Does a Truck Driver Have a Duty to a Person Who Jumps on His Trailer?

Posted in Georgia Supreme Court decisions,truck accidents on September 17, 2021

A federal court in Georgia examined whether the non-party truck driver had a duty to a plaintiff who ran after a semi and jumped onto the truck’s ICC bar.

What is an ICC Bar?

This is the reflector-taped metal bar hanging down on the end of a tractor-trailer. It’s also known as a “Mansfield bar.” It takes its name from the fatal accident involving actress Jayne Mansfield. She and her driver, along with her lawyer and three of her kids were driving after an appearance in Mississippi on June 28th, 1967. While traveling on the highway at two o’clock in the morning, her driver didn’t see a big rig that had slowed because of a mosquito fogging truck ahead. The fog hid the 18-wheeler’s trailer, and Mansfield’s driver couldn’t react in time to slow the 1966 Buick Electra 225. The car slid under the semi, and Mansfield and the other adults were killed.

The ICC bar is technically called the Rear Underrun Protection System, and after Mansfield’s death, the federal government required commercial vehicle trailers to have a rear bumper to help prevent similar accidents.

Background

James Defrancesco argued that in March 2017, John Stephens was driving a Greenwood Farms Truck and caused an accident with Defrancesco’s semi in the parking lot of a truck stop. Stephens wasn’t a party to this action; instead the case was against Sentry Select, the insurance company for John Stephens and Greenwood Farms.

Defrancesco was asleep in the sleeper compartment of his tractor-trailer truck when he was awakened by the impact of the semi hitting his rig. He wasn’t hurt by the initial impact, and he went to the front seat and blew the horn and flashed the headlights so Stephens would stop trying to dislodge his truck.

The Greenwood Farms truck broke loose from Defrancesco’s truck, and Stephens drove from the parking lot. Defrancesco ran on foot after Stephens’ moving truck and jumped on the ICC bar.

Defrancesco held on to a canvas handle on the back of the trailer, which was slippery because it was raining. He wasn’t wearing any reflective clothing when he jumped on the back of the moving semi, and it was dark. Defrancesco was “screaming and hollering” to get Stephens’ attention. He didn’t know if Stephens had a radio on, whether his windows were open or closed, or whether he heard Defrancesco on the back of his 18-wheeler. Plus, it was disputed whether Stephens saw him on the back of his trailer. The Greenwood Farms truck traveled about 50 to 75 feet with Defrancesco on the back.

The Greenwood Farms truck accelerated, and then “[Stephens] either hit a dip or touched the brakes,” causing Defrancesco to fall off the ICC rail. Defrancesco alleged he was injured falling off the back of the truck.


Did Stephens Have a Duty to the Defrancesco?

The insurance company claimed it was entitled to a dismissal of the negligence claim, arguing that Stephens owed no duty to Defrancesco because a driver doesn’t have a duty to an unknown person who jumps on the back of his moving trailer, and Plaintiff didn’t establish otherwise. The insurance company further argued that although “a driver of a tractor trailer has a duty to drive safely and follow Georgia law regarding the rules of the road,” Defrancesco admitted he wasn’t injured when Stephens’ truck hit his, and he settled his property damage claims related to the accident. The insurance company argued that no duty was owed to Defrancesco when he jumped on the truck’s ICC rail, because it is “unreasonable [for a driver] to expect” that “someone will jump on the trailer of his 18-wheeler while he is driving, much less when it is raining and nighttime.”

Defrancesco responded that Stephens did have a duty…a “statutory duty that prohibits the driver of a vehicle involved in an accident from leaving the scene.” He argued that Stephens’ “attempt to leave the scene result[ed] in [Plaintiff’s] attempt to prevent him from leaving by jumping on the back” of the Greenwood Farms truck. Therefore, the insurance company wasn’t entitled to summary judgment based on a lack of duty owed, Defrancesco said.

The Elements of a Negligence Claim

U.S. District Judge. Steve C. Jones explained in his opinion that a cause of action for negligence requires:

  1. a legal duty to conform to a standard of conduct raised by the law for the protection of others against unreasonable risks of harm;
  2. a breach of this standard;
  3. a legally attributable causal connection between the conduct and the resulting injury; and
  4. some loss or damage flowing to the plaintiff’s legally protected interest as a result of the alleged breach of the legal duty.

However, the judge said that if a defendant owes no legal duty to the plaintiff, there’s no cause of action in negligence. Whether a legal duty exists is a question of law for the court. Negligence can’t be presumed; it’s a matter for affirmative proof. The Georgia “hit and run” statute (O.C.G.A. § 40-6-270) states:

(a) The driver of any vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury to or the death of any person or in damage to a vehicle which is driven or attended by any person shall immediately stop such vehicle at the scene of the accident or shall stop as close thereto as possible and forthwith return to the scene of the accident and shall . . . in every event remain at the scene of the accident until fulfilling the requirements of this subsection.

….

(c)(1) If such accident is the proximate cause of an injury other than a serious injury or if such accident resulted in damage to a vehicle which is driven or attended by any person, any person knowingly failing to stop or comply with the requirements of this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

A driver who flees after hitting an unattended vehicle hasn’t violated the statute, Judge Jones opined. And for the duty to arise, the driver must “know of the circumstances from which the duty to stop and comply arises in the first place.” As such, the statute “requires knowledge of an accident that resulted in at least one of three enumerated consequences: injury, death, or damage.” Judge Jones stated that Georgia courts have held that violating § 40-6-270(a) can establish a breach of duty in negligence actions.

The Judge’s Opinion

Here, it wasn’t disputed that Stephens drove away after hitting Defrancesco’s parked semi while he was inside. It also was uncontested that Defrancesco wasn’t injured in the initial collision. If Stephens knew that he had damaged the vehicle, he had a duty to stop and remain at the scene. As the movant, the insurance company  had the burden of showing that there was no genuine dispute as to any material fact that should be decided at trial. But Defrancesco alleged facts that, when viewed in the light most favorable to him, would allow a reasonable jury to conclude that Stephens knew he hit Plaintiff’s truck. As a result, the judge said there’s a dispute about a material fact — knowledge that a duty had arisen. Because of this, summary judgment was inappropriate.

As a result, the insurance company’s motion for summary judgment was denied as to the issues of duty. DeFrancesco v. Sentry Select Ins. Co., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 221820 *; 2020 WL 6866562 (N.D. Ga. January 15, 2020).

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