“Act of God” No Defense in Truck Killing Pedestrian Case

Posted in truck accident on September 14, 2020

A Georgia jury took 40 minutes to decide that an insurance company was responsible in a fatal truck-pedestrian personal injury lawsuit and awarded the victim’s family $21 million.

The insurance company argued that the crash was an Act of God, and therefore, they weren’t legal (or financially) responsible. But U.S. District Court Judge Richard W. Story denied Cypress Insurance’s request for a new trial after a jury decided that its client, J.W. Harper Farms, was responsible for a fatal crash in 2016.

Truck Driver Loses Control and Hits Pedestrian

The semi owner-operator James Windell Harper was traveling west on Highway 369 in December 2016 in Gainesville, Ga., where he was dropping of his cargo load. At the same time, Kip Eugene Holland was walking along the westbound shoulder of that highway headed to the east.

The complaint said that the truck driver began swerving and driving erratically for more than two miles. He lost control of his big rig and drove off the outside edge of the pavement. This caused his trailer to disengage from the tractor and flip over. The trailer hit the pedestrian, who died from his injuries later the same day.

The Georgia State Patrol reported that Harper said at the time that he didn’t see anybody in the roadway.

“When asked, (Harper) said he had begun choking, having difficulty breathing and thought he passed out,” according to the State Patrol. “He said he did not remember the crash or what happened.”

In Wrongful Death Action, Insurer Says Accident was “Act of God”

In June 2017, the estate of the pedestrian Holland, along with his mother and brother, filed a lawsuit against Harper and his trucking company for negligence, and against Cypress Insurance for liability of the negligence (Cypress Insurance was the truck driver’s insurance carrier).

After a four-day trial and less than an hour of deliberation, the jury said that it was Harper’s negligence that caused the crash and the fatal injuries to the pedestrian. The jury found Cypress Insurance liable. The $21 million award included $13 million for wrongful death, and $2 million for pain and suffering. The verdict also included $6 million for litigation expenses for the Hollands’ attorneys.

Again, the insurance company challenged the verdict, claiming among other things, that it wasn’t liable because the accident was caused by an “act of God.”

In the past, an act of God was an overwhelming event caused only by natural forces whose effects could not possibly be prevented, such as an earthquake or tornado. Today, an “act of God” is defined by the statutes, and in Georgia it is “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.” The statute also says that the definition “excludes all idea of human agency,” meaning that the accident couldn’t be caused by a person’s involvement.

Cypress Insurance argued that Harper’s erratic driving was the result of an act of God—contending that Harper allegedly experienced a sudden and unforeseeable illness causing him to become incapacitated and lose control of his semi. But the insurance company didn’t have a medical expert to bolster this theory.

Truck Driver also had Medical Issues

At trial, evidence came out that Harper had a history of medical issues and should’ve never been operating a tractor-trailer.

Evidence showed that the 76-year-old Harper omitted important personal medical information on his Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration medical exam. A significant piece of his history that he failed to include was the fact that he was prescribed hydrocodone. Hydrocodone is in a class of medications called opiate (narcotic) analgesics, and is used to frequently treat a severe cough.

The side effects include drowsiness, dizziness, lightheadedness, “fuzzy” thinking, anxiety, an abnormally happy or sad mood, as well as in some cases, hallucinations—obviously not a substance to be taken by someone operating an 18-wheeler that can weigh up to 80,000 pounds or 40 tons.

While there was conflicting evidence on whether Harper drove while under the influence of painkillers, it did show at minimum that he misrepresented his medical condition repeatedly in order to maintain his CDL (commercial driver’s license).

What is Negligence Per Se?

Evidence presented in this case showed that the truck driver from Alabama was doing business in Georgia without a certificate of authority. It’s required for out-of-state companies that want to do business in the state. Harper shouldn’t have been delivering cargo in Georgia without this document. This fact made it easier to prove that the truck driver acted negligently.

Known as negligence per se, it’s a legal doctrine that says a defendant is negligent per se if he violates a statute that’s designed to protect against the type of accident caused by his conduct, and the plaintiff is someone the statute is designed to protect. In this case, the truck driver shouldn’t have been in Gainesville or anywhere in Georgia operating his trucking company without a certificate of authority. Arguably this regulation protects citizens like the victim in this case.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged truck driver Harper also violated several Georgia traffic laws: failing to maintain his lane; failing to exercise due care; driving reckless; and causing a serious injury by a vehicle.

All this supported the plaintiffs’ negligence per se argument—and it proved very successful.

 Should I Hire An Attorney After A Truck Accident?

Yes, and our law firm is one of several excellent firms that can help.

Georgia law stipulates wrongful death compensation should be distributed among family members. You should work with an experienced Atlanta truck accident attorney. Contact Tobin Injury Law, and we will work to get you the compensation you deserve. We know what to look for when suing a trucking company.

You can contact a trusted Atlanta truck accident attorney 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling 404-JUSTICE (404-587-8423) or using our online contact form. Tobin Injury Law offers free consultations and will be glad to answer your questions.