After a motor vehicle accident resulted in serious injuries to herself and her three children, a plaintiff sued, alleging that one of a truck repair company’s vehicles blocked the view of the person driving the car in which she and her children were riding. She claimed that this obstruction caused her vehicle to strike another car. The defendant moved to add two individuals and a corporation as indispensable parties.
On February 25, 2021, the driver of the car the plaintiff was in was traveling southbound on Woods Road at the intersection of State Highway 20 in Rome, Georgia. The plaintiff and her children were passengers in the car. When her driver tried to make a left turn into the westbound lanes of Highway 20, his car was struck by an eastbound vehicle. At the time of the collision, a broken-down tractor-trailer was sitting in the right turn lane of westbound Highway 20,right next to the intersection where the collision happened. A repair vehicle owned by the defendant, which had been dispatched to repair the semi, was parked in front of the tractor-trailer.
The plaintiff and her children were seriously injured in the collision. Police found the driver her car to be the only party at fault for the accident, and he was cited and arrested on several charges, including driving under the influence of marijuana.
In February 2022, the plaintiff filed suit against only the repair truck company, alleging its vehicle blocked the driver’s view of oncoming traffic so when he pulled out, he couldn’t see that the tractor-trailer was so close. The plaintiff didn’t name the driver of her car, the tractor-trailer operator, or the broken semi’s owner as defendants in her lawsuit.
The defendant filed a motion to add indispensable parties, contending that the driver of her car, the tractor operator, and the owner of the tractor-trailer were necessary and indispensable defendants and had to be added to the case under OCGA § 9-11-19(a). At the same time, the defendant filed a third-party complaint against the driver, the tractor operator, and the owner of the tractor-trailer, seeking contribution from them in the event it was found liable to the plaintiff. The defendant alleged that the repair vehicle also blocked the driver’s view and that the driver of her vehicle and the tractor operator, shared fault for the accident.
The trial court denied the motion, ruling that although the defendant was entitled to pursue claims for contribution in a third-party complaint against her driver, the tractor operator, and/or the owner of the tractor-trailer, it wasn’t entitled to have them added to the case under OCGA § 9-11-19. The defendant appealed.
Did the Trial Court Err by Denying the Motion to Add Indispensable Parties?
Judge Sara L. Doyle and the Court of Appeals of Georgia noted that the state’s former multi-defendant apportionment statute, OCGA § 51-12-33(b) did not provide a basis to reduce the defendant’s liability due to negligence of the others because it didn’t apply in single-defendant cases.
While OCGA § 51-12-33(b) of the former apportionment statute authorized a trier of fact to “apportion its award of damages among the persons who are liable according to the percentage of fault of each person,” Judge Doyle noted that the plain language of the former statute limited subsection (b) to actions “brought against more than one person for injury to person or property.” As a result, the Supreme Court of Georgia held that if a case is brought against a single named defendant, OCGA § 51-12-33(b) didn’t allow that defendant’s liability for damages to be reduced according to the percentage of fault allocated to a nonparty in the case.
Here, because the plaintiff named only the defendant as a party, even if the defendant establishes that the driver, the tractor operator, and/or the owner of the tractor-trailer shared some degree of fault for the plaintiff’s injuries, the former applicable apportionment statute did not provide a basis for the defendant’s liability to the plaintiff to be reduced.
Was There a Right of Contribution?
Judge Doyle, however, explained that the defendant may have a right of contribution from the others. As the Supreme Court of Georgia explained,
[j]ust because OCGA § 51-12-33 (b)  does not apply to cases with a single defendant does not mean that a single defendant is without a remedy against its joint tortfeasors. Where apportionment does not apply, joint tortfeasors who both proximately cause a single injury are jointly and severally liable for damages caused by the injury, and a tortfeasor may seek contribution from its joint tortfeasor(s).
Judge Doyle said that it was well-settled that a tortfeasor has a substantive right of contribution from other joint tortfeasors who weren’t sued in the action.
Furthermore, as discussed above, the former apportionment statute didn’t apply to this case, so the analytical focus imposed by that statute wasn’t controlling, the judge found. And the apportionment statute itself provides that it does not “eliminate or diminish any defenses or immunities which currently exist, except as expressly stated [within it].”
Accordingly, the trial court properly concluded that the defendant had a right of contribution from the others. The Court of Appeals found that the trial court didn’t abuse its discretion by denying The defendant’s motion to add and realign indispensable parties. The judgment was affirmed. Deaton Holdings, Inc. v. Reid, 2023 Ga. App. LEXIS 223 (Ga. App. May 26, 2023).
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