When a car accident involves two or more vehicles, an injured person may seek damages against all responsible parties. The jury must then apportion fault among all of the parties—including possibly the victim—when awarding damages. While judges typically do not second-guess a jury’s apportionment of fault, there are exceptional occasions in which the courts find a jury’s verdict simply cannot be supported by the available evidence.
Redmon v. Daniel
Here is a recent example from here in Georgia. The victim in this case was a male pedestrian walking along a highway exit ramp in Gwinnett County, Georgia. Two vehicles were using the ramp, a Chevrolet and a garbage truck. The Chevrolet struck the victim first. The driver later testified the victim was “in the middle of the road” and she did not see him until the impact.
Police and forensic experts later reconstructed the following sequence of events: After the Chevrolet stuck the victim, his “body was thrown on to the hood” of the vehicle and his head shattered the windshield. The victim then flew off the Chevrolet and landed “on the pavement in the middle of the roadway.” Finally, the garbage truck following behind the Chevrolet moved to get out of the way, but did not so quickly enough and ran over the victim’s head.
The Gwinnett County Medical Examiner could not determine which of these three impacts actually killed the victim. Put another way, the medical examiner could not say with any certainty that the victim was already dead when the garbage truck hit him. Nonetheless, the victim’s wife sued both drivers, arguing their negligence caused her husband’s death.
A jury agreed with the wife and apportioned fault as follows: 42% to the driver and owner of the garbage truck, 35% to the victim himself, and 23% to the Chevrolet driver. The jury further awarded total damages of $1.6 million.
On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals said the jury was wrong to assign any liability to the garbage truck defendant. As a matter of law, the court said, there was “insufficient evidence” of any negligence on the garbage truck driver’s part. The victim’s wife argued the driver was negligent because he did not maintain enough of a distance between himself and the Chevrolet prior to the accident. She argued the garbage truck should have maintained at least a “four-second following distance,” which would have given him enough time to react and avoid hitting her husband after the initial impact with the Chevrolet.
The Court of Appeals explained that was not the case. Police experts testified at trial a four-second distance would have given the garbage truck, at most, 293 feet of space. But given it was dark out and there was no ambient lighting on the exit ramp, there was no way the garbage truck driver could see more than 200 feet in front of him with his headlights on. Therefore the additional distance between the vehicles would not have given the trailing driver more time to react. The police said there was simply no way any driver could avoid an impact with a body lying on a dark road less than 200 feet away. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals threw out the jury’s verdict and ordered a directed verdict in favor of the garbage truck defendants.