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GA Court Throws Out $30 Million Car Accident Judgment Due to Incorrect Jury Instruction

Car accidents may have many causes. Oftentimes it is simply negligence on the part of the driver. There may also be a defect in the vehicle itself, either as the result of a faulty part used during the manufacturing process or an inadequate repair. If there was, in fact, a problem with the car, the driver may not be liable for any damages sustained by third parties.

Almassur v. Mezquital

On March 15, the Georgia Court of Appeals overturned a $30 million jury verdict in a personal injury lawsuit arising from a 2012 car accident in Forsyth County. The appellate court said the trial judge committed a significant error in refusing to allow a jury instruction proposed by the defense. That instruction, in turn, addressed whether the defendant driver’s actions on the day of the accident were “unknowing and unintentional.”

Here is briefly what happened. The plaintiff and defendant were driving in opposite directions on the same road. As the two vehicles reached the same point in the road, the defendant’s jeep “crossed the center line” and collided with the plaintiff’s car, causing her to sustain “severe injuries.”

The defendant maintained that the problem was a defective steering kit installed by a repair shop about a week before the accident. At trial, the defendant testified that he “was unable to steer the jeep to avoid the collision,” even though he had already driven the jeep with the new steering system for a week without incident. In any event, the defendant blamed the accident on the repair shop’s “negligent work,” which he was unaware of until he hit the plaintiff.

Despite this testimony, the trial judge declined to instruct the jury that it had to find the defendant “had to have knowledge of the unsafe or defective condition of the vehicle” before ruling in favor of the plaintiff. The judge said such an instruction would “unnecessarily complicate” the issue for the jury, which he saw as whether the defendant exercised “reasonable care” and violated local traffic laws, which constitute “per se” negligence under Georgia law.

The jury ultimately ruled in favor of the plaintiff, holding the defendant was “wholly responsible” for the accident, and awarded over $30 million in damages.

As the Court of Appeals explained in its opinion throwing out the jury’s verdict, although the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence that the defendant violated traffic laws–i.e., his vehicle crossed the centerline–this only created a “presumption” of negligence. The defendant was then entitled to try and “rebut” this presumption by presenting evidence that “the steering failed immediately before the collision, and that he did not know of any defect in the vehicle.” Once he presented such evidence, however “slight,” he was entitled to a jury instruction on this theory of the case. Given this was a “vital issue,” the Court of Appeals felt it had no choice but to order a new trial.

Note that the Court of Appeals limited its review to the challenged jury instruction. It did not address any of the underlying evidence in the case. It is not clear whether a second jury will believe the defendant’s explanation for the accident.