A truck accident wrongful death claim in Georgia was dismissed on summary judgment by the trial court. This week, the truck accident lawsuit was reinstated by a Georgia appeals court.
The case presents interesting issues as to the application of comparative negligence where there is a factual dispute among witnesses.
Facts of Wang v. Dukes
The decedent, who was tragically just 17 years old at the time of the truck accident, was driving a minivan along Fort Howard Road within Effingham County not far from Savannah. She approached a stop sign where Fort Howard intersects with Old Augusta Road. The J.B. Hunt tractor-trailer was heading south on Old Augusta Road. The truck driver said that the decedent entered her path.
But there is inconsistency among witness accounts regarding whether the decedent had fully halted at the stop sign before proceeding. Differing versions of events describe her as either making a complete stop or not stopping at all. A police report indicates that the impact between Dukes’ tractor-trailer and the decedent’s minivan occurred within the median area of the road. The panel underscored that this circumstance would only be plausible if Dukes had ventured out of his assigned lane.
Trial Court Dismisses Case
J.B. Hunt and its driver moved for a summary judgment. Summary judgment is a legal decision made by a court in favor of one party without a full trial when there are no disputable facts or the law favors that party. The idea is that a case should not go to trial if no reasonable jury could find for the plaintiff under the facts.
The crux of their argument was that the young woman was primarily, if not completely, at fault. Like most states, Georgia has adopted modified comparative negligence. So an injured party can recover damages in a lawsuit if they are less than 50% at fault for their injuries, with the damages they receive reduced by their percentage of fault.
The trial court found in favor of J.B. Hunt and its driver, granting summary judgment in Wang v. Dukes because the judge found that there was no legitimate argument that the decedent was not mostly at fault for the truck accident.
The woman’s family appealed, arguing that there was a genuine dispute over material facts relating to the accident. Again, for summary judgment, there should be no material dispute of facts.
To this point, the family’s wrongful death lawyer argued that eyewitnesses provided conflicting testimony and the jury could believe a version of the facts that supported the family’s allegations. Specifically, some witnesses said that the decedent came to a complete stop before moving forward, while others disagree. And according to the police report, the collision with the decedent’s vehicle occurred in the middle part of the road, implying that the truck driver may have veered out of his lane. That is the key issue: did the truck driver strayed from his lane before the crash happened?
In fact, which makes the trial court’s granting of summary judgment all the more surprising, the police report found that the tractor-trailer struck the driver’s side of the decedent’s van, with the impact taking place in the middle of the median or gore area (the gore area is the area between a roadway and the exit ramp).
So for the truck accident to happen at this location, the truck driver would have needed to exit his southbound lane and move into the gore, headed toward the northbound lane on Old Alabama Road.
Even more, the J.B. Hunt truck driver confirmed to the police that he “steered left” when he noticed the decedent pulling out. He agreed that she must have been making a left turn since she moved straight rather than taking a right turn. However, in his deposition, the truck driver contradicted the investigation’s findings. He argued that the impact happened in his southbound lane, although he did concede that the vehicles ended up in the positions marked by the police. There are disputes of fact everywhere in this case, right?
Appellate Court Decision
Ultimately, the Georgia Court of Appeals found that there is believable evidence, like brake marks, photos, eyewitness accounts, and the police report that could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that the truck accident would not have happened if the J.B. Hunt truck driver had stayed in his lane.