Most Americans understand certain cases change the way we look at the law; these cases are often referred to as landmark cases. Americans often use the same examples for landmark cases, such as Brown v. Board of Education or Gideon v. Wainwright.
However, many state-level supreme courts address issue landmark opinions of their own. According to the Kentucky Trial Court Review, the most significant case for a civil jury verdict in Kentucky was Bill Garmer’s Margie Montgomery Hilen’s case against Keith Hays.
Back to 1984
The story of Hilen v. Hays begins as a party in October 1979. Margie Montgomery Hilen and Keith Hays both attended the party in Clarksville and were in an intoxicated state when they left. Hays drove and overturned his vehicle by running into the back of another car. Hilen, as Hays’ passenger, suffered severe injuries and brought a lawsuit against Hays for compensation in 1984.
However, Kentucky’s court was governed by contributory negligence, which meant if Mr. Hays could prove Margie contributed to her injuries in any way, as minor as her contribution might be, then she could not claim damages.
Margie was found partially at fault for voluntarily riding with a drunk driver. Margie’s attorney, Bill Garmer, decided to appeal the decision and bring it to the Court of appeals and then Kentucky’s Supreme Court, which changed the law for good.
The significance of Hilen v. Hays
During the appeals, Garmer relied on one question: is it fair to completely bar someone from damages if they played a small role in an incident? Many states had adopted new laws at this point and saw contributory negligence as an unfair practice for accident victims.
Kentucky’s Supreme Court rejected its long-established rule relating to contributory negligence and adopted a new statue of comparative negligence, which means a plaintiff recovers damages based upon the degree in which they were at fault for the injury.
The court stated that comparative negligence created a fair playing field between defendants and plaintiffs in negligence cases. The new law also allowed accountability for all of those involved in an incident and has a set practice for how much in damages is awarded. Soon after, the new rule was extended to product liability cases as well.
A simple example is if a jury finds a defendant is 90 percent at fault and a plaintiff is 10 percent at fault. If the jury determines the award is $10,000, then the plaintiff would receive $9,000 for compensation.
Before Hilen v. Hays, it was extremely hard for a victim to succeed in a negligence lawsuit. That has long-since changed thanks to Bill Garmer’s work on that case. Today, nearly every plaintiff with an injury case, whether due to a defective product, medical negligence, a tractor trailer wreck, or even a simple slip-and-fall, has the outcome of Hilen v. Hays to thank if they recover compensation. And that is why Hilen v. Hays was named the most important civil trial in Kentucky history.