Simon Law February 2019

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February 2019

When is It Their Fault?

The law basically says if you do something stupid or illegal and someone gets hurt because of it, you can be held legally responsible. This simple concept has been stretched to fit odd facts many times, and today we are discussing situations that test it. In a 1996 case, Marissa M. Smith v. Commercial Transp., Inc., 220 Ga. App. 866 (Ga. App., 1996), a tractor trailer flipped over at 4:30 a.m. and blocked all lanes of traffic. Two hours later, with traffic backed up for two miles, along comes the plaintiff, riding in her brother’s car. Her brother does not realize traffic is stopped and slams into a stopped car, which results in her death. The law says that if a person’s own negligence is more than 50 percent to blame, they get nothing. First, the court had to look at how much of the blame was on the driver for not stopping before impact, and second, they had to look at how much of the blame was on the original truck driver because they flipped and caused the back up in the first place. The insurance company for the truck argued that since the original crash was six hours before and two miles away, it was disconnected from the later crash and could not be blamed. The Court of Appeals disagreed and allowed the jury to consider the issue of who was more to blame and in what percent. That logic was also followed in a 2014 case, Reed v. Carolina Cas. Ins. Co., 327 Ga. App. 130 (Ga. App., 2014), where a tractor trailer driver got tired and pulled over into

the emergency lane to sleep. Along came a speeding driver with a .96 blood alcohol content. The driver lost control, swerved all over the road, and ended up hitting the truck in the emergency lane. The vehicle burst into flame, and the drunk driver burned to death in the tragedy. There is blame to go around, right? The truck driver and his insurance company argued that he was not to blame, even though it is illegal to park in the emergency lane. They tried to say that the drunk driver was clearly more than 50 percent responsible for his own crash, so the case shouldn’t go to jury. The Court of Appeals repeated the rule “questions of negligence, diligence, contributory negligence, and proximate

cause are peculiarly matters for the jury, and a court should not take the place of the jury in solving them, except in plain and indisputable cases.” Basically, fault has to be without question for a case to not be considered by a jury. The court ruled that issues of degrees of blame — even when the plaintiff is drunk and impaired — are still issues that go to a jury for trial and cannot be thrown out by the court on summary judgment.

What do you think of the court’s reasoning?

–Christopher Simon

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