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Determining “Ordinary Care” in a Rear-End Collision

A driver must exercise “ordinary care” when driving on Georgia roads. When an accident occurs, the courts must sort out each driver’s negligence, or lack thereof, in determining liability. In the case of a rear-end collision, for instance, neither the leading nor the following vehicle is automatically presumed to be at fault.

Dogan v. Buff

This principle recently came up in a Georgia Court of Appeals decision. The case arose from back-to-back accidents that occurred in 2009 on Interstate 75. Four vehicles were involved altogether. The plaintiff was driving a van in the third lane of the five-lane highway. The defendant was driving a tractor-trailer for his employer. There was a truck in front of the plaintiff and a fourth vehicle, a BMW, in the lane to the plaintiff’s left.

The defendant merged his tractor trailer into the third lane behind the plaintiff. At that point, the BMW driver lost control of his vehicle and collided with the truck. The plaintiff and defendant then merged their vehicles into the adjacent lane to avoid this collision. The plaintiff then stopped his van due to traffic in his new lane. The defendant, who was behind the plaintiff, then slammed his brakes, but still rear-ended the plaintiff’s van.

The plaintiff sued the defendant for negligence. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding there were disputed issues regarding each party’s exercise of “ordinary care” that needed to be sorted out by a jury.

The appeals court noted the defendant “was less than 1.5 seconds behind” the plaintiff when they started braking. The defendant’s tractor trailer had a “brake-lag of approximately half a second.” The evidence presented to the trial court included an accident reconstruction report submitted by a defense expert who admitted the defendant “might have been following [the plaintiff] too closely,” and the accident may still have occurred had the two vehicles remained in their original lanes.

Furthermore, the defendant’s employer maintained safety guidelines that expressly required drivers to maintain a distance of at least one tractor-trailer length for every ten miles per hour speed on the highway. The defendant admitted he did not maintain that length. The employer also acknowledged the driver did not comply with its rules.

All of this established, at least as far as the Court of Appeals was concerned, there were sufficient facts to survive the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. While the Court of Appeals did not rule on the merits of the plaintiff’s case, it said the available evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, created enough of an issue to warrant a jury trial. It will be up to the jury to decide if the defendant—and the plaintiff—failed to exercise ordinary care in the moments leading up to their accident.