In October 2014, a man from McDonough, Georgia, died after his Suzuki motorcycle collided with a Toyota Prius. According to a report from the Henry Herald at the time, the man “was traveling east on Campground Road and the Prius was traveling north on Palmer Road.” The Prius then pulled out onto Campground Road and was “hit by the Suzuki.” At the time, police attributed the accident to “speed and reckless driving” on the part of the motorcyclist.
Clack v. Hasnat
The family of the motorcyclist subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the driver and owners of the Prius. The case was tried before a jury, which returned a verdict for the defense. The family then unsuccessfully moved for a new trial.
On March 13, 2020, the Georgia Court of Appeals also declined to order a new trial and affirmed the jury’s verdict. The appeals court specifically addressed three alleged errors made by the trial judge in handling the case.
The first alleged error was allowing multiple witnesses to testify as to the approximate speed of the motorcycle at the time of the crash. A police officer who happened to be a quarter-mile away at the time told the jury that “based on its sound the motorcycle’s speed was between 60 and 80 miles per hour before impact.” The family argued this testimony should have been held inadmissible, as the officer did not actually witness the crash.
The Court of Appeals, however, said the trial court acted within its discretion to allow the testimony. The officer, and other witnesses who offered similar testimony, provided a “factual foundation” for their statements, notably their own “experience riding motorcycles.” Such a foundation made it possible for the witnesses to estimate the motorcyclist’s speed. And the weight given to those estimates was a “matter to be determined by the jury.”
The second and third alleged errors revolved around evidence that the motorcyclist had tested positive for methamphetamine just before he died. The jury heard testimony from two law enforcement officials regarding the role methamphetamine use played in the accident itself. One of these witnesses also testified that had the victim survived the accident, he “would have been cited for DUI” under Georgia law. The family moved for a mistrial based on that last statement, which the trial judge denied. Instead, the judge told the jury to disregard the statement, which the Court of Appeals said was an appropriate “corrective measure.”
As for the rest of law enforcement testimony, the family’s other main objection was that the witness “did not reconstruct the collision” or attempt to “compute the motorcycle’s speed” at the time of the crash, but instead relied on the positive methamphetamine test to assign fault to the victim. The Court of Appeals saw no problem here either. The court noted the witness in question had 16 years of experience in conducting traffic accident investigations for the Henry County Police Department, and that his conclusions were based not only on the drug test, but also “the area’s hilly terrain, and its associated reduced visibility, as well as witness statements.” It was not necessary for the officer to actually conduct a full accident reconstruction.