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Georgia Appeals Court Reinstates Wrongful Death Lawsuit Arising from Illegally Parked Trailer

In a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit, it is not enough to show the defendant was at fault for the plaintiff’s injuries. Under Georgia law, a plaintiff cannot recover damages if he or she is “50 percent or more responsible” for the injuries suffered. The question of responsibility is typically decided by a jury. In some cases, a trial judge may grant one party summary judgment if he or she determines there is no genuine dispute over the facts. But judges must be careful not to short-circuit the trial process, as the Georgia Court of Appeals explained in one recent case.

Reed v. Carolina Casualty Insurance Company

In 2008, a commercial tractor-trailer driver parked his vehicle in an emergency lane at the intersection of Interstate 285 and Interstate 75 in Cobb County. It was early in the morning and the driver wanted to rest. Nevertheless, parking in an emergency lane violates Georgia traffic laws.

Around 3 a.m., a Ford Explorer with two persons inside made its way down I-75 towards the I-285 intersection. The driver of the Explorer had been drinking and was later found to have a blood-alcohol level beyond the legal maximum in Georgia. The conditions were wet and rainy, and the driver was going faster than was advisable (or legal). As the driver made his turn on to I-285, he lost control, and the Explorer hit a guardrail. The vehicle skidded down the emergency lane and collided with the parked tractor-trailer, causing an explosion and fire. The Explorer driver died as a result of injuries sustained in the impact and subsequent fire.

The driver’s estate and next-of-kin sued the tractor-trailer driver for wrongful death. The plaintiffs argued that had the defendant not illegally parked his vehicle in an emergency lane, there would have been no explosion. The trial judge awarded summary judgment to the defendant, finding no reasonable juror could conclude the deceased Explorer driver was not at least 50 percent responsible for the accident, given that he had been legally drunk and driving too fast for hazardous road conditions.

The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment and returned the case for trial. Judge Elizabeth L. Branch, writing for a three-judge appeals panel, said there was still a “disputed issue of fact” as to whether the trailer’s presence in the emergency lane caused the explosion, and ultimately the victim’s death. Judge Branch noted there was evidence in the record that both drivers violated traffic laws that morning, and it was still unclear whether the victim was “50 percent or more at fault.” Furthermore, a jury might conclude the tractor-trailer driver should have anticipated another motorist, driving on a wet road in the middle of the night, could have struck his vehicle and caused an explosion, regardless of the other driver’s intoxication or reckless driving. Again, these are questions for a jury to sort out.

On a motion for reconsideration, which was denied, the appeals court further explained that the victim’s estate and family could still recover damages even if he was legally drunk. The victim’s failure to “exercise ordinary care” over himself may have led to him losing control of his vehicle, but the issue in this case is whether or not the presence of the tractor-trailer led to the explosion.