Court of Appeals Reverses in Favor of Injured Driver in Atlanta Tractor-Trailer Suit

Anyone who drives in Atlanta knows that Interstate 75 is a busy highway and that accidents along this stretch of road are far from unusual. Among the sorts of motor vehicle accidents that are particularly common are those involving tractor-trailers traveling to or through the metropolitan area. Given their size, tractor-trailers pose unique risks to other motorists and require particular care in their operation. In fact, in a recent case, Dogan v. Buff, the Georgia Court of Appeals addressed whether it was appropriate for a trial court to grant summary judgment in favor of a tractor-trailer driver and his employer following a multi-vehicle accident on I-75.
The accident at issue in this case occurred on February 18, 2009. One driver was heading north on I-75 near Roswell Road in a van owned by his employer, Royalty Transportation. The driver had just taken a patient at Emory Hospital and was heading back to retrieve a different patient. It had just rained, and the road was wet. At the same time, a second driver was hauling various dialysis supplies to Chattanooga in a tractor-trailer owned by his employer, Rockwell Transportation. The trailer was loaded with 80,000 pounds of goods, and Rockwell’s trucking manual required that its drivers maintain one truck length between the tractor-trailer and the vehicle in front of it for every 10 mph the trailer is traveling. The tractor-trailer was following the van operated by the first driver when two other vehicles traveling along the road collided as a result of an errant merging of lanes. The driver of the van changed lanes and slammed the brakes to avoid hitting the cars that collided, and the driver of the tractor-trailer, which was only traveling behind the van by three passenger car lengths, did the same but rear-ended the van. Both vehicles sustained moderate damage, and the driver of the van was taken from the scene to receive medical care. Following the accident, the first driver sued the tractor-trailer driver and Rockwell, alleging that his injuries were a result of the tractor-trailer driver’s negligent and reckless operation of the vehicle. Following the conclusion of discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the motion.

On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals, however, unanimously reversed the trial court’s decision, finding that issues of material facts to be determined by a jury precluded a grant of summary judgment. First, the court noted the unsurprising proposition that all drivers have a duty of care to exercise due care in the operation of motor vehicles. Atlanta Coca-Cola Bottling Co. v. Jones, 236 Ga. 448, 450 (224 SE2d 25) (1976). With respect to the ordinary care one must demonstrate to avoid a rear-end collision, the driver of a leading vehicle must exercise ordinary care to avoid, without adequate warning, stopping abruptly, unduly slowing down, or swerving irregularly from course. Id. Likewise, a following vehicle must exercise ordinary care to avoid a collision with the leading vehicle or other vehicles. Id. In resolving liability in these cases, the Supreme Court of Georgia has long held that the “degree of liability, or lack of liability on the part of any involved driver depends upon a factual resolution of the issues of diligence, negligence, and proximate cause” and furthermore that “[t]he history of the decisions of [the Court of Appeals] in this type of case since 1965 convinces us that these issues should be resolved . . . by the jury and not by trial and appellate judges.” Id. at 451.
In the current case, the Court of Appeals noted that the tractor-trailer driver and the accident reconstruction expert enlisted by the defendants admitted that the tractor-trailer driver might have been following the driver too closely, since he was following the van by less than a tractor-trailer length at the time of the accident and would have collided with the van even if both vehicles remained in the same lane. This position was supported by the testimony of the investigating officer who arrived following the accident. Furthermore, a corporate representative from Rockwell testified that the tractor-trailer driver, in accordance with the corporate safety manual, was supposed to maintain a separation distance of one tractor-trailer for every 10 mphs the tractor-trailer was traveling. Since these facts raise a jury question for resolution regarding whether the tractor-trailer driver was following the lead vehicle too closely, the grant of summary judgment was unwarranted.
Given that Atlanta is situated along several major thoroughfares traversing the South, the risks posed by the negligent operation of tractor-trailers will likely remain an issue for metro-area motorists. Even if one demonstrates the utmost care while driving, he or she cannot control the conduct of others, making it impossible for one to truly avoid an accident. However, when an accident does occur, there may be recourse for the property and personal injuries that result. As was the case here, the employers of tractor-trailer drivers can often be held liable for the negligent driving of their employees. If you’ve recently been in an accident with a tractor-trailer or a different sort of motor vehicle accident and would like to know what options you may have for filing suit, the Atlanta motor vehicle accident attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have considerable experience with this sort of litigation and are ready to answer the questions you may have. Feel free to contact us for a complimentary case consultation.
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