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When Can a Trial Court Take the Issue of Contributory Negligence Away from the Jury?

Under what circumstances can a Georgia court take the issue of contributory negligence away from the jury? The Georgia Court of Appeals recently tackled that issue in Reed v. Carolina Casualty Insurance Company, 755 S.E.2d 356 (2014). The court held that where a question remains as to whether the defendant’s conduct causally contributed to the plaintiff’s injury, that question must be resolved by the jury.

The Reed decision is notable because the facts were so bad for the plaintiffs; if ever there were a set of facts that invited summary judgment, the Reed case presented them.   The plaintiffs in Reedwere the surviving parents of Thomas Reed, II. At approximately 2:00 AM on August 26, 2008—a wet and rainy morning—Mr. Reed lost control of his vehicle, slammed into a guardrail, and then skidded into the back of anillegally parked tractor-trailer on the side of Interstate 75.   The impact with the tractor trailer caused the gas tank to rupture and Mr. Reed’s car to catch fire. Mr. Reed and his passenger died at the accident scene.

An accident investigation revealed that Mr. Reed was driving too fast for conditions and failed to maintain his lane of travel, in violation of Georgia’s rules of the road. O.C.G.A. §§ 40-6-48 & 40-6-180. Further, an autopsy revealed that,at the time of the wreck, Mr. Reed had a blood alcohol content of .095, in excess of Georgia’s legal limit. O.C.G.A. § 40-6-391(a)(5).Based on these facts, the defense moved for summary judgment, arguing that the evidence established—as a matter of law—that Reed was more than fifty percent (50%) responsible for causing his own death. Under Georgia’s contributory negligence statute, a tort plaintiff cannot recover damages if he is “50 percent or more responsible for the injury or damages claimed.” O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(g). The trial court agreed with the defense, granting its motion for summary judgment and dismissing the Reeds’ case.

The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed. It held that, although a trial court may grant summary judgment on the issue of contributory negligence in “plain and indisputable case[s],” fact issues as to causation precluded summary judgment in the Reeds’ case. The appellate court’s analysis began with the legal standard that,”[t]o recover damages in a tort action, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s negligence was both the `cause in fact’ and the `proximate cause’ of the injury.”   The appellate court found that fact issues existed with respect to both of these elements.

With regard to the issue of “cause in fact,” the court held as follows:

[T]here is an issue of fact as to whether [defendant’s] act of parking in the emergency lane was a cause in fact of Reed’s death. Construed in favor of the [Reeds], the record shows that the fire was caused when the undercarriage of Reed’s vehicle struck the trailer and that Reed died from some combination of blunt force trauma and the fire. What the record does not show is whether Reed would have died if [defendant’s] tractor-trailer had not been parked in the emergency lane that night. Thus, there is an issue of fact as to whether Reed would have died but for the presence of [defendant’s] tractor-trailer illegally parked in the emergency lane.

With regard to the issue of proximate causation, the court found that:

[T]he record shows that both Reed and [defendant] violated traffic laws. Reed was driving with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit . . . ; was driving too fast for the conditions . . . ; and failed to maintain his lane of travel. Meanwhile, [defendant] had parked in violation of OCGA § 40-6-203, which provides that, with certain exceptions not applicable here, “no person shall. . . [s]top, stand, or park a vehicle. . . [o]n any controlled-access highway.” There remain, therefore, at a minimum, questions of material fact as to each party’s negligence in connection with the collision and the degree to which each party was at fault for the decedent’s injuries and death.

The Reeddecision was a sensible one, given the facts of the case. While it could be fairly stated that Reed’s negligence contributed to the accident, it remained unclear whether the accident would have been fatal but for the defendant’s conduct (of illegally parking his tractor trailer on the interstate). Still, the decision represents a victory for plaintiffs. Georgia courts have faced criticismin recent months for the frequency with which they award summary judgment to defendants.   Given Reed’s indisputably negligent conduct, this case presented the appellate court with a golden opportunity to affirm summary judgment; however, the court declined, holding that summary judgment on the issue of contributory negligence should be reserved only for plain and indisputable cases.

Joseph A. White is a trial lawyer that specializes in representing individuals and small businesses in complex business, employment and personal injury litigation.

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