Case Summary: Parental Recovery of a Minor Child’s Medical Expenses



Moquin v. Hedrick
163 N.C. App. 345 (2004)
Court of Appeals of North Carolina

Background

The plaintiffs in this case included both Elizabeth Moquin (the minor daughter), who was injured in an automobile accident, and her parents, David and Lynn Moquin (the parents). The daughter sought damages for personal injuries sustained in the accident, while the parents sought compensation for the medical expenses of their daughter.

Procedural History

Plaintiffs filed a negligence complaint against defendants Kenneth Hedrick (defendant) and NPC International, Inc. d/b/a Pizza Hut Store No. 2578 (Pizza Hut), for the injuries sustained by Elizabeth Moquin in a car accident. Following the close of evidence at a jury trial in the Brunswick County Superior Court, the court entered judgment for the plaintiffs, specifically awarding the daughter $6,700.00 for personal injuries, and the parents $4,500.00 for medical expenses related to Elizabeth’s injuries. The trial court also entered an order awarding attorney’s fees, under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 6-21.1, in the amounts of $5,000.00 for the daughter, and $5,000.00 for the parents, summing a total of $10,000.00. It is from the order granting plaintiffs the award of attorney’s fees that the defendant appeals.

Facts

Elizabeth Moquin sustained injuries as a result of the collision caused by defendant Kenneth Hedrick. At the time of the accident, Hedrick was working as a pizza delivery driver for Pizza Hut. As a result of this accident, Elizabeth and her parents filed a complaint seeking compensation for her injuries, and also compensation for the parents for medical expenses related to those injuries. The trial court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor, and also provided an award of attorney’s fees. The issue on appeal was whether N.C. Gen. Stat. § 6-21.1 was applicable when the combined recovery for damages pursuant to the judgment was in excess of $10,000.00.

Governing Law

The relevant provision of the North Carolina General Statutes, concerning awards for attorney’s fees in personal injury suits states:

In any personal injury or property damage suit,.. upon a finding by the court that there was an unwarranted refusal by the defendant insurance company to pay the claim which constitutes the basis of such suit, instituted in a court of record, where the judgment for recovery of damages is ten thousand dollars ($ 10,000) or less, the presiding judge may, in his discretion, allow a reasonable attorney fee to the duly licensed attorney representing the litigant obtaining a judgment for damages in said suit, said attorney’s fee to be taxed as a part of the court costs.

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 6-21.1 (2003) (emphasis added). This statute was enacted specifically to provide relief for persons who have suffered injury or property damage in such small amounts, that if he must pay his attorney out of the recovery, it may not be economically feasible to bring a suit on that claim. The remedial basis of the statute is for the prevention of the at-fault defendant to have a superior bargaining power in negotiations for possible settlements to the claim. The North Carolina Supreme Court, in noting the legislative purpose behind the law, has construed the statute liberally to provide relief for cases falling within its scope.

Conclusion

The North Carolina Court of Appeals ultimately upheld the trial court’s order awarding the plaintiff’s attorneys fees in the combined amount of $10,000.00. The court found that there were two independent causes of action when an unemancipated minor is injured by another’s negligence: (1) a claim on the child’s behalf for the injury and resulting losses; and (2) a claim by the parent for medical expenses for treating the child’s injury and loss of services during child’s minority.

Key Takeaways

North Carolina legislators enacted G.S. § 6-21.1 to specifically address the huge differences in bargaining power that can arise when the injuries sustained by a party are less than $10,000.00. Because the typical cost for an attorney in a personal injury action is based on percentage of recovery, most persons with a claim could end up in a situation in which their recovery would be severely limited due to this fact. It is for this reason that the North Carolina General Assembly provided trial court judges with discretion to determine awards of attorney’s fees in such situations.



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