On September 25, 2008, a driver heading west on Jackson Road (Georgia Highway 155) in Spalding County was struck by a white van traveling–well past the posted 55-mph speed limit–south on Johnny Cut Road. The subsequent collision killed the van operator and seriously injured the innocent driver of the other vehicle. Understandably, the victim filed a lawsuit to recover damages for his injuries.
What makes this case unusual is one of the defendants was the driver of a third vehicle. The victim identified this vehicle as running about 20-30 feet behind the van that collided with him. Subsequent evidence revealed the third vehicle had been following the van to a gas station. The victim testified the two vehicles were traveling at 65-70 miles per hour and likely ran a stop sign just prior to the accident. The driver of the third vehicle claimed he was only traveling around 40-45 miles per hour and that he stopped at the stop sign in question.
Georgia law recognizes joint liability of parties based on “tandem driving.” Put simply, if two cars are speeding together–say, in an illegal drag race–and one car causes an accident, the driver of the other car may also be held liable even if he or she was not a party to the accident. As the Georgia Court of Appeals has explained in Baxter v. Wakefield, liability exists when “there is an understanding” between the drivers “to reach a common destination and in doing so illegal speed is used and the cars are driven so closely together as to be practically in tandem.”
Clarifying the Plaintiff’s Burden of Proof
In this case, a trial judge dismissed the victim’s tandem driving claim against the third driver. The judge said there were contradictory statements in the victim’s depositions regarding the speed and position of the van and the third vehicle. The judge said that since the victim could not offer any “reasonable explanation” for the purported contradictions, and absent his testimony there was no evidence to support a tandem driving claim, the third driver was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed and returned the case for trial. The appeals court disagreed with the trial judge’s conclusions regarding the victim’s statements. Indeed, Judge William M. Ray, II, writing for the appeals panel, said the victim’s statements “were essentially consistent” and supported by other evidence already in the record.
It’s important to note the appeals court did not rule on the merits of the victim’s tandem driving argument. Judge Ray’s opinion only criticized the trial judge for not allowing the victim to present the argument to a jury. It was only necessary at this stage of litigation for the victim to show the existence of a “genuine issue of material fact” regarding liability, which he did, according to Judge Ray. The appeals court further clarified that existing Georgia law does not require a plaintiff prove the defendant was the “lead driver”–or even that the defendant knew of his eventual destination–to sustain a tandem driving liability claim. All the victim need prove here is that the “participants be jointly engaged in driving their respective vehicles in a negligent manner, while traveling in closed proximity to one another, while traveling to a common destination.”