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Accident victim seeks access to firm’s liability policy

Peter Vieth//November 13, 2014

Accident victim seeks access to firm’s liability policy

Peter Vieth//November 13, 2014//

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Phone on seatThe Supreme Court of Virginia has agreed to consider whether a lawyer is on the job and covered by his law firm’s insurance when he’s driving to work with his cellphone ready for work-related calls.

The outcome could determine whether a man injured in a 2009 car crash can tap into the law firm’s $1 million policy or is limited by the lawyer’s own $100,000 policy.

The difference is crucial for the accident victim’s claim. He was left with more than $100,000 in medical bills, according to his attorney.

The high court has decided to examine whether Loudoun County Circuit Judge Thomas D. Horne was right to set aside a jury verdict allowing the expanded coverage.

“The big question in the case is ‘What is the personal affair of a law firm, anyway,’” said Falls Church lawyer Michael R. Strong, who represents the injured accident victim, Vu Vo.

The wreck itself was uncomplicated. Washington lawyer H. Christopher Bartolomucci, then a litigation partner at Hogan Hartson LLP, allegedly pulled out from a stop sign onto State Route 7 in Loudoun County. He pulled into the path of Vo’s vehicle, which crashed into the side of Bartolomucci’s Mercedes, according to Strong.

Bartolomucci was slightly hurt, but Vo suffered severe injuries. The crash ruptured his aortic artery and left him with “horrific back pain” and other ailments, Strong said.

Vo sued Bartolomucci, and the personal injury suit was shelved while the insurance issue was litigated.

Both Vo and Bartolomucci contend the lawyer, driving from home to work, was using his car in the “business and personal affairs” of the law firm at the time of the accident.

If the courts agree, the law firm’s insurance would kick in, under terms of the policy.

The Loudoun County jury heard evidence that Bartolomucci had an office in his home, used a cellphone in his car for business calls and used his commuting time to think about work.

“It’s our contention he was actually on duty because he was set up to receive work-related calls while driving,” Strong said.

Under that theory, every lawyer is constantly “on duty,” argued the insurance company’s lawyer.

“The issue is really whether a lawyer is essentially working 24 hours a day because he carries a phone on which he might receive a phone call or text,” said John D. McGavin of Fairfax, counsel for Federated Insurance Group, the law firm’s insurer

While the jury decided the law firm’s insurance applied, the trial judge disagreed.

Those mobile work factors were “merely incidental” to Bartolomucci’s purpose for operating his vehicle: “transporting himself from his place of habitation to his place of work,” Horne said.

Horne’s opinion is Bartolomucci v. Federal Insurance Group (VLW 013-8-116).

Arguing there was evidence to support the jury’s verdict, both Vo and Bartolomucci asked the Supreme Court to take the appeal. The court agreed to do so on Oct. 27.

The Bartolomucci case recalls other claims against employers in which workers were accused of causing vehicle crashes while making business calls.

The law firm of Cooley Goodward LLP settled a claim by the family of a 15-year-old girl killed in a 2000 Loudoun County accident when she was struck by a car driven by a firm lawyer. The lawyer reportedly had been making a business call from her cellphone at the time of the incident.

The terms of the firm’s settlement were not disclosed, but the girl’s family later won a $2 million verdict against the lawyer in Loudoun County Circuit Court.

Besides facing the liability claim, the lawyer pleaded guilty to hit-and-run, served a year in jail, lost her law licenses and filed for bankruptcy.

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