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Georgia Judges Spar Over Meaning of Defendant’s Words in Accident Case

“Get your story straight” is good advice in life, and particularly when dealing with litigation. When a party to a personal injury lawsuit offers contradictory testimony, it can have a devastating effect on their case. In Georgia, courts enforce what is known as the Prophecy rule, which holds “when a party has given contradictory testimony, and when that party relies exclusively on that testimony in opposition to summary judgment, a court must construe the contradictory testimony against him.” This means if you offer two accounts of what happened, the judge must disregard the account most favorable to your case.

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But it is not always obvious when a party has run afoul of the Prophecy rule. For example, a seven-judge panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals sharply divided recently on whether a defendant in a motor vehicle accident case fatally contradicted his own testimony. The majority sided with the plaintiff and the trial judge’s decision to award him partial summary judgment.

This case involves a two-vehicle accident between a car and a truck. The plaintiff was driving the car. Both vehicles were traveling southbound on Interstate 75. At some point, the front wheel of the defendant’s truck hit the rear wheel of the plaintiff’s car, causing the latter vehicle “to spin out of control and collide twice more with the truck.” Neither driver saw the other prior to the collision.

The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendants—the truck’s driver and owner—for negligence. The plaintiff claimed the defendant truck driver caused the accident when he attempted to change lanes. Under Georgia’s Uniform Rules of the Road, a “vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety.” A driver who fails to follow this rule is presumed negligent.

So the critical question was whether the defendant improperly switched lanes. At a sworn deposition, the defendant testified, “I don’t know that I ever left my lane. I started towards [the plaintiff’s] lane, and when I started to turn my steering wheel a bit, I felt a vibration [from the plaintiff’s car]. I straightened, turned it back straight up, straightened out in my lane and had let up on the accelerator.”

Some time later, the defendant signed an affidavit confirming an earlier accident report he gave to his employer. In this written statement, the defendant reiterated he “started to change lanes” when he felt a vibration, at which time he “pulled back into the lane [he] was in.”

The trial judge saw this written statement as contradicting the earlier deposition. As the court viewed it, the defendant was now admitting he was improperly in the plaintiff’s lane, as he had to “pull back” into his original lane. The judge accordingly disregarded the conflicting testimony and granted the plaintiff partial summary on the issues of liability and negligence. By a vote of 4-3, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. Judge Christopher J. McFadden, writing for the majority, said there was no question the Prophecy rule applied here, as the defendant failed to “address the conflict with his statements that, upon feeling the impact of the collision, he pulled ‘back in’ his lane.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Stephen Louis A. Dillard said the majority was too literal in focusing the words “back in.” Looking at the “whole impression” of the defendant’s statements, Judge Dillard said a jury could conclude from both the defendant’s deposition and affidavit he was telling the same story—namely, that “he began moving toward [the plaintiff’s] lane; that when he did so, he felt a vibration; and that, upon feeling an impact, he moved or straightened his vehicle ‘back’ in his lane of travel.” As Judge Dillard saw it, the defendant’s affidavit merely expanded upon his deposition testimony; it did not conflict with it.