighbors corralled this guy. Even though they didn’t see the accident, their testimony is valuable.”

Wrongful death

Again, in cases of wrongful death, witness testimony is crucial to establishing liability.

Heyward discusses a case in which a teenager died as the result of a car accident after leaving a home where alcohol was consumed. This case required extensive investigation up front. A known fact was that a parent chaperoned the party. Unknown, however, was whether the parent knew alcohol was being consumed and whether alcohol was consumed in the house.

The outcome of this case will ride on extensive investigation and testimony from witnesses who can answer those questions.

Medical malpractice

In medical malpractice cases, it’s not enough to just show that a doctor caused harm. You have to prove the doctor did something that fell below the standard of care. 

“We have to consult with experts. If someone was operated on, if someone did something that caused our client serious injury, we need to talk to another physician who is similarly situated.”

The underlying and pertinent question we want to answer is: “What’s the standard of care?” 

Premises cases

Premises cases turn on whether a dangerous condition existed where the injury occurred. Investigations into dangerous conditions may pursue answers to the following questions:

  • There was an oil stain on the floor. Did witnesses have knowledge of the oil stain? Did the owner have knowledge? Or should the owner have had knowledge? 
  • Was the walking surface properly graded? Was it well-maintained? 
  • Are building codes upheld?

These cases often require expert testimony and up-front investigation to establish liability. As with car wreck cases, it’s wise in premises cases to take photos at the scene and to document the dangerous condition that caused the accident. Also valuable with any injury are records of doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, missed work or any other factor that developed from the accident.

Contract disputes

“In any type of dispute, we need to see the contract,” Heyward says. 

For example, a sales representative was not paid commissions to which he was entitled. The sales representative no longer worked for the company, but the terms of the contract under which he earned the commissions entitled him to continue to receive commissions.

“Depending on contract language, they may be entitled to continue to receive those commissions even years after they’ve been terminated.” 

Dog bites

Similar to premises liability cases, dog bite cases must establish whether a dangerous condition existed. Questions in these cases include:

  • What is the breed of the dog?
  • Has it bitten before?
  • Did the owner have reason to believe the dog might bite someone?

Dog bite cases require subpoena power to obtain records, and that power is difficult to obtain without filing a lawsuit. Worth noting, though, is that insurance carriers often are willing to pay more on these cases, Heyward says.

In any injury case, Heyward stresses the importance of seeking medical treatment. 

“A lot of people have injuries that they don’t think are severe,” he says. “Later down the road, that pain and soreness hasn’t gone away (because) they’ve got some compressed discs.”

For this reason, the attorneys at Hornsby, Watson & Hornsby don’t want to settle an injury cases until the victim finishes treatment. 

Seeking treatment and having documentation from that treatment is just as valuable if the case goes to trial.

“The assumption of jurors is that if you’re hurt, you’ll go see a doctor.”

With all personal injury cases, Heyward says, Hornsby, Watson & Hornsby puts a great deal of work into the investigation. 

“There are cases you don’t think are going to be great, and you start investigating and find something that ends up being a smoking gun. And that splits the case wide open.”

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