Is a Georgia Motorist Liable if an Animal Suddenly Darts into the Road?

Car accidents are often the result of a driver failing to keep a proper lookout for hazards in the road. As a driver, you should never assume the road in front of you is clear. If you do get into an accident caused by another who did not keep his or her eyes on the road, you may have a personal injury claim for damages.

Kelly v. Fann

Georgia courts never assume that a driver failed to keep a lookout. The legal burden is on the plaintiff to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant ignored a legal duty. This means, for instance, the plaintiff must show that the defendant ignored the rules of the road or failed to exercise appropriate caution when confronting a known hazard. A judge may dismiss a car accident lawsuit on summary judgment if the plaintiff cannot produce sufficient evidence from which a jury can find negligence.

Consider this recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals. The plaintiff in this case was driving a tractor trailer down the highway one evening. According to the plaintiff’s testimony, he suddenly “saw a car coming” from the opposite side of the road. This was the defendant’s car. She had been traveling westbound when her car “crossed the grassy median into the eastbound lanes” just before striking the plaintiff’s vehicle.

Several hours prior to the accident, a bull escaped from a nearby livestock trailer. The police searched for the bull near the highway. As it turned out, the defendant “found” the bull when she hit it with her car. This initial collision cause the defendant to lose consciousness, and it was then that her vehicle crossed the median and produced the second collision with the plaintiff’s truck.

The plaintiff’s personal injury claim was premised on the defendant’s alleged negligence in breaching “her duty to maintain a proper lookout.” In other words, the plaintiff said the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care in avoiding the runaway bull, and this failure caused the accident and his injuries. Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff failed to produce sufficient evidence to support this theory of liability.

As the Court of Appeals explained, there was no evidence in the record demonstrating the plaintiff “had a sufficiently clear view” of the bull on the highway prior to the first collision. Indeed, there was no evidence of the bull’s location just before the plaintiff hit it. The appeals court observed the animal “could have been standing in the highway or it could have walked or run into the highway in front of or into [the defendant’s] vehicle.” Any conclusion would be mere conjecture–and a jury cannot find a defendant liable based purely on speculation. Ultimately, the plaintiff could not show there was anything the defendant could have done to avoid the collision, so his personal injury claim failed as a matter of law.

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