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Keys to the City: Injuries to Volunteer City Officials

I. Injuries While Working

Dover is a lovely, small town in Craven County (near New Bern), and has a population of slightly over 400 people. Positive comparisons with Mayberry RFD would not be a stretch. That’s why it’s also interesting to see that the usually quiet and peaceable Town of Dover became an interesting case study involving personal injury law, requiring the expertise of a personal injury lawyer. The case also showed that it’s not always good to pave a road with good intentions…unless you can also get help from a qualified personal injury lawyer.

II. Mayor to the Rescue

Dover is very similar to most other small towns: many times, their most important jobs are either paid a small stipend or not paid at all. The unpaid mayor of the Town of Dover (Mayor Creel) was to become a participant in a drama regarding an injury while performing his official duties. Or at least, it took the court of appeals and an experienced personal injury lawyer to argue about the following facts…was he or was he not acting like a mayor, when he got hurt?

Early on a pleasant September evening, the mayor’s wife received a phone call, from a Town of Dover Alderman. The alderman told Mrs. Creole that a city-owned public works truck had been left on Johnson Street, and was blocking traffic in both lanes. Mrs. Creel eventually got the message to her husband. A personal injury lawyer later showed that it was fairly common knowledge that the mayor was the one who very frequently had the keys to the Town’s truck. The mayor called back to the alderman and told him that he would be “right over to move the truck.” On the way over to Johnson Street, the mayor also decided to just stop by at his business “for a minute.” The mayor owned an auto service center, and so he also took the opportunity while there to have a quick after-hours drink: specifically, of the alcohol variety. After quaffing his drink, the mayor continued on his errand to Johnson Street.

As the personal injury lawyer later demonstrated, the mayor’s preferred mode of transportation when running errands was not always a car, but a bicycle. Unfortunately, on his way to perform his mayoral duty, the mayor ran into a pile of dirt near the traffic construction site, and (only) 30 seconds away from his auto service center. It was not, as it turned out, a laughing matter. The mayor incurred severe injuries from being thrown heavily off his bicycle while pedaling at a high speed.

The Town of Dover resisted paying any damages for the mayor’s injuries. Instead, the mayor had to go to a personal injury lawyer to prove that he was entitled to at least some kind of compensation for being injured. The official position from the Town?  They argued that the mayor had waived any personal claim for liability, once he had chosen to take a drink. You might say they thought the mayor had deviated from the straight path of duty, by his supposed ‘detour.’

The personal injury lawyer for the mayor won the claim at the first hearing. The Town of Dover appealed, and argued that “intoxication was a proximate cause” of the mayor’s injury. The question, then, was about the mayor deciding to stop at his own personal place of business and have a drink: did this actually mean that he had ‘interrupted’ the original business purpose of his trip?

III.   Tracking the Course of Good Intentions: Devil in the Details

In this case, the appeals court also agreed with the personal injury lawyer. The PI lawyer argued that the best test for liability was whether or not the mayor had actually been employed and acting as mayor at the time of the accident. In legal terms, this is called “arising out of” employment so as to create a causal connection between the injury and (here) a mayor’s actual duties. A similar “arising out of” analysis can be applied for a wide range of other important, but volunteer, activities undertaken for a town or city.

In analyzing these types of cases, a successful personal injury lawyer will naturally emphasize the details in the specific case. In other words, what was the mayor expected to reasonably be doing, in terms of official conduct that actually led to the injury? In this case, the personal injury lawyer was successful in addressing three key sets of facts:

  1.  Despite receiving no wages, the mayor introduced evidence of his specific election to the office of Mayor: that this position was literally defined by several specific responsibilities in the Town Code, such as:
  • …assisting with public road safety such as addressing pavement conditions in the Town; this meant that city-owned vehicles were used on public roads for various purposes, with which the mayor was familiar.
  • The mayor was known to have had the keys to the truck, and the personal injury lawyer demonstrated that not only one, but several board of aldermen tried to locate the mayor at his auto business itself…which importantly enough, happened to be next to the mayor’s house. Additionally, the personal injury lawyer demonstrated that the Town government’s attempts to reach the mayor and the mayor’s house was crucial in defining the expected mayoral duties. These duties often found the Mayor at home, after hours, and also often at his nearby place of work.

For these three preceding reasons, the personal injury lawyer had successfully demonstrated what the court found to be a “reasonable relationship” between the mayor’s trip from home, to his shop, and then to the city-owned vehicle site. For whatever reason, there was left unstated one other fact: it simply made sense to drive a bicycle to move the truck, instead of having a second vehicle. An experienced personal injury attorney, however, often knows that what may seem to be common sense to ask, may also be opening a Pandora’s Box.

IV.  Good Mayor, Bad Mayor

The Town of Dover tried, it seemed, to get into some personal issues. For example, the fact that the mayor was asleep on the couch when his wife said she “didn’t know where he was.” They raised the argument that the mayor “should’ve known” it was a bumpy road, and the Town even went so far as to call his conduct “illogical” and even “grossly inefficient.” Ultimately, the court rejected these attempts to apply “logic” and “inefficiency” to a perhaps sleepy mayor. The personal injury lawyer successfully stressed that there was one basic test to be applied: was there or was there not a mayoral-connected injury.

Conclusions:   

There are great number of occupations that often raise problems similar to this case. Whether working as a volunteer fireman, animal shelter worker, parks official or staff, or even sometimes emergency services or a reserve police officer. Injuries are often part of the major problems in retaining and recruiting good (often unpaid) help for these important city and town positions. Any time that a person is injured in an official setting, they often need the immediate expertise of a personal injury lawyer. This is especially true in cases where the situation of employment or volunteer status is ambiguous. Talking with a personal injury lawyer, as soon as practicable after an injury, often addresses these important issues. A knowledgeable personal injury lawyer allows for the best possible fact gathering to determine what happened and why. As this case shows, reputations can also be protected.

If you, a family member or a loved one have been hurt in a volunteer incident—or have questions about a prior or recent accident related to a city or town’s operations, or involving related claims or your legal rights or hearings, please contact us.  You will speak with a knowledgeable personal injury lawyer who can best answer your questions about how your rights for recovery can be protected.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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