What we can (and can’t) learn from Oregon’s fatal crash data

The Oregon Department of Transportation started collecting information on fatal motor vehicle accidents back in 1946.

Last week, The Oregonian created a searchable map using this data. It shows the location of every crash that resulted in 5 or more fatalities.

Damore Law Group Fatal Crashes Oregon Map 300x211 What we can (and cant) learn from Oregons fatal crash data

See the map on OregonLive

That’s 47 crashes in nearly 70 years— just a fraction of the total number of traffic deaths. There’s not much to gather from the patterns or locations unless you are a traffic safety engineer.

The real value is in the crash details and news articles about the victims.

…The lone survivor was a 6-month-old girl.

A carload of Portland-area teenagers died when they hit a station wagon head-on. The husband and wife in the front seat of the wagon died; their five children in the vehicle were injured—and witnessed their parents’ deaths.

Eight women were in a van that collided with a truck; six of them died. The other two were injured, but protected by the bodies of their friends.

Each dot represents a crash in which at least five people died. That’s a minimum of 235 people who died tragically and unexpectedly.

That’s thousands of mourning parents, children, relatives, friends, neighbors and co-workers.  Those who survived these accidents are also deeply, permanently affected.

So far this year, there have been 79 traffic fatalities in Oregon. That’s up more than 40% from the same time in 2014.

It’s an ominous number. And around that number is the enormous circle of people whose lives have been changed by these losses.

We can tally up the number of car accident deaths, put them on a map, and enumerate the causes. But there is simply no way to calculate the ripple effect of a violent and sudden death.

Benzene in the water: fracking and an impending public health crisis in California

Benzene is a naturally occurring chemical, but a known human carcinogen: overexposure can affect your blood and immune system. Benzene exposure is linked to both acute and chronic myelogenous leukemia, and acute lymphocytic leukemia.

In short, it’s not a chemical you want in your water.

Fracking in California causing benzene water pollution

The process of hydraulic fracturing—“fracking” — to release natural gas and petroleum deep in the ground is a complicated and dirty process.

Here’s how it works: oil and gas companies drill holes deep into the ground until they hit shale rock.

DAmore Law Benzene Exporsure California US Fracking Map 300x227 Benzene in the water: fracking and an impending public health crisis in California

A map of the shale rock across the United States.

Then, they pump in huge quantities of water and fracturing fluid to create enough pressure to crack the deep-rock formations. Natural gas, petroleum and brine flows through the cracks; the oil companies extract it and sell it.

So what happens to the water and chemicals that fractured the rock?

California oil wells end up with about 10 gallons of fracking wastewater for every gallon of oil they extract.  Between 60-80% of that wastewater is pumped back out of the ground.*

Oil companies are supposed to treat the wastewater to prevent it from contaminating groundwater, then dispose of it by dumping it into a pit or a disposal well.

In 2013, California public health officials, concerned about the mass quantities of chemical-laden wastewater, ordered water tests. The results, recently published by the LATimes, found

On average, benzene levels 700 times higher than federal standards allow…

How California let oil companies pollute the water

There are rules and laws dictating how oil companies are to dispose of the benzene-laden fracking wastewater.

So how could the wastewater end up in California’s drinking water?

Back in 1983, federal Environmental Protection Agency officials put California’s oil field regulators — the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources — in charge of enforcing a federal law: the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Instead of protecting California’s drinking water, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources have allowed oil companies to inject their wastewater into hundreds of protected aquifers that hold public water.

California’s state regulators say the errors were “inadvertent”, and due to mismanagement. The federal Environmental Protection Agency calls the errors “shocking.”

In fact, it’s hard to tell how the state agency allowed this to happen, since they have almost no data on wastewater. Evidently, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources keeps paper records, and doesn’t even have a complete record of where oil wells are releasing the contaminated wastewater.

Even worse, the same incompetent state agencies that allowed the benzene contamination to occur are now in charge of fixing the problem.

“Every citizen of California has the right to pure and safe drinking water…”

California State Health and Safety Code, Section 116270-116293

Instead of upholding it’­s own law (and the federal Safe Drinking Water Act), California’s state government has potentially exposed millions of its citizens to incredibly toxic levels of benzene, putting them at risk for fatal diseases.

 

 

* What happens to the 20-40% of fracking wastewater left underground? It’s cause for another major public health concern: earthquakes induced by fluid injection from the fracking process. See The Legal Examiner: What the Frack? Man-made earthquakes are for real

Insurance companies using dangerous aftermarket parts in car repairs

A recent car crash that killed two Oregon teenagers and injured two others ignited a conversation about the dangers of using “aftermarket” parts on cars and trucks.

“Aftermarket” parts are any parts added to a vehicle after the original sale, usually for cosmetic reasons— or to replace damaged parts after a car accident.

Some aftermarket parts are improvements on the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts: perhaps the OEM part was defective, or the design has improved since the car was built.

But many aftermarket parts used for repairs are just cheaper, inferior versions of the OEM parts.

Aftermarket parts in car repairs

If you are in a car crash, the at-fault driver’s property damage liability insurance is obligated to cover the cost of restoring your car to pre-crash condition, or pay to replace it.

The insurance company gives you an estimate for the cost of your car repair. Then, the insurance adjuster tells you that they have a “preferred service center” that will fix your car for that price.

It sounds like the insurance company has already done the hard work of finding good mechanics and repair shops to fix cars properly, and for a reasonable cost. When in reality, the insurance company’s  “preferred service center” is probably using cheap, salvaged, or counterfeit aftermarket parts in your car.

You could be driving a very dangerous car.

Oregonians are talking about the aftermarket car parts because of last week’s tragic crash, but a lawsuit against insurance companies may bring national attention to this safety issue.

DAmore Law Group Fatal crash aftermarket car parts and safety 300x169 Insurance companies using dangerous aftermarket parts in car repairs

A CNN investigation found auto insurance companies skimping on repairs, putting your safety at risk.

More than 500 auto body shops in 36 states—including Oregon, Washington and California—recently filed a lawsuit against insurance companies that require mechanics to use low-quality aftermarket parts to repair vehicles.

Auto body shop owners say insurance companies would remove them from “preferred service center” lists if they refused to use these bad parts.

Shop owners lost business for asking to repair vehicles safely.

Vehicle owners were funneled to repair shops that would happily install inferior, aftermarket parts.

Despite the lawsuit, and the fact that US Senator Richard Blumenthal has asked the US Department of Justice to investigate this practice, this issue is unlikely to be resolved soon.

In the meantime, a repair shop could be fixing your vehicle with aftermarket parts—and you could be driving a very dangerous car.

The 3 Things you Need to Know: National Consumer Protection Week

This week is National Consumer Protection Week (NCPW), established to encourage you to take full advantage of your consumer rights, and make better buying decisions.

Any time you spend money on goods or services, you are a consumer.

1. As a consumer, you have rights

Our government has established consumer protection laws to give you a way to fight back against unfair or abusive business practices. But most of those laws only apply after the damage has been done.

Even though consumer rights laws are vague at best, there are a few established principles.

  • You should be able to trust that the products you buy are reasonably safe.
  • You should be able to trust that a company that advertises a service can actually provide that service.
  • You have the right to be informed, and the right to choose where you spend your money.

For example, if you buy a new car, you should be able to trust that car’s airbag will deploy if you are rear-ended by a truck on your way home.

When you search for an auto body shop to repair your car, you can reasonably expect that a shop that advertises “car accident repair” will employ a mechanic who can fix your vehicle.

And when you take your car in to that shop, you have the right to ask for a cost estimate on the repairs—and to take your car elsewhere if the price is too high.

2. It’s up to you to protect those rights

Do your research.

To protect yourself from fraud, scams, and rip-offs, you need to gather as much information as possible before you make a major purchase, or invest in a personal or household service.

There are hundreds of resources available to help you. National Consumer Protection Week’s website has organized information from government agencies and consumer protection organizations on credit and debt, shopping safely, and protecting your identity.

Damore Law Group Oregon Consumer Safety Help 296x300 The 3 Things you Need to Know: National Consumer Protection WeekCheck for consumer complaints.

Most people don’t realize that the Oregon Department of Justice maintains a consumer complaint database.  See if the lawyer you want to hire has multiple complaints of client fraud, or if the contractor bidding to fix your house has charged more than the stated amount in the contract.

Search for consumer complaints

The Better Business Bureau also maintains a list of consumer complaints, and provides accreditation for business that have a history of good practices.

It’s easy to look up complaints—and see if those complaints were resolved by the business.

Damore Law Group Better Business Bureau Lawyers 202x300 The 3 Things you Need to Know: National Consumer Protection Week3. What to do if your rights are violated

Part of being a good consumer is raising your hand and letting people know when you’ve been wronged.

File a consumer complaint in Oregon:

 https://justice.oregon.gov/forms/consumer_complaint.asp

Report an unsafe product:

 http://www.damorelaw.com/recalls/consumer-products-safety-commission-launches-new-web-database-for-reporting-unsafe-products.htm

Fatal crash leads to conversation about aftermarket parts and safety

The tragic car crash that killed two West Linn teens and injured at least two others is prompting a conversation about the safety of “aftermarket” parts.

According to the Oregonian, a “large, aftermarket bumper” contributed to the deaths of the teenagers. Their car was rear-ended at a high speed by a Jeep: the Jeep’s front bumper “intruded through the trunk and into the rear of the passenger compartment…” *

A different news outlet—KGW— reports a very different assessment from a Washington State Trooper, who stated “…the bumper was within state safety guidelines and was not believed to have contributed to the crash…”

It may be a long time before the investigation into that Columbia Gorge highway crash is complete. But in the meantime, the tragedy has ignited a conversation about the safety of aftermarket car parts.

Using aftermarket parts on your vehicle

Aftermarket parts usually fall into two categories: parts that were replaced in the vehicle after an accident, or parts that were added to the vehicle for cosmetic or performance purposes.

There is a huge market for cosmetic and performance car adaptations. Americans spent $33 billion dollars last year customizing vehicles: boosting the engine performance, adding specialized tires and rims, large custom bumpers, etc.

The primary problem: it’s a safety risk. 

All car and truck designs must go through crash and safety tests before they can be sold to the public. When you buy a new vehicle, it has the same original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts used in those safety tests.

Most aftermarket parts are designed, manufactured, and sold by third parties. Unlike OEM parts, aftermarket pieces have not been safety-tested by the manufacturer for use on the vehicle.

Even if the vehicle manufacturer designated the part as safe, an incorrect installation could make it very dangerous.

New tires and rims can change your vehicle’s alignment, suspension and brakes. Switching out your headlights for aftermarket high-intensity discharge lamps can cause electrical problems. An aftermarket bumper could affect how your vehicle absorbs the impact in a crash—which the Oregonian suggests happened in last week’s fatal crash in the Gorge.

Regardless of whether or not an aftermarket bumper contributed to severity of that crash, be aware that aftermarket parts can affect the safety of vehicle.

 

 

* Out of respect for the crash victims and their families, names have been omitted.

Immediate grief and long-term effects of unexpected death

In the legal field, we speak about death in technical terms that can feel very removed from personal tragedy.  The legal term for a car accident fatality is “wrongful death”. Court filings refer to your loved one as the “decedent”, and discuss “negligent actions” and “punitive damages.”

Because we are so accustomed to this legal language, it’s particularly touching to read a real, heartfelt story of a mother and daughter struggling with a Vancouver man’s unexpected death. He had stopped to help a stranded driver on I-205, and was fatally injured in a hit-and-run crash late last year.

A woman has lost her husband of 40 years. A daughter can never introduce her father to his first grandchild, due in April.  Their story of the aftermath of this car crash is moving, and their bravery in sharing their grief is inspiring. *

Violent, unexpected deaths have an effect that is impossible to calculate.

There is no right time to lose someone you love.

But if you have ever seen the aftermath of a fatal car crash, you can imagine that person’s death was very different from passing away in old age, surrounded by loved ones, free from pain.

There is a sense of unjustness: it’s not fair that someone else made a choice to drive drunk, to speed on an icy road, or to run a red light.

There’s nothing that the law can do to remedy this unfairness.

The solutions we do have— criminal and civil lawsuits — are necessary for order in society, because there must be consequences for bad or negligent acts.  But no lawsuit can undo what has happened, and no amount of money can replace someone you love: these are simply the only tools we have to try to compensate for loss.

For the family left behind, these lawsuits can be helpful—and sometimes, painful.

Criminal cases force survivors to recount the grim details of the worst day of their lives. Civil lawsuits have to be filed for survivors to get rightful insurance benefits. This added injustice could complicate the grieving process.

Death is always a shock whenever it happens…When it’s unexpected that can lead to some complicated grieving.

-Cory Bolkan, Washington State University, Vancouver

Bereavement groups can help people move forward, and manage some of the complex feelings that accompany a sudden death. It helps survivors to be with others who understand that grief and anger.

Last year alone, there were 39 traffic fatalities in Clark County, Washington. That’s twice as many as in 2013. That means hundreds more grieving spouses, children and parents, and many more friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers.

Survivor stories like the one told in The Columbian remind us that in every town, in every county in Washington, there are real people suffering from the consequences of someone else’s actions.

Remember this every time you get behind the wheel of a car: you are responsible for driving safely, and reducing the risk of harm for everyone else on the road. Your actions, deliberate or accidental, can have a terrible, life-changing affect on so many other people.

 

 

*Out of respect for the family, we will not post their names. You can read the article here: Survivors Deal with Complex Layers of Grief

You can’t focus: neuroscience explains the dangers of distracted driving

Imagine that you’re driving home from work, stopped in traffic. The light turns green, and you inch forward. The light turns red. Your phone pings with a text alert.

Do you grab your phone to check your messages?

When you’re behind the wheel, you know that your primary goal is to get from point A to point B safely. But you’re very busy, and it may feel like a waste of time to be stuck in traffic, or cruising down a familiar highway.

So you try to make the most of that time by responding to texts, or checking your email.

You’re not multitasking. You’re just not driving.

Neuroscientists, who study the brain and nervous system, have proven that you can’t focus your attention in two different directions.

Multitasking is an illusion. It is not possible for you to focus both on safely operating your vehicle, and on whatever is happening on your mobile device.

Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of The Organized Mind, says we suffer from information overload.  Our constant efforts to accomplish several things at the same time—in a word, multitask— increases the production of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

The result: your brain is regularly over-stimulated, and rarely focused. It’s much harder to pick out the useful information in a sea of noise.

Your brain behind the wheel

Think about the constant stream of information coming at you when you’re driving. Speed limit signs. Pedestrian crosswalks. Traffic signals. Cars in the opposite lane. Bikes speeding past you.

Damore Law Group Brain and Distracted Driving Accident Injuries 200x300 You cant focus: neuroscience explains the dangers of distracted driving

Identifying the useful information amidst all these moving parts is how you avoid running red lights, hitting pedestrians, or rear-ending the car in front of you.

Many car crashes occur when a driver is distracted—texting, talking, daydreaming—and misses a bit of this information.

The reality is that you can focus your attention on one very specific thing, not everything in your field of vision… Your attention is more like a laser than an overhead light.

-Matt Richtel, author of A Deadly Wandering (https://mattrichtel.wordpress.com/)

The easiest distraction

Cell phones are not the cause of distracted driving. They’re just the easiest distraction.

Our mobile devices constantly demand our attention. Dividing our attention between what’s happening in front of us and what’s happening on our phones is not only dangerously distracting, it causes more stress.

Daniel Levitin suggests setting times to disconnect yourself: just an hour or two a couple times a day wherein you set your device down and focus on something else.

So disconnect yourself while you’re driving. It’s good for your brain, and you’ll be a better and safer driver.

The attorneys at D’Amore Law Group feel very strongly about distracted driving. In order to raise awareness, they give presentations at many high school driver education courses in the Portland area throughout the year. These classes typically have about 50 students and their parents who attend.

For more on the research of distracted driving, visit EndDD.org (link  http://enddd.org/research-stats/ )

Photo courtesy of Naypong, freedigitalphotos.net

Does a car accident claim affect your insurance cost?

A new study says just one accident claim will cost you thousands

InsuranceQuotes.com hired researchers to answer this question. They created a hypothetical 45-year-old employed, married driver with no previous claims and got rates from 6 companies in all 50 states.

They found that, on average, making a claim on an insurance policy caused premiums to rise by more than 40%. The average annual cost of car insurance is $815. If you made one claim for $2000 in property damage, your annual bill would go up by about $335.

In some states—California and Massachusetts were the biggest offenders— your insurance premiums can nearly double after one accident claim. To make matters worse, most accident claims affect your car insurance for up to 5 years. Your total car insurance cost in that time: $6,000.

Insurance companies say one claim doesn’t hurt you

If you were in an accident that wasn’t your fault, your insurance rates should not be affected. It is worth noting that the insurance claims adjuster decides if you had any responsibility for the collision.

So what happens if you hit a parked car and make a $2000 claim for the property damage?

Several big insurance companies promote “accident forgiveness” in their advertising. It sounds good: an experienced driver with a clean record shouldn’t be gauged for car insurance after making one claim.

Car Insurance Accident Claims Make Premiums Rise DAmore Law 300x162 Does a car accident claim affect your insurance cost?

Liberty Mutual is running an ad campaign about accident forgiveness.

They don’t mention that you would need a premium insurance policy. Or that “accident forgiveness” adds another 10%  to your insurance cost. Or that “accident forgiveness” doesn’t mean they can’t drop you when your policy comes up for renewal.

This is incredibly frustrating for consumers. You pay your auto insurance dutifully for years, only to be gauged when you actually use the service for which you paid.

But even if your insurance company offers you “accident forgiveness”, your claim is going to cost you.

The infamous insurance company tactic:  Delay, Deny, Defend

Oregon leading in enforcement of truck safety law

Among long-haul drivers and heavy truck operators, Oregon has an interesting distinction.

Oregon ranks #1 among states for enforcement of hours-of-service laws (HOS), meant to ensure truckers get adequate rest. Nearly 25% of all trucker tickets in the state are for HOS violations—compared to 9% nationally.

Hours-of-service rules as of July 2013*

  • An average work-week for truck drivers is capped at a maximum of 70 hours.
  • After 70 hours, drivers must rest for at least 34 consecutive hours.
  • Truck drivers must take a 30-minute driving break during the first 8 hours of a shift.

In 2013, Oregon issued 3 HOS violations for every 10 truck inspections.

How Oregon is keeping tabs on trucking safety

Oregon is one of only a few states with a weight and distance tax for heavy vehicles.

512px Weighing trucks 2 %283542971437%29 Oregon leading in enforcement of truck safety law

The data collected at weigh stations is used to calculate taxes—but it can also be used to verify a driver’s activities.

For example, if a semi-truck causes a fatal accident, weigh station data can be used ascertain the truck’s whereabouts prior to the crash. When an attorney investigates the crash, that information can help determine if the driver was speeding, or violated hours-of-service rules.

“Our daily goal is to reduce the number of truck-at-fault crashes …”

- David McKane, Oregon’s Department of Transportation

The Oregon Department of Transportation reports that HOS enforcement is a priority, because about 90% of at-fault truck accidents are caused by the driver.

And driver fatigue is a major cause of semi-truck accidents.

 

* Some safety measures in the current laws for truck drivers are about to change – see more on Legal Examiner: Congress undoing safety changes to hours-of-service rules

 

Photo By Oregon Department of Transportation (Weighing trucks 2Uploaded by Smallman12q) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How Wrongful Death Claims Work

“Wrongful death” is a legal term. It means a person died because of another person (or company’s) bad actions.

This type of lawsuit seeks compensation for the family members who suffer emotionally, psychologically and financially by the untimely death of a loved one.

A wrongful death case is a civil lawsuit, which is different from criminal charges. For example, if a drunk driver strikes and kills a pedestrian, the state can charge that driver with DUII and manslaughter. The pedestrian’s family could file a civil lawsuit for wrongful death.

The actions that lead to the death do not need to be deliberate, just negligent. If a doctor administers a patient the wrong drug, leading to that patient’s death, that could be a wrongful death claim.

 

Making a Wrongful Death Claim in Oregon

There is usually a time limit, or statute of limitations, for filing a lawsuit for a death.*

In Oregon, most wrongful death claims must be filed within three years of the injury that resulted in the victim’s death, and no more than three years after the date of death. This can vary, based on the type of injury the identity of the at-fault party, the age of the victim, and when the cause of the fatal injury was discovered.*

In order to make a wrongful death claim, an estate has to be opened with the court. Typically, a family member is appointed as the personal representative of the estate, and pursues the claim on behalf of the beneficiaries.

Generally, the spouse and/or children of the victim are the ones permitted to pursue a wrongful death claim. Sometimes, parents, grandparents, step-parents, and step-children can also be compensated.

It is crucial to file the legal paperwork to preserve and gather the necessary evidence very soon after the death.

In most cases, the victim’s family should contact a wrongful death attorney as soon as possible.

What are Wrongful Death Damages?

“Damages” are a monetary award paid to a person as compensation for a loss or an injury.

Many factors influence the calculation of wrongful death damages. These factors may include economic damages, such as:

  • The victim’s medical bills
  • Funeral expenses
  • Estimated lost future income

And “non-economic damages,” which would include:

  • Pain and suffering of the victim from the time of the accident until the time of death
  • Loss of care, protection, guidance, advice, training, and nurturing
  • Loss of companionship

In Oregon, there is a $500,000 limit on non-economic damages in a wrongful death claim.**

In some cases, “punitive damages” may be available to punish the defendant for extreme negligence or intentional bad behavior.

No wrongful death lawsuit can undo what has happened, or bring back your loved one. And no amount of money can make up for that loss: it is simply the only tool we have, under the law, to try to compensate for your loss.

 

*This is general information and may not apply to your situation: you should talk to an attorney about statutes of limitation.

**This limit does not apply to all personal injury cases, only wrongful death claims.

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