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Georgia Court Sorts Out Responsibility for Deadly Three-Car Accident

In a personal injury lawsuit, such as a negligence claim arising from a car accident, the plaintiff must establish causation—that is, how the defendant’s actions were the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. If a plaintiff fails to advance a plausible theory of causation, a Georgia court may dismiss the case at the summary judgment stage.

Elder v. Hayes

In a recent case, the Georgia Court of Appeals dismissed a personal injury and wrongful death lawsuit against a driver involved in a three-car accident that took place in Athens, Georgia, in 2010. The critical legal issue was the plaintiff’s theories of causation against the defendant driver. The Court of Appeals determined there was insufficient evidence for a jury to find the defendant was responsible for the defendants’ injuries.

The accident occurred on the northbound side of a four-lane highway. The plaintiffs were traveling in a sedan in the outer lane. A truck was directly behind them. The defendant was driving an SUV that had just entered the highway and was attempting to pass the truck on the inner lane.

The accident itself was prompted by an approaching ambulance. The ambulance was traveling on the inner lane. The sedan driver pulled her car onto the shoulder and stopped to allow the ambulance to pass. The truck then swerved to avoid hitting the sedan but was unsuccessful. The truck effectively crushed the back of the sedan, pushing the car forward into the SUV traveling in the other lane.

One of the passengers in the sedan died as a result of injuries sustained in the accident, while a second passenger and the driver were also seriously hurt. They collectively sued both the truck and SUV drivers. With respect to the SUV driver, the plaintiffs presented two possible theories of causation. Both theories revolved around the claim that the SUV driver’s “decision to closely trail the ambulance and not to move over and stop or slow down for the ambulance constituted negligence and resulted in his vehicle crashing into” the plaintiffs’ sedan.

Although the trial court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on these causation theories, the Court of Appeals reversed. The appeals court noted that the Georgia State Police’s own reconstruction report determined the truck driver, who was “following too closely behind” the plaintiffs’ sedan, caused the accident. The report assigned no blame to the SUV driver. More to the point, the Court of Appeals said there was no evidence that anything the SUV driver did caused the first collision between the truck and the sedan.

The appeals court added that it would be impossible for a jury to determine whether the plaintiffs suffered their injuries as a result of the first collision with the truck or the second collision with the defendant’s SUV. The circumstantial evidence in the record would force the jury “to conjecture how and when the injuries to [the plaintiffs] occurred.” Accordingly, the court said it was appropriate to dismiss the SUV driver as a defendant from the lawsuit.