Melissa Merton, a 64 year old resident of Altoona, Florida, was sadly killed in a car accident in Leesburg, Florida this past Sunday. According to news reports, Merton was driving a 2002 Ford pickup when 78 year old Rosemary Zingerella hit her on the right side. This caused Melissa Merton’s truck to flip over, which in turn caused Merton to be ejected from her truck. News sources indicate that Merton was not wearing a seat belt.
Rosemary Zingerella only suffered minor injuries which were treated at local hospital.
Merton was not the only person in her truck. Also present were John Merton, 33, of Umatilla, and Zachary Oles, 21, of Orlando… both of whom suffered minor injuries.
While the above information has been reported in the media, the Florida Highway Patrol is still investigating this case so no concrete conclusions about who was ultimately responsible can be drawn at this time.
Specifically, FHP is trying to determine whether or not Zingerella stopped at a stop sign before the accident.
As a Florida personal injury lawyer, I would not be surprised if Zingerella failed to properly stop. If this is true, she may be liable to Melissa Merton’s family for wrongful death.
As a legal blogger, I discuss cases like these to identify the legal issues and explain how they may play out in our system of justice.
At 78, one has to wonder why Zingerella was behind the wheel of a car. While she may be a very nice person, there comes a point in time where it is no longer responsible to drive. As an accident attorney, I encounter case after case after case where an elderly driver causes a terrible accident unintentionally.
I strongly suspect this is the case here.
In order to operate a motor vehicle safely, a person must be able to see clearly, judge distances, estimate speeds, and have the basic physical ability to mechanically handle driving.
Unfortunately, as we age, not only does our ability to see and hear fade, but so does our mental acuity. Elderly drivers are notorious for running stop signs, failing to yield, and drifting in their lanes.
They aren’t the maniac drivers who speed on the highway or who weave in and out of lanes. They are the people who miscalculate the distance needed to stop for a stop sign or who fail to see that motorcycle driver in their blind spot.
Its a shame really. Elderly drivers rarely intend to cause harm and almost never do an intentional act that they know to be careless… unlike teenage drivers who are known to daredevil all over our roadways.
That said, this case presents one very interesting fact that tells me Zingerella is at fault. Namely, the fact that Merton’s truck flipped over on impact tells me that Zingerella hit her at high speed.
If this was a high speed collision, that means Zingerella failed to stop at the stop sign.
Based on past experience, I would attribute this failure to her elderly nature. Said directly, I would bet Zingerella did not even see the stop sign.
The force needed to knock over a Ford pickup truck is massive. These trucks are heavy and it takes a lot of inertia to knock one over.
However, this leaves one question: What impact, if any, did the fact that Merton was not wearing a seat belt have?
Would she have been retained in the truck or would she still have been ejected? Would a seat belt have saved her life or would it have had no effect?
As important as wearing a seat belt is, they do not make the difference in every case.
This is especially so in high velocity impacts… like the kind that cause pickup trucks to flip over.
At the same time, we would also need to consider the fact that the other passengers in Merton’s truck, who were wearing seat belts, suffered only minor injuries.
To work out the details of this crash and understand how all the different variables interplay with one another, it will be necessary to see accident photos, read the crash report, and possibly obtain the opinion of an accident reconstructionist.
Again, my perspective on this case is that of an attorney and the purpose of this blog is to discuss the legal issues that injury cases like these generate. With that in mind, it is important to realize that a successful wrongful death claim is predicated on three basic things:
1) Evidence if liability 2) Evidence of injury (death)
3) Insured/collectible defendants
The foregoing discussion about elderly drivers and my suspicion about what happened in this case addresses the first element. In other words, to bring a successful wrongful death claim against Zingerella’s insurance company, accident attorneys representing Melissa Merton’s estate will need to prove that Zingerella did something negligent to cause the accident.
From there, it is necessary to establish if Merton’s lack of a seat belt played any role in her death. If so, to what extent?
Ultimately, accident attorneys will need to determine if the lack of a seat belt was a meaningful factor.
In my personal opinion, seat belts are mostly worthless in high speed crashes. Like car accidents and airbags, seat belts have a limited range of effectiveness.
The second element in a case of this type, proof of injury, is rather straightforward. It is clear and easily proven that Merton lost her life.
The third element is probably the most important. Assuming the evidence does establish that Zingerella is responsible, the question of insurance still remains. In other words, does she have enough liability insurance to properly compensate Merton’s family for their loss? If so, a successful claim may be possible.
Putting all the legal issues aside, we must recognize that a person lost her life in this case. While I suspect that the elderly nature of the other driver is the cause, we should also recognize that Mrs. Zingerelle likely did not intend to cause anyone any harm. I am sure she is suffering knowing what happened.
That said, Florida Law has something called the wrongful death statute. Under this law, the estate and survivors of a person who was wrongfully killed, even in an unintentional accident, may make a claim against those who are responsible.
The purpose of this law is to make sure that the survivors of someone killed in an accident are provided for and are compensated for their loss.
When it comes to motor vehicle negligence cases, such compensation is paid for by insurance companies probably more than 90% of the time. In fact, I would bet Zingerella’s insurance company is eager to settle given the magnitude of the loss in this case.
Speaking of the law, I wish the Florida Legislature would pass more stringent laws to regulate elderly drivers more closely. In a state with so many retirees and such ineffective public transportation, we are have far too many elderly people driving motor vehicles when they should not be.
In my personal opinion, the law should require annual mental health exams (to test for acuity), hearing and vision tests, as well as road tests for all driver over age 70. It a simple reality of life that as we age, we lose the ability to hear, see, and process information… not to mention operate machinery.
Most importantly, my condolences go out to the Merton family. I am sorry for their loss and wish them only peace.