In a Three Car Crash, You Still Have to Prove That Negligence Caused the Crash

When there are three car or vehicle collisions, fights amongst the parties about who is responsible are inevitable. In a recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Elder v. Hayes, the Georgia Court of Appeals found that a trial court improperly denied a defendant’s motion for summary judgment because the plaintiff could not, as a matter of law, establish that the defendant’s negligence caused the accident. Translating that into English, after a terrible crash that killed an infant, the Plaintiffs successfully settled with the tractor-trailer driver but when they overreached and tried to go after another vehicle, the trial and appellate courts said no, you are just throwing ideas about responsibility at the wall and cannot really hope for any of it to stick. Where the defendant did something illegal but it did not actually cause the crash, there is no case.

Elder began with a motor vehicle accident that occurred on July 7, 2010. The accident occurred on a stretch of Georgia Highway 10 near Athens, Georgia. One of the plaintiffs was operating a vehicle traveling northbound in the outer lane. The plaintiffs’ vehicle was being followed by a tractor-trailer, which in turn was being followed by a different vehicle being operated by one of the defendants in this case that had just merged onto the highway. At around this time, an ambulance with sirens and emergency lights activated approached the vehicles in the left-hand, northbound lane. As the ambulance passed the vehicles, the defendant moved behind the ambulance in order to pass the tractor-trailer.

The driver of the plaintiffs’ vehicle heard the ambulance and proceeded to stop, although there was a dispute of fact as to whether the plaintiffs’ vehicle had completely pulled off to the shoulder prior to stopping. The tractor-trailer driver saw the vehicle stopping and tried unsuccessfully to avoid hitting the plaintiffs’ vehicle. The tractor-trailer crashed into the back of the plaintiffs’ vehicle, and the impact of the collision caused the plaintiffs’ car to spin into the path of the defendant’s vehicle. All of the occupants of the plaintiffs’ vehicle suffered serious injuries as a result of the crash, including an infant who died a day later at an Atlanta hospital. Following an investigation, the Georgia State Patrol Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team determined that the accident was caused by the tractor-trailer following the plaintiffs’ vehicle too closely, and they did not assign fault to either the defendant driver or the driver of the plaintiffs’ vehicle.

Following this tragic accident, the plaintiffs brought a personal injury and wrongful death lawsuit against both the tractor-trailer driver and the defendant driving the other vehicle. The claims against the tractor-trailer driver were settled, leaving only the claims against the defendant. The plaintiffs argued that the defendant was following the ambulance too closely, which they contended was negligent and resulted in both the first collision and the second collision. The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiffs had failed to adduce sufficient evidence to establish causation. The trial court denied the motion, but the defendant appealed.

On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals concurred with the defendant and found that there was insufficient evidence to show that any conduct of the defendant caused either collision. The plaintiffs specifically put forward two theories of causation. First, the plaintiffs argued that by following the ambulance too closely, the defendant prevented the tractor-trailer driver from swerving in order to prevent striking their vehicle. Alternatively, the plaintiffs argued that by following the ambulance too closely, the defendant’s vehicle created a situation that left it with insufficient time to stop or otherwise avoid causing the second collision, which caused or exacerbated the injuries suffered in the first collision.

The Court of Appeals found neither argument compelling. First, the Court of Appeals agreed that even assuming that the defendant was trailing the ambulance too closely, there was no evidence in the record establishing that the location of the defendant’s vehicle posed any hindrance to the tractor-trailer swerving. Indeed, the tractor-trailer driver testified at a deposition that the defendant’s vehicle didn’t prevent him from swerving to the left and that he, in any event, did not intend to go in that direction to prevent the accident.

Although the plaintiff argued that other evidence in the record established an inference that the location of the defendant’s vehicle influenced the tractor-trailer to attempt to go right and stop, the Court of Appeals noted that the “[driver]’s uncontradicted testimony [cannot] simply be disbelieved” in favor of speculation as to the reason the driver chose not to swerve left. Cowart v. Widener, 287 Ga. 622, 633 (2010).

In addition, the plaintiffs did not put forth evidence establishing that the injuries they suffered were caused or more than likely caused by the second collision rather than the first collision. Indeed, a plaintiff must adduce “circumstantial evidence . . .  sufficient to establish a reasonable inference that [the defendant] caused [the injuries suffered],” and if the evidence only establishes “mere conjecture as to how [the injuries occurred], there can be no recovery.” Berry v. Hamilton, 246 Ga. App. 608, 610 (2000). Since the plaintiff failed to put forth any evidence showing that any particular injury resulted from the second collision, as opposed to the first collision or another source, the Court of Appeals concluded that causation could not be shown, and therefore summary judgment was appropriate.

Although one would imagine that having multiple possibly liable defendants would simplify the task of obtaining compensation, cases like Elder show that it’s not always so straightforward. Indeed, accidents involving multiple drivers and collisions often come with a variety of challenges related to proving causation, and people involved in these sorts of accidents should consider finding counsel experienced in dealing with these causation idiosyncrasies. The Atlanta truck accident attorneys at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law have represented many injured Georgia drivers, and they are ready to provide you with assistance in a possible case. Indeed, if you’ve recently been injured in a car accident resulting from the possible negligence of another driver, feel free to contact us and arrange a free case consultation.