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Disputed Traffic Sign Leads to Revival of Accident Lawsuit

As a general rule, a driver is considered negligent, and therefore responsible for a car accident, if he or she disregards traffic signs. For example, if a driver speeds through a red light and hits another vehicle, he or she is liable for any damages sustained by the other driver. In some car accident cases, however, it may not be immediately apparent whether a driver was reckless in failing to obey traffic signs.

Richards v. Robinson

Here is an illustration from a recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision. This case involves a two-car accident that occurred in Gwinnett County. The defendant was driving a school bus in the far-right eastbound lane of Five Forks Trickhum Road, which intersects the Ronald Reagan Parkway. The plaintiff was driving his vehicle on the eastbound land of Five Forks Trickhum Road.

The plaintiff made a left turn onto the southbound access road for the parkway. He testified that he saw no oncoming traffic as he began the turn. But in the middle of the turn, he said the defendant was “coming over a hill.”

On the eastbound road, where the defendant was, there were two right-hand turns onto the southbound parkway. The first right turn was before the intersection and led to a Y-shaped merge ramp with the parkway. The second right turn was the intersection itself, where the plaintiff was making his turn.

The plaintiff said he assumed that the defendant was going to make the first turn. Instead the defendant “went straight” into the intersection and struck the plaintiff. The defendant said he tried to stop in time but he was unsuccessful.

Before the trial court, the parties disagreed as to the meaning of a critical traffic sign. On the far-right eastbound lane there was a sign that said “right turn only” located before the two right-hand turns described above. The defendant, who was in this lane, assumed this meant he could choose to make either of the right turns. The plaintiff, conversely, argued it required the defendant to make the first turn, which would have avoided the collision at the intersection altogether. The plaintiff maintained the defendant therefore violated traffic laws and was legally responsible for the accident.

The trial court disagreed, holding the plaintiff failed to present any evidence in support of his claim, and granted summary judgment to the defendant. The Court of Appeals reversed, however, noting that both sides presented “reasonable interpretations”of the traffic sign. Summary judgment is only appropriate when there is no material dispute as to the facts of a case. Here, the appeals court said there was “sufficient evidence such that it is not impossible for [the plaintiff] to prove [the defendant’s] duty and breach of that duty at trial, and [the defendant] has not shown an absence of evidence to support [the plaintiff’s] case as to these elements.” The mere existence of “contradictory evidence” makes this a matter for a jury, not the judge ruling on summary judgment, to settle.