Articles Posted in Trucking Accidents

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When it comes to trucking accidents, Georgia has what is known as a “direct action” rule. This means that if you are injured due to a commercial truck driver’s negligence, you can name not only the trucking company but also its insurance carrier as defendants. This is an exception to the normal rule. In a personal injury case arising from a normal car accident, you cannot directly sue the insurer. This is because it is generally considered unfair to the trucking company if the jury is made aware that an insurance company is paying for any potential damages.

Wallace v. Wiley Sanders Truck Lines, Inc.

Trucking companies are understandably unhappy with the direct action rule, especially after they lose a lawsuit. But their complaints often fall on deaf ears. Consider this recent case from Columbus, Georgia.

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While many personal injury lawsuits settle without the need for a trial, plenty of cases still go before a jury. Jurors are supposed to be fair and impartial. Attorneys for both sides question prospective jurors to screen them for possible biases. But the system is not perfect. The United States Supreme Court recently dealt with a case where there was evidence of juror bias that may have unduly affected the verdict in favor of a defendant.

Warger v. Shauers

Personal injury cases, such as those arising from an automobile accident, are almost always tried under the law of the state where the accident took place. But when the parties are from different states—say, the plaintiff lives in Georgia and the defendant is an insurance company based in Delaware—the case is tried in a federal court. This means that, while the underlying negligence claim is decided according to the forum state’s laws, the rules governing the trial itself are determined by Congress and the Supreme Court.

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An “uninsured motorist” policy provides coverage to the insured when he or she is the victim of an accident caused by another party that has insufficient resources to pay the full amount of any legal damages. In this context, “uninsured” also means under-insured. Thus, for example, if Driver A is in an accident caused by Driver B, and Driver B’s insurance only covers half of the damages awarded in a subsequent lawsuit, Driver A’s uninsured motorist carrier would pay the remaining half.

But what if Driver B is an agent of the State of Georgia? Normally, state agencies (and their employees) enjoy “sovereign immunity” from most civil lawsuits. The idea is that a state cannot be sued in its own courts without its consent, which is normally granted through legislation. However, when a local government in Georgia purchases liability insurance, sovereign immunity is waived up to the limit of said policy. What does this mean for accident victims with uninsured motorist coverage? A federal judge in Savannah recently attempted to answer this very question.

FCCI Insurance Company v. McLendon Enterprises, Inc.

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If you’re in a motor-vehicle accident, it can matter a great deal who owns the offending vehicle, at least when it comes to assessing legal liability. The State of Georgia and its subsidiaries, including cities and counties, are immune from most lawsuits arising from the negligent operation of vehicles by their employees. This “sovereign immunity” can extend even to egregious cases of failure to maintain vehicles in proper working order, as a recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals illustrates.

City of Milledgeville v. Primus

Lucious Primus is an officer with the Georgia Department of Corrections. In 2006, Primus had to transport an inmate from a work detail in Milledgeville back to a nearby prison. The City of Milledgeville owned and maintained the bus Primus was driving. On this particular day, the brakes on the bus failed, causing Primus to drive off the road and hit a utility pole, injuring his neck and shoulders.

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Although it’s commonly said that police “protect and serve,” a local government is not necessarily liable when its sworn officers fail to protect the general public from harm. In a 1993 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court adopted what became known as a “public duty doctrine.” This doctrine holds that a municipality can only be liable for nonfeasance–a police officer’s failure to act–if there’s a “special relationship” between the individual alleging negligence and the local government. As defined by the Georgia Supreme Court, this means the police must give the person “an explicit assurance” of protection or assistance that the person then relies upon to his or her detriment.

Stevenson v. City of Doraville

Recently, the Supreme Court considered the application of the public duty doctrine to a negligence lawsuit arising from a multi-car traffic accident in DeKalb County. During a rainstorm one evening, a driver on Interstate 285 experienced car trouble. The driver was in the lane nearest the median. He attempted to cross six lanes and bring his car onto the shoulder, but the car stalled in the middle of the road.

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Under Georgia law, the winning party in a personal injury (or any other civil) lawsuit is usually not entitled to recover attorney fees or costs in connection with the litigation. As the Georgia Supreme Court noted in a 1941 decision, “Where there is a bona fide controversy for the tribunals to settle, and the parties can not adjust it amicably, there should be no burdening of one with the counsel fees of the other, unless there has been wanton or excessive indulgence in litigation.” The Georgia legislature may make exceptions to this rule, however, and one such example was the subject of a recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision.

Horton v. Dennis

This case began with a 2008 accident in Telfair County. A tractor trailer crossing Highway 31 near McRae crashed into a truck. The truck driver suffered serious injuries, including a mild traumatic brain injury and permanent erectile dysfunction.

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Under Georgia law, an automobile insurance policy may exclude certain individuals from coverage. For example, if you purchase insurance coverage for your vehicle, you may want to exclude your child from coverage if he has a poor driving record; such an exclusion can improve your own insurance rate. The courts will generally honor an exclusion if it is clear and unambiguous.

A recent decision by a federal judge in Macon helps explain this subject. The underlying case arose from a fatal December 2006 automobile accident. One person–the driver deemed solely responsible for the accident–died while another man suffered serious injuries. In 2008, the surviving injury victim filed a negligence suit in Dooley County Superior Court against the estate of the deceased driver. The victim also sued the driver’s parents, who owned the car, for negligent entrustment, that is negligently providing their son with access to their automobile.

The parents held an insurance policy on their automobile from Progressive Max Insurance Company. About a month before the accident, the father signed a “Name Driver Exclusion Election” listing his son as an excluded driver. The language of the exclusion stated, “No coverage is provided for any claim arising from an accident or loss involving a motorized vehicle being operated by an excluded driver.” This included any claims made against the parents or their son for “vicarious liability” arising from the son’s operation of the vehicle. Vicarious liability refers to the responsibility of a superior for the acts of his agent. This commonly arises in cases where a company is liable for negligent acts committed by an employee.

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Cobb State Court.jpgAs a Marietta Trucking Lawyer, I’m always interested in significant Cobb County trials involving tractor trailer collisions. On Thursday I watched closing arguments in the case of Theresa Foster v. Landstar Ranger, Inc. et al. The case was filed by a Blakely, Georgia woman seeking to hold a Florida trucking company accountable for a 2007 collision that killed her husband, William Foster, killed a friend, Jay Demont, and caused her serious personal injuries. The evidence presented by the widow’s lawyers was compelling. As I left the Courthouse that evening, I felt fairly confident the jury would return a large eight figure verdict, but then you never know. On Friday the jury reached a verdict, awarding $40 million to Mrs. Foster, thought to be a record in a Georgia wrongful death case.
The driver of the Landstar 18-wheeler, Stephen Collins, ran a stop sign and collided with the Foster’s vehicle on February 11, 2007 while they were on a hunting trip in the southwest Georgia town of Blakely. Mrs. Foster’s lawyers presented evidence that Mr. Collins ignored 10 indications that he was approaching a stop sign, including rumble strips, lights, and signs. At the time of the accident, Collins was transporting a cargo of rubber pellets that caused the weight of his 18-wheeler to be over 77,000 pounds when it crashed into Mr. Foster’s 2002 Ford F-150. Both Foster and Demott were riding in the front seat of the truck, while Mrs. Foster who suffered broken ribs and a fractured vertebra was the lone back seat passenger.

In Georgia, if a trucking company kills someone, they are responsible for the value of that person’s life as well as the lost earning capacity of that person. Mr. Foster was a large wage earner and a successful businessman. Mrs. Foster’s lawyers presented a thorough economic analysis, supported by testimony of expert economists, accountants, and Mr. Foster’s business partners, that Mr. Foster’s lost earning capacity exceeded $43 million dollars. Landstar’s lawyers argued that the number was too high, but failed to present any evidence supporting a different number. From my point of view, it appeared the defense strategy was to sit back and rely on the reputation of Cobb County juries to deliver low verdicts.

At Church on Sunday I was asked a good question. “If a Florida corporation killed a Blakely, Georgia man in Blakely, why did the case get tried in Cobb County?” The answer surprised them, in Georgia cases are tried where the Defendant lives. Corporations “live” wherever they choose to have a registered agent. Ironically, Landstar Ranger, Inc. choose to set up their registered agent in Cobb County, because of our County’s reputation for very low verdicts. They figured if they ever killed anyone with a tractor-trailer they would get to pay less if the case was tried in Cobb County. However, from my experience as a Cobb County Personal Injury Lawyer, this perception is outdated. More often than not, Cobb County juries do the right thing and reach verdicts based on the evidence, whether that means a large or small verdict.

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child_safety_seat_check.jpgAs of July 1, 2011 any child who has not reached the age of 8 must be restrained in a car or booster seat while riding in any vehicle. In addition, the car seats must be in the back seat, and the seats must be designed for the proper age, weight, and height of the child, as well as meet all U.S. Federal Guidelines.

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death from children 3 to 14 years old, but when they are properly restrained it greatly reduces the risk of injury against everything from sudden stops to head-on collisions. Children who do not use child passenger seats are three times more likely to be injured than those who are using them. It is also very important to use child seats properly per the manufacturing guidelines as research shows that nearly 75 percent of child safety seats are not properly installed.

The Georgia Office for Highway Safety director Harris Blackwood, calls this new law, “a landmark in child safety.” Blackwood feels that the new law greatly improves the overall safety of 6 and 7 year olds riding in cars in Georgia.

The new law will apply to passenger vehicles, vans, and pickup trucks. It will be a few months before law enforcement will fully enact the law, but the first violation of the car seat law will result in a $50.00 fine, while second and subsequent convictions will result in $100 fines. The first conviction will add one point to a driver’s license, and the second and subsequent violations will add two points. Repeat offenders may also face losing their license all together.

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Interstate 75 was the scene of another fatal tractor-trailer crash this past Saturday night. WSBTV reported traffic was stopped on I-75 because of construction, when a tractor-trailer driven by Henry Lipps crashed into multiple cars. At least four adults were seriously injured and a 6 month old baby was killed. Mr. Lipps was charged with second degree vehicular homicide (a misdemeanor) and following too closely.

According to Cobb County Police, the 18-wheeler never hit his brakes before impact. At this point it is obviously too early to tell why Mr. Lipps did not brake. Even professional drivers can get distracted and make mistakes. However, often in collisions like this, driver fatigue is a factor. Experienced Georgia trucking lawyers will tell you the unfortunate truth is some trucking companies pressure their drivers into violating The Federal Motor Carriers Requirements limiting hours of service. Law enforcement in Cobb County takes all trucking fatalities very seriously and there will certainly be a thorough investigation. If it is determined that Federal Regulations were being violated by the driver and/or the trucking company, for the sake of the impacted families, I hope the driver and trucking company will be held accountable.