Sometimes even judges get confused about basic traffic laws. In June, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed a jury verdict after finding the judge improperly instructed jurors about the law governing the right-of-way at a four-way stop sign. The case arose from a traffic accident in Gwinnett County where each driver blamed the other.
The plaintiff in this case testified that he arrived at the intersection–which had a four-way stop sign–first, stopped, and then proceeded to execute a left-hand turn. The defendant’s truck, approaching from the cross-road, failed to yield the stop sign and collided with the plaintiff’s vehicle in the intersection. The defendant, in contrast, said he arrived at the intersection a few seconds before the plaintiff and in fact made a complete stop before entering the intersection.
The police officer who took the accident report said the defendant was at fault for the accident, because “by state law when you both stop at the same time, you have to yield to the vehicle to your right.” At trial, however, the judge said this was wrong. Instead, the judge charged the jury as follows:
There is a rule of the road which provides that when two vehicles reach an intersection at the same time, the driver on the left must yield to the vehicle on the right.
I charge you that this rule of the road that I just referenced only applies to intersections which are not controlled by a traffic-control device such as a stop sign. This rule does not apply to an intersections — to intersections which have a four-way stop.
Based on this instruction, the jury ruled in favor of the defendant. The plaintiff appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, arguing the jury instruction was incorrect. The Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiff.
Judge Christopher J. McFadden, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals, noted the plain language of Georgia law states that when “two vehicles approach or enter an intersection from different highways at approximately the same time, the driver of the vehicle on the left shall yield the right of way to the vehicle on the right.” The statute is not limited to uncontrolled intersections without stop signs, and while there are exceptions for certain types of intersections, none applied to a four-way stop like the one involved in this case.
Judge McFadden rejected the defendant’s attempt to apply another exception in Georgia law–addressing right of way when there’s an “immediate hazard” posed to vehicles already in an intersection–to this circumstance. Here, both vehicles stopped before entering the intersection at the same time. A plain reading of Georgia law, Judge McFadden said, required the vehicle on the left–in this case, the defendant’s truck–to yield.
The appeals court returned the case to the trial court, presumably for a new trial. The court rejected the defendant’s position that even if the trial judge gave a bad instruction, it was a harmless error. “Given that the question of which driver had the right of way was central to the determination of negligence in this case,” Judge McFadden said, “we cannot say that the trial court’s erroneous instruction to the jury regarding right of way was harmless.”