We see all sorts of defenses. Oftentimes at-fault drivers don’t want to take full responsibility when they clearly are at fault. In some instances, they are right. Part of our job as Atlanta personal injury lawyers Atlanta residents trust to garner full justice is to weed out the nonsense excuses from the real defenses.
An inmate at the Screven County Correctional Institute was injured in a single-vehicle accident while riding in a pickup truck owned by the County. He claimed that the accident was caused by the negligence of the driver, who was a County employee, and that the County was negligent under theories of respondeat superior and negligent entrustment.
He sued the County, and the County moved for a dismissal of summary judgment. After a hearing, the trial judge denied the County’s motion, and the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed to review that ruling.
The County argued that the trial judge erred in dismissing the case because the undisputed evidence shows that the accident was caused by an “act of God,” and thus, no material fact questions existed.
The Details of the Accident
On May 27, 2014, the plaintiff was wearing his seatbelt and sitting in the middle of the backseat of a County truck. A County employee was driving the plaintiff and other prisoners in the truck for a work detail.
In his deposition, the plaintiff said that during the drive, he heard another prisoner cry out. When he looked up, he saw that the truck had accelerated and was veering off the road. He also saw that the truck driver “wasn’t waking up … he was out … laying on the steering wheel.”
The truck “jumped” a ditch and slid into the next concrete culvert, which stopped its motion. The plaintiff’s seatbelt broke, and he said he was thrown into the dashboard and windshield. He also testified that others in the truck “finally shook [The truck driver] up” and that the County employee was “still kind of in shock. …” everyone in the truck was taken to a hospital.
What Did the County’s Driver Remember?
The doctor who examined the truck driver at the ER the day of the accident wrote in the “Emergency Physician Record” that the driver reported experiencing “headache” and “fatigue” just before the episode, and that he “lost consciousness.” The doctor also recorded that the man had diabetes and hypertension.
In the “Chief Complaint” section of the report, the physician wrote “syncope” and “single episode.” In the “Clinical Impressions” portion of the report, the physician wrote that the patient had fallen asleep. The truck driver subsequently saw a neurologist who diagnosed him with epilepsy and found that he’d had a seizure.
In a deposition, the truck driver said he had no independent memory of the accident, that he had never previously been diagnosed with epilepsy or related symptoms, and that he “had never had any medical condition that caused [him] to lose consciousness.” He also testified that he’d never lost consciousness while driving at any time prior to the accident and had never had issues with any medication causing a loss of consciousness.
The Screven County Manager stated in his deposition that prior to the date of the accident, the County “had no knowledge of any impairment or illness affecting the truck driver’s ability to operate a vehicle.
On appeal, the County argued that the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment because the uncontradicted evidence showed that the truck driver’s seizure and loss of consciousness were unforeseeable “acts of God.”
The Court of Appeals Explains “Act of God”
Justice Ken Hodges of the Georgia Court of Appeals wrote in his opinion that under “appropriate circumstances,” a party may establish that an act of God was the sole proximate cause of an auto accident. In that case, the defendant would be entitled to summary judgment and dismissal on a claim that his alleged negligent operation of a vehicle caused an accident.
Georgia Statute § 1-3-3 (3) defines an “act of God” as “an accident produced by physical causes which are irresistible or inevitable, such as lightning, storms, perils of the sea, earthquakes, inundations, sudden death, or illness.”
Justice Hodges said it follows that, where the driver of an automobile suffers an unforeseeable illness that causes him to suddenly lose consciousness and control of the automobile, his loss of control isn’t negligent, and he isn’t liable for any damages caused by the out-of-control automobile. The driver must demonstrate that an unforeseeable loss of consciousness produced the accident without any contributing negligence on his part, the judge explained.
Here, the County presented uncontroverted evidence that their driver had never previously been diagnosed with epilepsy or related symptoms and had never previously lost consciousness while driving such that he could have foreseen this seizure or loss of consciousness.
The County also presented uncontroverted evidence, in the form of the affidavit from the County Manager who said the County wasn’t aware of any impairment or illness that the driver had, such that it could have foreseen that he would have a seizure or lose consciousness while driving a County vehicle.
Justice Hodges opined that in presenting this evidence and an absence of evidence that either the truck driver or the County could have foreseen the seizure and sudden loss of consciousness on the day of the accident, the County established a prima facie case in support of its affirmative defense of an “act of God.”
As such, the burden of production shifts to the plaintiff to produce evidence rebutting the affirmative defense and showing that there was a genuine issue for trial.
Here, the inmate failed to meet this burden, the Court of Appeals said. The plaintiff argued that evidence showed that the truck driver knew he had hypertension and diabetes. In addition, at his deposition, he said he did not recall whether he had checked his blood sugar on the day of the accident and that he did not keep a record of his blood sugar levels. The plaintiff asserted that this “negligence” prevented the truck driver from foreseeing his problem.
The plaintiff also argued that the physician noted that the truck driver reported having a headache and feeling fatigued prior to the accident. This, he said, means that the driver’s seizure or loss of consciousness “was therefore not sudden and unforeseeable.” But the plaintiff offered no evidence that hypertension or diabetes, or a failure to check one’s blood sugar, leads to seizures or sudden loss of consciousness. Nor does he provide any evidence indicating that fatigue or a headache are precursors to a seizure or sudden loss of consciousness.
Because the plaintiff failed to produce any specific facts rebutting the County’s affirmative defense and showing that there was a genuine issue for trial, the trial court’s denial of summary judgment to the County was reversed. Screven County v. Sandlin, 2022 Ga. App. LEXIS 228 (Ga. App. May 4, 2022).
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