Tennessee Court of Appeals says driver’s comparative fault barred recovery in truck wreck

by Mandy Hicks

By Kyle Roby, Attorney
English, Lucas, Priest and Owsley, LLP

Although the basic law of negligence is the same across the country – namely, that to be successful, the plaintiff must show duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages – there are some nuances of negligence law that are different in various states. Thus, the outcome of a particular case can vary considerably, depending upon the state in which the accident occurred.

For instance, under the law of comparative fault, there can be wide variations in the outcome of a suit based on similar circumstances, depending upon the state where the suit is filed. The state of Tennessee follows what is called the “modified system of comparative fault.”

Beginning with the 1992 case of McIntyre v. Balentine, a plaintiff may recover damages in proportion to a defendant’s percentage of fault in an accident, as long as the defendant’s fault outweighed any fault by the plaintiff. In cases in which the jury finds the parties to be equally at fault (or finds the plaintiff to be more than 50 percent at fault), the plaintiff recovers nothing.

Facts of the Case

Of course, the actual application of this law can be problematic and must be approached on a case-by-case basis. In the recent truck wreck case of Hall v. Owens, the plaintiff was driving along a highway in Jackson, Tennessee, approaching an intersection from the north. Meanwhile, the defendant was driving a tractor-trailer, approaching the intersection from the south.

As the respective drivers approached the intersection, the plaintiff disregarded a traffic signal and attempted to make a left turn. The defendant’s passenger saw what the plaintiff was doing and yelled at the defendant to stop, but the defendant was unable to stop his truck in time and hit the plaintiff’s car.

The plaintiff filed suit against the defendant, alleging a claim of negligence. The defendant (and his employer) filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

The Decision of the Tennessee Court of Appeals

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendant. The court found that it was undisputed that the plaintiff entered the intersection and proceeded to turn left across the lane of oncoming traffic, despite the fact that the traffic light facing him was red. Under the facts, the court found that no reasonable juror could assess less than 50 percent of the fault for the accident to the plaintiff, even though the defendant’s passenger tried to warn him to stop the truck when he saw the plaintiff turning across traffic.

The court noted that, typically, comparative fault is an issue to be resolved by the trier of fact, but summary judgment was appropriate here because reasonable minds could only reach the conclusion that the plaintiff’s fault was at least equal to, if not greater than, the truck driver’s fault.

In some jurisdictions that follow the law of pure comparative fault, the outcome of this case may have been different. Under pure comparative fault, a plaintiff is entitled to the percentage of damages equal to the defendant’s fault. Thus, if the jury had assessed the defendant to be 25 percent at fault in the accident, the plaintiff could have been awarded 25 percent of his total damages (lost wages, medical bills, and pain and suffering).

To Talk to an Experienced Truck Accident Lawyer

If you have been involved in a collision with a commercial truck, tractor-trailer, semi-truck, or 18-wheeler, you need to speak to an experienced truck accident lawyer about your legal rights. To schedule an appointment with me, Kyle Roby, or another member of our team, call English, Lucas, Priest & Owsley at 270-781-6500 and ask for a free consultation.

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