Is a Drunk Driver’s Actions an Intervening Cause?
An intervening cause is an event that happens after a party’s improper or dangerous action and before the damage that could otherwise have been caused by the dangerous act.
In effect, it “breaks the chain” of causation between the original act and the harm to the injured person. The presence of an intervening cause can mean that the individual who started the chain of events may no longer be considered responsible for damages to the victim because the original action is no longer what caused the accident.
Intervening cause was a question in a case decided on October 15, 2021 in federal court in Georgia.
A truck driver drove a truck for his employer, Eagle Express Lines when in early November 2018, he was on I-95 when Aaron Sharpe veered into the trucker’s lane and crashed. Sharpe was later suspected of driving drunk, and the crash damaged Gaskin’s truck—specifically the “tie rod,” which connects the steer axles and the left front wheel. That damage made the 18-wheeler move left across traffic and hit the Plaintiff’s vehicle. Plaintiff was one of two passengers in the vehicle, causing injuries to Plaintiff and the driver.
The truck driver and the trucking company asked the Court to dismiss the case because they argued that there was no evidence that the semi driver was driving negligently. They contend that because Plaintiff admitted that the semi driver “was ‘properly and lawfully driving in the right lane of I-95,'” and uncontradicted evidence demonstrated that he lost the ability to control the truck’s movements after the contact with Sharpe’s vehicle, there was no evidence the semi driver breached any duty owed to Plaintiff.
The semi driver and the trucking company also claimed that Sharpe’s “intervening actions”—presumably meaning driving drunk and swerving into the semi driver’s lane—”cut off any causation argument.”
But the Plaintiff argued that: (i) that a jury could infer that the semi driver was negligent in failing to avoid contact with Sharpe, causing the accidents; and (ii) that it would be inappropriate to grant summary judgment without giving the Plaintiff the opportunity to depose Sharpe, who wouldn’t answer questions until his criminal charges were resolved.
The Judge’s Decision
United States District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood wrote that the Defendants (the semi driver and the trucking company) offered strong arguments that the driver exercised reasonable care and was simply unable to avoid making contact with Sharpe. However, the judge said that didn’t mean that no reasonable jury could disagree with those arguments. Georgia law strongly disfavors taking the question of breach away from the jury, and this is not such a “plain and indisputable” case that doing so would be appropriate. In addition, because the truck driver’s alleged negligence was still at issue, the intervening cause argument should also reach the jury, the judge held. A jury could reasonably conclude that the conditions the semi driver faced were foreseeable, and that the accident wouldn’t have happened if he’d exercised reasonable care. As a result, the semi driver and the trucking company’s motion for summary judgment was denied.
The Judge Says a Jury Could Find That Gaskin Breached His Duty to the Plaintiffs
To prevail on a claim of negligence, a plaintiff in Georgia must show:
- The defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff;
- The defendant breached that duty; and
- The breach of duty caused the plaintiff to sustain an injury.
“When assessing the extent to which one owes a duty to another and whether he has breached that duty, the judge noted that Georgia cases say that ‘the governing consideration is what the person sought to be charged should reasonably have foreseen. Defendants didn’t argue that the Plaintiff wasn’t a foreseeable victim of the big rig driver’s allegedly negligent failure to avoid Sharpe’s vehicle—and, indeed, it is well-settled that drivers in Georgia owe a duty of reasonable care to others on the roadway. Thus, the question is whether the truck driver breached his duty.
Judge Wood opined that Georgia law disfavors taking the question of breach away from the jury, holding that summary judgment is appropriate on that point only in “plain and indisputable cases. In claiming that this is such a case, the semi driver and the trucking company relied on the fact that the evidence suggests that Sharpe caused the auto accident:
- Sharpe was apparently drunk and driving erratically;
- Sharpe veered into the semi driver’s Lane; and
- The semi driver’s only chance to avoid him was to slow down—if he had veered away, he might have gone off the freeway and into the swamp.
While these were strong arguments based on strong evidence, the judge noted that there were conflicting arguments and conflicting evidence. Therefore, there is at least some evidence which, if the jury viewed it in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, and made all reasonable inferences in her favor (as the Court is required to do here), might permit the opposite conclusion:
- The semi driver said he saw Sharpe a few seconds before the collision happened;
- The semi driver was unable to stop before making contact with Sharpe;
- Sharpe’s statement to police indicated that Gaskin’s truck hit him from behind; and
- The fact that it was raining on the day of the accident.
“Piecing all that together,” the judge said, “it is possible for a rational jury to find that [the semi driver] had an opportunity to avoid the collision. Thus, whether the semi driver negligently failed to avoid Sharpe’s vehicle is an issue for the jury—not the judge.
Sharpe’s Actions Weren’t an Intervening Cause Because a Jury Could Find that Drunk Drivers are Foreseeable and that the Accident Wouldn’t Have Happened Without the Semi Driver’s Alleged Negligence
Judge Wood held that because a fact issue remained on whether the semi driver was negligent, the judge also denied the defendants’ argument that Sharpe’s intervening actions also cut off any causation.
Georgia law states that there’s no proximate cause when an intervening (particularly criminal) act cuts off the causal chain between the defendant’s negligence and the plaintiff’s injury. However, an intervening cause must not be foreseeable by the defendant, and must be sufficient itself to cause the injury.
Neither requirement for an intervening cause is met, at least not as a matter of law, the judge said. First, a jury could certainly find that encountering dangerous drivers on the highway is foreseeable (and cautions careful driving, particularly in the rain). Second, the evidence here showed that Sharpe—though he was driving drunk—veered into the semi driver’s lane, not the Plaintiff’s. So, if a jury found the semi driver negligent in failing to avoid Sharpe’s vehicle, it could also find that, without that negligence, the collision with Plaintiff would never have happened.
In sum, Sharpe’s drunk driving was not, at least as a matter of law, an intervening cause. As a result, the defendants’ motion for summary judgment was denied. Piggee v. Gaskin, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 199275 (S.D. Ga. October 15, 2021).
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