Taxi owners in New York consistently create individual corporations for each taxi medallion/taxicab, even if they own dozens. This case involved a very sophisticated businessman who owned approximately a dozen taxi cab companies, each of which operated as part of a larger enterprise but, appeared to the public to be individual operations. At the time I took over the case, it appeared that our client, who had lost his leg from the knee down as a result of the accident, would be limited to the minimal (twenty five thousand dollar) policy on the car that hit him. Fortunately, after some hard work and effective motion practice we were able to negotiate a settlement of close to one million dollars, still less than what the injury would have been worth in a clear liability case but, almost forty times what he stood to get before the work was done.
The cornerstone of the revised strategy arose at the defendant’s deposition. The witness, a dispatcher, testified that she was employed by the same company that owned the cab but, when I pressed her to produce a pay stub, which she had in her pocket, we found out she was actually employed by one of the other companies owned by the same man. We then learned that the dispatch office, garage, book keeping staff, etc., were all shared among the various companies.
My research turned up a New York State Supreme Court case from a few years earlier that dealt favorably (for our purposes) with a similar situation. The court in that case held that when a group of companies operates as a single entity but, presents itself as discrete corporations, it constitutes a “fraud upon the public” which can be redressed by holding all the companies and maybe even the principals liable, instead of limiting the injured party’s right to recovery to just the one, small corporation with no assets and minimal insurance coverage. The theory was applicable but, there were several obstacles to overcome.
The first problem was that the statute of limitations had long since run out on the case, meaning that it was too late to start a new lawsuit naming the other corporations as defendants. In order to overcome this, we had to rely on a theory of law called the relation back doctrine. This legal doctrine holds, in part, that if a party who is not named in the lawsuit is closely related to the parties that are and, that party is aware of the claims and, that party knows it should have been named, in the first place, it can be added to the lawsuit, even if the statute of limitations has run out. Here, we argued that not only were those elements met but, that if it weren’t for the sneaky way the companies were set up, we would have known they were viable defendants from the outset.
The second problem was that even after we named all these different companies it was unclear to what extent each one would be responsible for our client’s injuries and, it was also unclear how much insurance coverage they would have to satisfy his claims. To complicate matters, several of the companies had been dissolved and, it was unclear what, if any assets any of them actually owned. Here we got lucky.
In the time between the accident and the addition of these other parties to the lawsuit, the owner of the companies had sold all of them, lock, stock and barrel, to Coach Transportation, the giant Canadian bus company. While this still left open the issue of whether we could actually prove Coach was liable, it eliminated the questions about whether there would be any money available at the end of the day to compensate our client.
Ultimately, after some further discovery, including a long, intense deposition of the former owner that revolved mainly around the maze of corporations he had created and the way they worked together, we settled for close to a million dollars.
As I noted above, this was a discount for a below the knee amputation, even in a conservative venue like Nassau County but, even though we won on some important procedural issues that allowed us to add the other companies and, ultimately Coach, as defendants, there was a serious question as to whether, when push came to shove, the case could actually be proven against them. If it couldn’t, our client would be stuck with the same twenty five thousand dollars that was on the table from the get go. In the end, he made the right decision. He would have been taking too big a risk by taking the case to trial.
This is just one example of the many times that innovative, assertive legal work can overcome some of the obstacles that personal injury plaintiffs face in their quest for justice.