When tractor-trailers park in the emergency lane and are struck by a car, the consequences can be devastating. The question is what if the car driver loses control and hits the tractor-trailer? Whose fault is it? How much blame does the truck driver have for being where they should not be versus the car that loses control and hits it? The law pretty much says that if you do something stupid or illegal and someone gets hurt because of it, you can be held legally responsible. This simple concept has been stretched to fit odd facts many times and today we are discussing situations that test it.
In a 1996 case, Marissa M Smith v. Commercial Transp., Inc., 220 Ga.App. 866 (Ga. App., 1996), a tractor-trailer flipped over at 4:30 AM and blocked all lanes of traffic. Two hours later with traffic backed up for 2 miles, along comes the plaintiff and she does not realize traffic is stopped and he slams into a stopped car and dies. Now the law does say that if a person’s own negligence is more than 50% to blame, they get nothing so the Court had to look at 1) how much of the blame was on the driver for not stopping before impact and 2) how much of the blame was on the original truck driver not to flip and cause the back up in the first place?
The insurance company for the truck also wanted to argue that since the original crash was 6 hours before and 2 miles away, it was disconnected from the later crash and they could not be blamed. The Court of Appeals disagreed and allowed the jury to consider the issue of who was more to blame and in what percent. It’s an interesting argument though. How far does your responsibility stretch in time and distance?
That logic was carried on in a 2014 case, Reed v. Carolina Cas. Ins. Co., 327 Ga. App. 130 (Ga. App., 2014), where a tractor-trailer driver got tired and pulled over in the emergency lane to go to sleep. Along came a driver with a .96 blood alcohol and speeding. The driver loses control and swerves all over the road and ends up hitting the truck in the emergency lane. The vehicle bursts into flame and they are burned to death in the tragedy.
There is blame to go around, right? The truck driver and his insurance argued that they are not on the hook even though it is illegal to park in the emergency lane and they tried to say that the drunk driver was clearly more than 50% responsible for his own crash so the jury should never hear the case. There is some merit to this right? We don’t want to reward the drunk driver for drinking and driving and going too fast. There was no question that had he taken the ramp at a safe speed, there would be no crash.
As often happens in cases, the defense filed a Motion for Summary Judgment with the Court asking that the case be thrown out because the drunk was the biggest cause of the crash. The drunk would have crashed regardless and just because the truck made it worse, the defense said the Court should let them out.
The Court of Appeals repeated the rule “questions of negligence, diligence, contributory negligence, and proximate cause are peculiarly matters for the jury, and a court should not take the place of the jury in solving them, except in plain and indisputable cases.” Reed v. Carolina Cas. Ins. Co., 327 Ga. App. 130, 762 S.E.2d 90 (Ga. App., 2014) Basically, it has to be without any question that a jury could not consider the matter. The court ruled that issues of degrees of blame, even where the plaintiff is drunk and impaired, are still issues that go to a jury for trial and cannot be thrown out by the Court on summary judgment.
What do you think of the Court’s reasoning?