Insurer Contests Payout for Woman Run Over on Route 4
A makeshift memorial of flowers, candles, letters and other items rests on Route 4 in Woodstock Village in Oct. 2011, where Hasse Halley died after being struck by a pickup truck. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
Woodstock — The auto insurance carrier of a woman killed while walking across Route 4 is refusing to pay out a claim to her survivors because the firm maintains she was responsible, at least in part, for the accident that took her life.
Hasse Halley, 70, of Woodstock, was struck and killed by a pickup truck on Oct. 1, 2011, while crossing the road with her dog, just west of downtown.
The insurance carrier of the driver, Richmond Maxham, paid Halley’s estate $100,000, the maximum available under Maxham’s liability policy. Halley, however, had an underinsured motorist clause through her insurance policy with Nationwide. The policy has a maximum payout of $1.4 million, which Halley’s estate is seeking, but Nationwide is disputing the claim.
“It’s always hard in a case when sad things happen,” said Susan Flynn, a lawyer representing Nationwide. “But our law doesn’t say when sad things happen, someone has to pay. Our law says that when sad things happen, you have to prove fault. And there are questions about fault.”
Halley’s estate filed a lawsuit against Nationwide in June 2012. Earlier this month, both sides presented motions for summary judgment in U.S. District Court in Rutland.
The estate contends the losses suffered from Halley’s death far exceed the $100,000 paid to her estate by Maxham’s liability insurance carrier, and that her survivors are entitled to “substantial compensation” from Nationwide, under Halley’s policy.
Maxham was charged with negligent operation in connection with Halley’s death, but the criminal charge later was dismissed, and Maxham paid a traffic fine.
Halley’s widower, Steve Halley, could not be reached for comment.
“Mr. Halley is deeply disappointed with the position that Nationwide has taken,” Pietro Lynn, the attorney representing Halley’s estate, said. “He has paid premiums to that company for a very long time and expected that they would pay this claim when his wife was killed in this accident.”
In defending itself against the lawsuit, Nationwide is arguing comparative negligence, meaning that the company’s lawyers will seek to persuade the court that Halley was more than 50 percent at fault. If a jury determines that Halley was more than 50 percent at fault, then her estate would recover no money, said Jerome O’Neill, an attorney in Burlington and a former U.S. attorney who has experience handling liability and underinsured motorist lawsuits.
However, if a jury finds that Halley was 50 percent at fault or less, then her estate could recover some or all of the $1.4 million. For instance, if a jury determines Maxham was 100 percent at fault, then Halley’s estate could receive the full payout under the policy. But if a jury determines that Halley and Maxham shared fault, then Halley’s estate might receive just a portion of the claim, O’Neill said.
“Our position is that unfortunately this was a really sad, unfortunate thing, but there is no evidence that Mr. Maxham did something to cause the accident,” Flynn, the insurance company’s lawyer, said in a phone interview last week. “Obviously, his truck hit her, but she was crossing on a dark, dreary morning at a place without a crosswalk, and somehow placed herself in front of his truck.”
While Maxham’s insurance carrier made a payout to Halley’s estate, that wasn’t neccessarily an admission of liability on Maxham’s part. In many cases, there is an exchange of money without an admission of liability, O’Neill said. Even if the liability carrier thinks it has a good chance of winning a case and proving that the client wasn’t at fault, it might make a payout anyway because attorney fees combined with the prospect of losing in court might be more costly.
Maxham is blind in one eye and suffers from hearing loss, according to court documents. No witnesses observed the crash, but one witness said she heard Halley scream at the time of the accident. Maxham has said he never heard her scream.
The estate argues he had a “duty to exercise due care” and should have seen Halley before he struck her.
The first Woodstock police officer to file a report about the accident concluded there was no basis to file charges against Maxham.
However, former Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand asked police to re-evaluate the evidence because officers had applied the wrong legal standard in weighing whether or not Maxham’s conduct rose to a criminal level. Based on a second incident report, Maxham was charged with negligent operation, a misdemeanor.
The charge was dismissed as part of a plea deal in Windsor Superior Court that required Maxham to pay a $100 traffic fine, attend the Hartford Restorative Justice Board and perform community service.
“In considering all the facts, the absence of criminal history, the lack of criminal intent and his recognition that he failed to exercise reasonable care, the state felt it was reasonable to hold him responsible for doing that without branding him a criminal,” Sand said in 2012. “The principle that was important for the state to establish is that, whatever the resolution, Mr. Maxham failed to exercise ordinary care.”
Although the criminal charge was dismissed, Halley’s estate pointed out in its motion that Maxham signed a stipulation that stated he had, “failed to use ‘due care’ in the operation of his motor vehicle,” according to the estate’s motion for partial summary judgment.
However, Nationwide argues that Halley crossed the street at an angle, causing her to spend more time in the roadway than would a “reasonable person.” There was not a crosswalk on Route 4 where she crossed.
In Nationwide’s motion for partial summary judgment, it states that Halley was wearing dark clothing on a dark and rainy day “against a backdrop of dark foliage,” all factors that police concluded may have impaired Maxham’s ability to see her. Nationwide also argues that Halley’s diagonal path made her “visual movement more difficult to detect.”
Both the plaintiff and defendant acquired outside experts to conduct crash investigation reports.
The insurance company’s expert claims Maxham’s red truck should have been visible to Halley for about 300 feet, or about eight to 10 seconds, before she was struck. Nationwide argues that Halley had adequate time to observe the approaching truck and get out of the roadway if she had walked directly across the street, according to the motion.
“She also could have returned to the side of the road from which she had originated since she was only a few feet from the edge of the road when the truck came into view, even given her diagonal path,” according to the motion filed this month by Nationwide.
The evidence, Flynn said, does not show that Maxham did something “unreasonable” to cause the accident.
O’Neill, the Burlington attorney, said these type of disputes over insurance policy payouts are common. In Vermont, everyone must have liability insurance, and the lowest amount someone can have is $25,000, meaning that often, one of the parties involved in a automobile crash is underinsured.
A date has not been set for when the judge will rule on the dueling requests for summary judgment.
Sarah Brubeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3223.