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Appeals Court Upholds $1.36 Million Award to Georgia Tech Student Injured on “Ramblin’ Wreck”

The “Ramblin’ Wreck” is well known to students and football fans at Georgia Tech. Since 1961, the Wreck–an authentic 1930 Ford Model A–has led the Tech football team into home games at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. The Wreck is owned by the university but supervised by a student group called the “Ramblin’ Wreck Club.” The club elects a driver annually who is then responsible for the Wreck’s day-to-day operation and maintenance.

In 2007, about three months before the start of the football season, the Wreck’s driver was transporting the vehicle via trailer to a non-university event in Savannah. The accident severely damaged the Wreck. Several companies volunteered their services to repair the Wreck in time for the season, including Eco-Clean, Inc., which refurbished the car’s interior and roof.

Two years later, the Wreck’s driver and three other club members took the car from its garage to a nearby fraternity house. During the return trip, one member “stood on the passenger side running board, grasping an interior handle with one hand and an exterior handle with the other,” which was a standard position taken by club members when riding the vehicle. Unfortunately, one of the handles broke off, throwing the student from the vehicle. He suffered significant head injuries and permanently lost his sense of taste and smell as well as partial hearing.

Determining Liability

The student sued both Eco-Clean–the company responsible for installing the defective handle–as well as the regents of the University System of Georgia, the Wreck’s legal owner. At trial, the defendants argued the student voluntarily “assumed the risk of falling from the car and being injured by standing on the running board of a moving car.” The trial judge, however, denied the defendants’ motion for a directed verdict in their favor.

A jury ultimately awarded the student $2 million in damages. However, since the jury also found the student shared about one-third of the liability for his accident, the actual award was $1.36 million, divided equally between the university and Eco-Clean. Both defendants appealed.

The appeal centered on the trial court’s decision not to grant a directed verdict to the defense. With respect to Eco-Clean, the company said there was insufficient evidence to prove it improperly installed the door handle or that the handle was “unfit for its intended use.” But the court of appeals said its standard for reviewing a trial court’s decision on a directed verdict was whether “any evidence” existed. By that standard, the trial court committed no error, according to the appeals court.

As for the university’s liability, while the board of regents claimed it had no direct knowledge of the defective door handle, the Wreck’s driver acted as an agent of the board. The board is “vicariously liable” for the acts of its agents, the appeals court noted, and since the car itself was state property, there was no question the university “could be held liable for the tort of its agents committed within the scope of its agency.” Accordingly, the court of appeals affirmed the jury’s veridct against both defendants.