A plaintiff, individually and as personal representative of her daughter, sued a truck driver and his employer, a transport company for her wrongful death after a traffic accident. The defendants moved for summary judgment, and after a hearing, the trial court granted the defendants’ motions. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by granting summary judgment to the defendants.
East of Rincon, Georgia, Old Augusta Road runs north to south and Fort Howard Road runs east to west, dead-ending at its east end into Old Augusta Road. Both roads have a single lane of travel in each direction. At the time of the accident, the intersection of Old Augusta Road and Fort Howard Road had only a stop sign facing east-bound. Southbound travelers on Old Alabama Road could continue straight or enter a right-hand turn-lane to enter the westbound lane of Fort Howard Road. Northbound travelers on Old Augusta Road could continue straight or enter a left-turn lane to continue west on Fort Howard Road. Because of the left turn-lane of traffic facing north on Old Augusta, the southbound lane and northbound lane of travel just north of Fort Howard were separated by an area of roadway in which no traffic on Old Augusta was traveling – a median or gore north of the left-turn lane used to enter the westbound lane of Fort Howard Road. Based on the photographs of the area, the gore is at least the width of a normal lane of traffic.
The plaintiff’s daughter, who was 17 at the time of the accident, was driving a minivan east on Fort Howard Road on a sunny day. Multiple witnesses gave reports after the accident; there were different accounts as to whether she stopped completely at the stop sign or rolled through the stop sign before pulling straight out onto Old Augusta Road. One driver who was behind her stated, “I was stopped behind her van at the stop sign on Fort Howard and Old Augusta Rd. She pulled out, seeming to be turning left onto Old Augusta Road when the semi crashed into her. The semi did not have time to stop. I parked my car and ran with other witnesses to check on the lady in the van.” Other witnesses said the daughter didn’t stop, failed to see or acknowledge the tractor trailer, or rolled through the stop sign.
The semi driver was operating a tractor-trailer truck southbound on Old Augusta Road. He saw the teenager pull out from the stop sign, and he immediately applied his brakes “approximately 140 feet and five inches” prior to the point of impact according to the police investigation. The semi driver testified that the accident happened so quickly that he had no time to avoid it, and he just “hit the brakes, counter-steer[ed], and [blew] the horn.” According to the police report, the teen’s vehicle had traveled 40 feet 5 inches from the stop bar at the time the truck impacted the driver’s side of her vehicle. The report noted that the southbound lane of Old Augusta Road was 12 feet 10 inches wide.
According to the results of the police investigation, the front of the tractor-trailer hit the drivers’ side of the daughter’s van in the middle of the median or gore area. In order for the impact to occur at that location, the semi driver had to leave his southbound lane of travel and enter the gore traveling toward the northbound lane of travel on Old Alabama Road. He testified at his deposition that he “steered left” when he saw the teen pull out, though he acknowledged that she had to be turning left because she went straight across Old Alabama instead of turning right. In his deposition, however, he disagreed with the results of the investigation, stating that he believed the impact occurred in his southbound lane of travel, but he agreed that the vehicles ended up in the positions marked by police.
The defendants moved for summary judgment, claiming that the plaintiff couldn’t show that the semi driver was negligent or caused the accident because instead, the daughter had negligently pulled out in front of the semi driver. The plaintiff appealed.
The Appellate Court’s Decision
Presiding Judge Sara L. Doyle of the Georgia Court of Appeals wrote that to prove negligence, a plaintiff must establish four elements: duty, breach of that duty, causation, and damages. “Negligence is not susceptible to summary adjudication,” the judge explained, “except where the evidence is plain, palpable, and indisputable that the respondent cannot present any slight evidence on each essential element of the action in rebuttal to create a jury issue.”
The record plainly showed that there were questions of fact as to whether the semi driver left his lane of travel before impacting the teen’s vehicle, and if he did enter the median before the impact, whether he was negligent in leaving his lane of travel, swerving left if he knew that she was heading in that same direction (as well as possibly into any northbound drivers), and failing to maintain his own lane of travel.
The judge said that the jury could conclude that the teen’s act of leaving Fort Howard Road and crossing into the semi driver’s path was the sole cause of the accident, but it didn’t follow that summary judgment was required as a matter of law because the physical evidence didn’t show that the accident occurred in the semi driver’s lane of travel.
The defendants argued that “a driver having the right of way at an intersection has the right to assume that others will obey the rule of the road and will yield the right of way to him, and he has the right to proceed at a reasonable speed even though he sees another vehicle approaching. Nevertheless, “even if a driver . . . is guilty of negligence per se or has otherwise failed to exercise ordinary care in approaching an intersection, this will not relieve the driver having the right of way of his own legal duty to exercise ordinary care under the facts and circumstances of the situation.”
Here, there was non-speculative evidence from which the jury could find that had the semi driver continued in his lane of travel, the plaintiff’s daughter would have crossed in front of him without incident. This included:
- Brake marks;
- Pictures of the scene;
- Witness statements;
- Measurements of the daughter’s distance of travel prior to the impact;
- The semi driver’s approximate speed of travel prior to braking; and
- The trajectory of the vehicles and site of the impact based on the accident report made by the police at the scene.
Therefore, the trial court erred by granting summary judgment to the defendants rather than allowing the case to proceed to trial because material questions of fact exist in the record. As a result, the grant of summary judgment was reversed. The trial court’s judgment was affirmed in part and reversed in part. Wang v. Dukes, 2023 Ga. App. LEXIS 329 (Ga. App. June 27, 2023).
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