The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed the issue of a defendant’s potential liability in a traffic accident where an “intervening act” of a third party may have also contributed to the plaintiffs’ alleged injuries. Reversing a trial judge’s decision, the appeals court held a defendant who causes a traffic obstruction may still be considered negligent even if other parties may also be at fault.
Granger v. MST Transportation, LLC
This case began with a tractor that ran out of gas in DeKalb County. The driver stopped his tractor in the right-hand lane of a three-lane road. The driver then flashed his lights and deployed reflective warning triangles before leaving the vehicle and walking to a nearby gas station. The driver ended up making three trips to the gas station, as he could only carry five gallons of gasoline in his cannister, and the tractor failed to start after the first two refueling attempts.
Meanwhile, a vehicle containing two adults and their child traveled down the same road where the tractor was parked. As this vehicle switched lanes, it was rear-ended by another car. The impact forced the vehicle into the still-parked tractor. The driver did not have sufficient time to brake before hitting the tractor, and she later testified she did not see the flashing lights or the warning triangles.
All three passengers were injured in the collision. They sued the driver and the owner of the tractor for negligence. The defendants argued they could not be held liable, since it was the “intervening act” of a third party—the vehicle that rear-ended the plaintiff’s car and forced it into the tractor’s lane—that led to the accident. A DeKalb County judge agreed, holding as a matter of law the plaintiffs could not establish “proximate causation” between the tractor driver abandoning his vehicle in the right lane and the plaintiffs’ injuries.
The Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court. Presiding Judge Gary Blaylock Andrews, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, said that, based on the facts alleged, “it was not unforeseeable that as a matter of law that another motorist on the road, for reasons beyond his or her control…might be placed in a position where it was all but impossible to avoid striking” the defendants’ tractor. Even if there was an intervening act by a third party—in this case, the initial rear-end collision–the defendants could still be liable for leaving their tractor “standing in an active lane of traffic.”
Judge Andrews explained that this is not a case where the defendants could not possibly foresee the consequences of their actions. The intervening act defense may aid a defendant in those situations. But that is not was alleged here. The defendants’ tractor was an obstruction in the road. The fact that another driver’s negligence may have forced the plaintiffs’ vehicle into that obstruction does not automatically relieve the defendants of liability for causing the obstruction in the first place.
The Court of Appeals did not address the merits of the plaintiffs’ case. In reversing the trial court’s summary judgment order, the appeals court only found the plaintiffs were entitled to present their case to the jury. The question for trial is whether or not the defendants committed “ordinary negligence” in allowing the tractor to run out of gas, thereby causing a traffic obstruction that was a cause—not necessarily the only cause—of the plaintiffs’ injuries.