An SUV driver filed a personal injury action against the City of Sandersville, alleging that City employees’ negligence resulted in a collision between her SUV and a City waste collection truck.
On the morning of June 22, 2018, City employees Richard Brown and Jeffrey Burnett were driving a large—over eight feet tall and eight feet wide—waste collection “boom truck” on their regular route to collect yard waste. The weather that morning was clear and dry. At approximately 8:20 a.m., Brown—the driver—activated the boom truck’s flashing hazard lights and stopped to collect a small amount of yard waste at that residence. As the truck stopped, Burnett exited the passenger side to begin collecting tree limbs and leaves.
The plaintiff—who was driving her SUV with her young daughter in the back seat—was also heading eastbound on West Church. Somehow, the plaintiff didn’t see the truck, and right after it stopped, she collided with the City’s vehicle without breaking or even slowing down.
The plaintiff suffered a severe injury to her arm and lost consciousness. However, just as her SUV was about to catch fire, Burnett pulled her daughter—who wasn’t seriously injured—from the vehicle. Brown and another City employee—who happened to be driving by at the time—extricated the plaintiff before she suffered any further harm. A fire engine arrived to extinguish the vehicle fire, and an ambulance transported the plaintiff to the hospital. After the accident, Brown and Burnett noticed that the boom truck’s hazard lights were still flashing.
About an hour after the collision, a Georgia State Patrol officer arrived to investigate. Inspecting the boom truck, the state trooper saw that the rear of the vehicle was damaged, its hazard lights had been destroyed and were not flashing. And as for the plaintiff’s vehicle, based on the extent of the damage, the trooper didn’t think she was going over the 45 mph speed limit but couldn’t definitively explain why she failed to see the boom truck—beyond opining that she was following too closely and the morning sun may have hindered her vision.
In the plaintiff’s personal injury action against the City, the City filed an answer, and discovery ensued, which included the depositions of the plaintiff, the two City employees, and the state trooper. After discovery closed, the City filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing the plaintiff failed to submit any evidence that its negligence caused her to collide with the boom truck. The trial court denied the City’s motion, ruling that “a genuine issue as to a material fact appears to exist regarding whether or not the municipal waste collection vehicle had its flashing hazard lights on at the time of the incident as required by law.” The City appealed the decision on its motion.
The Court of Appeals’ Decision
On appeal, the City argued that the trial court erred in ruling there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the boom truck’s hazard lights were flashing when the plaintiff’s SUV collided with the rear of the City’s boom truck.
Presiding Judge Stephen Dillard wrote that it’s a well-established principle that merely because “an accident occurred and a plaintiff suffered injury establishes no basis for recovery unless the plaintiff comes forward with evidence showing that the accident was caused by the defendant’s negligence.” Here, the trial court denied the City’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether its boom truck had flashing hazard lights on at the time of the incident as required by law.
OCGA § 40-6-203(c) provides:
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, any vehicle used solely for the purpose of collecting municipal solid waste or recovered materials … may stop or stand on the road, street, or highway for the sole purpose of collecting such waste or materials; provided, however, that such vehicle shall maintain flashing hazard lights at all times that it is engaged in stopping or standing for the purpose of waste or materials collection.
However, contrary to the trial court’s order denying summary judgment, the evidence supported the City’s contention that the boom truck’s hazard lights were flashing when the SUV collided into the back of the City’s vehicle.
Brown and Burnett both testified that they tested the boom truck’s hazard lights prior to starting their collection route. Plus, they both unequivocally testified that Brown activated the truck’s hazard lights as he stopped on the road prior to the accident. There was no direct evidence that contradicted their testimony. Rather, the plaintiff testified that, prior to the collision, she never saw lights or even the truck itself. And when asked if she recalled whether the truck’s hazard lights were flashing prior to the collision, she repeated that she didn’t remember seeing the truck, so she couldn’t say whether the hazard lights were flashing.
Similarly, the state trooper testified that because the hazard lights were damaged by the collision, he didn’t know if they were flashing prior to the accident and could neither confirm nor dispute Brown and Burnett’s testimony that they had previously been activated.
Even so, the plaintiff argued—and the trial court agreed—that her testimony and the state trooper’s testimony constituted circumstantial evidence that the boom truck’s hazard lights had not been activated prior to the accident. As a result, this created a genuine issue of material fact and precluding summary judgment in the City’s favor.
Is Circumstantial Evidence Enough?
Judge Dillard explained that before circumstantial evidence can “have any probative value to rebut or contradict direct and positive testimony of an unimpeached witness of the alleged facts in question, such evidence must point at least more strongly to a conclusion opposite to the direct testimony.” It’s not enough that “such circumstantial evidence points equally one way or the other.” Here, the judge found that the plaintiff was correct that her testimony that she never saw the truck itself, or its hazard lights, prior to the collision provided circumstantial evidence to support an inference the boom truck’s hazard lights were not flashing at the time of the accident.
And the state trooper’s testimony that the hazard lights were damaged and not flashing when he investigated the scene nearly an hour after the accident provided similar circumstantial evidence. But this inference wasn’t demanded from the plaintiff or the state trooper’s respective testimony because such testimony can also be construed consistently with the direct evidence provided by the City workers that the hazard lights were flashing prior to the collision.
Given these particular circumstances, Judge Dillard found that the plaintiff and the state trooper’s testimony was insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact on the question of whether the boom truck’s hazard lights were flashing at the time of the accident. As a result, the trial court erred in denying the City’s motion for summary judgment on this issue. City of Sandersville v. Usry, 2022 Ga. App. LEXIS 451 (Ga. App. September 23, 2022).
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