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Georgia Court of Appeals Reinstates Lawsuit Against Alleged Hit-and-Run Driver

Hit-and-run accidents are a common occurrence in Georgia. Many people are seriously injured by drivers who either do not know they caused an accident, or do know and flee to avoid taking responsibility. In either case, the victim is often left scrambling to identify the driver and take appropriate legal action to obtain compensation for their injuries.

Callaway v. Quinn

A recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals helps to illustrate the challenges hit-and-run accidents face in pursuing a personal injury claim. This case involves a 2015 hit-and-run accident. The plaintiff was driving her car and “stopped in traffic” when she was rear-ended by a “man driving a pickup truck” who “fled the scene.” Police investigators later found the truck abandoned in a nearby parking lot.

The police also identified the owner of the truck, who is the defendant in this case. The defendant never responded to any police inquiries regarding the truck, however, and he later claimed in response to the plaintiff’s lawsuit that the truck had been stolen by a man who was staying at his house. In fact, the defendant said he only learned the truck had been recovered when contacted by a wrecker service. He further denied driving the truck at the time of the accident.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the plaintiff could not point to any evidence affirmatively proving the defendant was driving the truck. The Court of Appeals said the trial judge’s decision was premature. Although the defendant gave “direct” evidence denying he was the driver, the plaintiff’s “circumstantial” evidence to the contrary was enough to survive a motion for summary judgment. Here, that circumstantial evidence consisted of the following:

  • The defendant owned the truck;
  • The plaintiff identified the truck driver as male;
  • The defendant never reported his truck missing after it was allegedly stolen;
  • The defendant could not explain “when or how” the truck was stolen; and
  • The police officer who investigated the accident “believed” the defendant was the driver.

In contrast to this circumstantial evidence, the defendant’s direct evidence–i.e., a man who was staying at his house may have stolen it–was “pure speculation,” according to the appeals court.

The Court of Appeals also vacated a separate ruling by the trial court regarding the addition of another defendant. The plaintiff asked the trial judge for permission to join an unknown “John Doe” as a defendant. Such motions are common in hit-and-run cases, as the plaintiff can serve his or her own uninsured/underinsured motorist policy carrier, who is required to step-in and defend the John Doe.

The plaintiff’s insurance company objected to adding the John Doe because Georgia’s two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims had already expired. The statute may be tolled–effectively stopping the clock–if the plaintiff can show “the claim against the new party relates back to the date of the original pleading.” In this case, the trial judge did not conduct such a “relate-back” analysis, so the Court of Appeals said one should take place.