Can an Insurance Company Be Liable for Negligence under the Good Samaritan Doctrine in a Truck Accident?

Posted in Car Accidents,Georgia Supreme Court decisions,truck accident on March 4, 2021

In October 2008, James Maier was driving north on I-95 near Savannah when car problems forced him to pull off to the side of the road. He was standing in the emergency lane next to his car when a semi hit and killed him. The truck was driven by Faustino Jimenez, an employee of a trucking company called Green Eyes USA. Karine Maier, James’ widow and the executrix of his estate, sued Green Eyes, Jimenez, and two insurance companies—a commercial truck insurer and a specialty insurer (“the insurance companies”) for James’ wrongful death.

The case presented several issues, one of which was whether the insurance companies owed the victim a duty under the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 324A.

Under § 324A, which is sometimes known as “the Good Samaritan Doctrine”:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things, is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to protect his undertaking, if (a) his failure to exercise reasonable care increases the risk of such harm, or (b) he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person, or (c) the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other or the third person upon the undertaking.

On appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, Judges Elizabeth L. Branch, Robert J. Luck, and Ed Carnes in a per curiam decision explained that for purposes of § 324A(a), a risk is increased only “when a nonhazardous condition is made hazardous through the negligence of a person who changed its condition or caused it to be changed.”

The Court said that failing to take all possible actions to prevent an occurrence isn’t the same as increasing the risk of the occurrence. Further, for purposes of § 324A(c), Georgia law requires that reliance be shown by a change in position. Evidence that a company has “neglected or reduced its safety practices” because of a third party’s actions can show such a change in position.

Karine’s Restatement § 324A(c) Claim of Increasing the Risk of Harm

Karine argued that the insurance companies were liable under § 324A(a) for increasing the risk of harm to James by failing to exercise reasonable care in reviewing the semi driver’s driving record and in approving him as a driver for Green Eyes. She said they ignored the company’s hiring criteria during their review and allowed Jimenez to be hired with driving violations that would have disqualified him if they’d have applied the criteria. But the Court noted that the obstacle to recovery for Karine was that, “under Georgia law, a defendant is not liable simply because he could have prevented an accident but did not.”

As two earlier decisions made clear, the Court said that the insurance companies didn’t have a duty to decrease the risk of harm to others in their review of motor vehicle records for Green Eyes. The Court found that the insurance companies’ knowledge of Jimenez’s violations didn’t trigger an obligation to act. Their review of the motor vehicle records didn’t change anything about Jimenez’s violation history, and it didn’t make a nonhazardous condition into a hazardous one. As a result, the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the insurance companies on this claim was appropriate.

Karine’s Restatement § 324A(c) Claim of Reliance

Karine argued next that the insurance companies were liable under § 324A(c) because Green Eyes relied on their evaluation of Jimenez’s motor vehicle records when it decided to hire him. She argued that Green Eyes, in reliance on the insurance companies obtaining and evaluating the driver’s motor vehicle records, changed its position and/or otherwise failed to follow its safety program in three ways:

A Change in Green Eyes’ Hiring Practices After Purchasing Commercial Truck Insurer Policy

Karine pointed to emails between the two insurance companies and Green Eyes’ CEO in October 2007. After the Specialty Insurer sent the Commercial Truck Insurer an email asking if they needed to charge for a Green Eyes’ employee’s accident, the Commercial Truck Insurer responded: “It appears that the insured’s hiring practices have changed. If he continues in this trend, [Commercial Truck Insurer] will have to re-evaluate.”

The Specialty Insurer then alerted another agent that the Commercial Truck Insurer might have to “reevaluate this risk.” Green Eyes’ CEO responded to the Commercial Truck Insurer by assuring it that he would “not allow any[]more drivers with at fault accidents, [m]ajor speeding or more than 2 minor violation[s] on [his] policy” and that he wanted to “work together with [Commercial Truck Insurer] to be a claim free Company with an excellent safety Record.” Karine argued that these emails were evidence that the trucking company’s hiring practices changed after obtaining coverage through the Commercial Truck Insurer.

The Court acknowledged that the emails suggested that the Commercial Truck Insurer thought Green Eyes’ hiring practices may have changed. But the Court found that they didn’t disclose how or why they changed, and Karine offered no other evidence on this. She didn’t explain what trucking company’s hiring practices were before it contracted with the insurance companies, so the Court couldn’t say if or why those practices changed after it contracted with the insurance companies.

If anything, the Court said, the evidence indicated that the change in the trucking company’s hiring practices, if there was any, was unrelated to its contract with the insurance companies. The record contained no motor vehicle reports produced before the trucking company contracted with the insurance companies.

Second, Jimenez began driving for Green Eyes before the insurance companies approved him as a driver for insurance purposes. So there was evidence that the trucking company made its hiring decisions without regard to what the insurance companies did with the motor vehicle records and that the insurance companies’ review of those records was only to determine whether they were willing to insure Green Eyes’ proposed drivers.

Third, days before the insurance companies approved him, and a month before the contract between Green Eyes and the insurance companies expired, the trucking company hired a different company to ensure its compliance with Department of Transportation regulations, which includes driver safety standards. So there was evidence that Green Eyes was doing its own hiring-related safety initiatives independent of the insurance companies’ evaluation of its drivers’ motor vehicle records.

Given the lack of evidence, the Court found that the emails between the insurance companies and Green Eyes as to the trucking company’s hiring practices appeared to be nothing more than an insurance agency warning its client that it was hiring risky drivers and that the client needed to tighten its standards, and the client in response, attempting to save its insurance policy, saying that it would be more careful about the drivers it hired. There was no issue as to whether Green Eyes changed its hiring process in reliance on the insurance companies’ services after purchasing the Commercial Truck Insurer policy. And if Green Eyes didn’t change its position, there’s no § 324A(c) liability, the Court said.

Green Eyes’ Failure to Request and Evaluate Motor Vehicle Records After Hiring the Insurance Companies

Karine next argued that it could be “inferred” from the evidence that Green Eyes was sending drivers with more violations on their driving records to the insurance companies for review because the trucking company stopped evaluating big rig drivers’ motor vehicle records in reliance on the insurance companies’ doing so. But again, the Court found that Karine had no evidence to support that inference.

Instead, she only argued that Green Eyes failed to request and evaluate driver motor vehicle records according to its hiring criteria. But if the trucking company didn’t request and evaluate its drivers’ motor vehicle records before it contracted with the insurance companies, then it didn’t change its position by continuing that practice after it contracted with them, the Court found. And again, the Court held that if Green Eyes didn’t change its position, there was no § 324A(c) liability.

Green Eyes’ Failure to Have Jimenez Processed by its Separate Compliance Company

Finally, Karine argued that “a jury could conclude that Green Eyes changed its position and reduced its safety activities[] by not sending Jimenez to [its separate compliance company] to be evaluated, in reliance upon the insurance companies having already evaluated and approved him.”

But again, the Eleventh Circuit said she had no evidence that a jury could use to reach that conclusion. She didn’t cite any document in the record in which Green Eyes indicated to the compliance company that it wasn’t sending Jimenez for an evaluation, despite the company’s “repeated notices” that he needed to be evaluated, because the insurance companies had already reviewed his motor vehicle record. Nor did Karine identify any evidence that Green Eyes failed to have a driver’s records checked by the compliance company because they had already been checked by the insurance companies.

The Court held that the record showed that Green Eyes hired the separate compliance company to ensure its compliance with DOT regulations, including driver safety standards after it had contracted with the insurance companies and before its contract with the insurance companies ended. The fact that Green Eyes—while still covered by the insurance companies— hired a separate company to evaluate its drivers’ motor vehicle records for safety indicates that it wasn’t relying on the insurance companies to perform that task, the Court found. Because nothing in the record showed that Green Eyes’ failure to have Jimenez evaluated by its compliance company had anything to do with the insurance companies, there was no genuine issue of material fact that Green Eyes changed its position or reduced its safety activities in reliance on them.

“No change in position equals no § 324A(c) liability,” the Court said.

The district court was correct in its conclusion that the insurance companies didn’t increase the risk of harm to James and that Green Eyes didn’t change its position in reliance on the two insurance companies. Maier v. Green Eyes USA, Inc., 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 3211 (11th Cir. February 5, 2021).

Speak to an Experienced Atlanta Truck Accident Attorney

If you or a loved one has been injured by a semi in an auto accident, you should speak to an experienced personal injury lawyer who has successfully resolved similar types of cases. 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.

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