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.
The plaintiff in this case was driving a tractor trailer on a private driveway in Randolph County. Another tractor trailer was behind the plaintiff’s vehicle. As the plaintiff approached a public highway, he signaled a right-hand turn. While executing said turn, the trailing vehicle collided with the passenger side of the plaintiff’s tractor trailer. The plaintiff was seriously injured, suffering a torn rotator cuff that required surgery and extended physical therapy.
The plaintiff sued the driver and owner of the other tractor trailer. The plaintiff also named the defendant company’s insurance carrier under Georgia’s direct action rule. The case was tried before a jury, which held the defendants were negligent and awarded the plaintiff $650,000 in damages.
The defendants asked the judge to set aside the jury verdict and order a new trial. The judge was not amused. In denying the motion, the judge said the defendants “cannot contemplate the possibility that their defeat was due to the facts and the law not being on their side.” Instead, the judge quipped, the defendants “reflexively blame the jury and the judge.”
Among other issues, the defendants complained about the judge’s instruction to the jury as to why the insurance company was a named party. The judge said he simply told the jury that the insurer was a defendant and that its “presence should not affect the nature or amount of your verdict,” and that insurer would “be jointly responsible” for any damage award. This was nothing more than explaining the law, the judge said.
Another legal point of contention was the absence of any testimony from the driver of the defendant’s vehicle. The driver passed away prior to trial. The only account given by the driver came from a police report taken at the scene about 20 minutes following the accident. The judge ruled this was inadmissible hearsay because the plaintiffs could not cross-examine an accident report. While the judge noted the defendants were in an unfortunate situation due to the driver’s untimely death, that did not render the hearsay admissible evidence under Georgia law.
The defendants also challenged the “excessive” size of the jury’s $650,000 award. Again, the judge was not sympathetic. “Apparently, Defendants believe that any verdict exceeding what they were willing to pay voluntarily is excessive,” the judge said, noting the evidence presented at trial adequately supported the jury’s decision.
Wallace v. Wiley Sanders Truck Lines, Inc., Case No. 4:14-CV-142 (CDL) (M.D. Ga. Jan. 25, 2016).