Truck & Auto Accidents
In Georgia, every driver has a duty to exercise ordinary care in the operation of a motor vehicle. Whether a driver has exercised ordinary care or breached this duty depends on all of the circumstances and facts existing at the time and place of the accident.
The mere occurrence of an automobile collision that results in an injury does not automatically establish liability on the part of the driver who is at fault. In order for the driver to be liable, the plaintiff must show that the driver was negligent, and that the driver’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries. It is important to remember that the exercise of ordinary care applies to both parties in an accident, and the fact that the defendant broke a law or was negligent does not relieve the plaintiff from exercising ordinary care.
Within the idea of ordinary care exists a wide array of duties imposed by state law. For example, it is the duty of a driver to be on the lookout for potential hazards on the road ahead. Maintaining a proper lookout requires a driver to be diligent in looking for other vehicles, pedestrians lawfully on the roadway, and fixed objects lawfully on or by the road. A driver who momentarily takes his eyes off the road to find a pack of cigarettes or make a cell phone call is probably violating his duty to maintain a proper lookout.
Motorists also have a duty not to drive or move a motor vehicle unless the equipment on the vehicle is in good working order and the vehicle is maintained in a safe enough condition that it will not endanger the driver or any other person on the road. Additionally, motorists are required to operate their vehicles at a rate of speed not greater than is reasonable or prudent under the circumstances, and with regard for the actual and potential hazards that are present. These are just a few of the many duties drivers are obligated to fulfill.
When an accident does occur, motorists have a duty to stop. At the scene, the motorist must present information such as his or her name, current address, and the registration number of his vehicle. The motorist must also render reasonable assistance to any injured person. If a motorist knowingly fails to stop after an accident, and the accident is a proximate cause of death or serious injury, the motorist may be convicted of a felony. If a non-serious injury occurs or if only property damage was done, the motorist may be convicted of a misdemeanor if he fails to stop.
When a motorist violates a statute regulating traffic such as reckless driving, he has committed negligence per se unless he has a valid defense. Once the plaintiff has demonstrated that the defendant was negligent per se, the defendant may still avoid liability by showing that the violation was unintentional and occurred in the exercise of ordinary care.
Negligence per se does not automatically establish liability. As with common negligence, the plaintiff must still show that the negligent actions were the proximate cause of his injury in order to recover. To prove proximate cause, a plaintiff must at least show that the defendant might have known that some harm would result from his or her negligent conduct.
When bringing suit, a plaintiff may seek both general and special damages. Special damages are those damages that the plaintiff sustained as a consequence of his injuries, such as medical bills, lost profits, and loss of employment. The plaintiff must plead these losses fully and specifically. The amount of special damages is important, because it provides the jury with a way to measure general damages. General damages include such damages as pain and suffering, and the plaintiff does not have to state a specific amount to be awarded general damages. Punitive damages may also be allowed in certain situations.
Defendants in motor vehicle cases have many potential defenses that they may use at trial. For example, a plaintiff in a motor vehicle accident case is generally not entitled to recover for his injuries if he could have avoided the consequences of the defendant’s negligence by the exercise of ordinary care, or if he negligently caused his own injuries. Such action by a plaintiff is known as contributory negligence. Comparative negligence may also reduce the plaintiff’s recovery where the evidence shows that the plaintiff failed to exercise ordinary care for his own safety. One example of this would be where a plaintiff was a passenger in a vehicle with a driver he knew was intoxicated.
Georgia law also recognizes the defense of intervening causes. Generally, a driver who starts a chain of events through his own negligence may be held liable for all mishaps that are the proximate cause of his negligent actions. However, the driver may be relieved of liability if he can show that there was an intervening act of negligence by a third person that is the proximate cause of the injury. Yet, if the original negligent actor could have reasonably foreseen the intervening act made by the third person, then the intervening act of negligence will not relieve the original actor of liability for the consequences resulting from the intervening act.
Another defense is assumption of the risk. The defense of assumption of the risk assumes that a person chooses a course of action with full knowledge of its danger and exercises a free choice as to whether to engage in the act or not. Where the plaintiff’s assumption of the risk is the sole proximate cause of his or her injuries, the plaintiff is not entitled to recover.
Georgia also has a rule known as the sudden emergency doctrine which may relieve liability. If there is a sudden danger not caused by the driver and forces the driver to make a decision without time for thought, then the driver may be relieved of liability. They key is that the accident generally must occur immediately after the apprehension of the danger.
Under Georgia law, a collision with a tractor trailer does not automatically trigger liability. Instead, an injured party has to show that the truck driver and/or the trucking company were negligent in order to recover damages.
Negligence occurs when a driver breaches a duty owed to another driver, and the other driver sustains injuries that are proximately caused by that breach. Every person behind the wheel of a tractor trailer has a duty to exercise ordinary care while driving. The breach of this duty is generally determined by all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the accident, and a truck driver need not be found at fault by the police or issued a ticket to be found liable for negligence.
When a traffic law is violated, an injured person may also wish to sue under a theory of negligence per se. Negligence per se simply means that the defendant violated a law, so he is presumed to be negligent in the absence of a valid defense. It is important to note that establishing that a defendant violated a traffic law does not mean that the plaintiff automatically wins. The plaintiff must still prove that the negligence was the proximate cause of his injuries. Proximate cause requires a plaintiff to show that, in the exercise of ordinary care, the defendant might have foreseen that an injury would occur because of his negligent actions. Additionally, the defendant may defend against a negligence per se claim by showing that the violation was unintentional and in the exercise of ordinary care.
Negligence per se claims are different in truck accident cases. This is because trucks involved in interstate commerce are generally subject to both Georgia laws as well as federal regulations. Specifically, trucking companies are subject to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. This set of regulations is an intricate manual that tells a trucking company everything from how to hire drivers to the number of hours a driver may operate a truck.
Under these regulations, a person may not operate a commercial vehicle unless he is qualified to do so. A qualified driver must be at least 21, able to converse in English, safely operate the vehicle due to experience or training, be physically qualified, possesses a valid commercial license, have disclosed certain violations, passed a driver’s road test, and have not been disqualified.
Offenses that will disqualify a driver include driving a commercial vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or certain drugs, transporting or possessing such drugs, a felony involving a commercial vehicle, or leaving the scene of an accident while driving a commercial vehicle. Generally, a first offense will bar a driver for a year. Subsequent offenses will disqualify a driver for three years.
Drivers must also undergo physical examinations to ensure that they are healthy enough to operate their vehicles. This generally means that a driver must not have a history or diagnosis of a disease that could impair his ability to operate the vehicle safely. These conditions may include cardiovascular diseases, respiratory dysfunctions, muscular or vascular diseases, epilepsy, or psychiatric disorders.
Federal regulations also prescribe the number of hours a driver may operate his vehicle, and a driver must be sure to log these hours. In day-to-day operation, a truck driver cannot drive more than 11 cumulative hours after 10 hours off duty. Additionally, a driver generally may not operate his truck for any length of time after the end of the 14th hour after coming on duty following 10 successive hours off duty. In a week, a driver may not drive if he has been on duty 60 hours in any 7 successive days or has been on duty 70 hours in any period of 8 successive days if the employer operates commercial motor vehicles every day.
Additionally, a trucking company must obtain a list of all crashes and traffic tickets a driver has received over the past three years. A company must also find out from prior employers if a driver’s record showed any safety concerns including drugs or alcohol. Furthermore, an employer must review a driver’s record annually to decide if he meets the requirements for safe driving.
Companies must also systematically inspect and repair trucks and keep such records for a year. Drivers are required to inspect their vehicles before trips and make a report at the end of every day’s work concerning the vehicle. This report includes examining brakes, steering, tires, and other parts as well. The driver must note any defects and take corrective actions for defects that could pose safety hazards.
Truck accidents are also unique because newer trucks are often equipped with data recorders comparable to an airplane’s black box. This technology can help an expert rebuild what occurred during an accident.
An injured person may also sue the trucking company for the negligence of its driver under a doctrine of respondeat superior. Two elements must generally be present to render a trucking company liable for its driver’s actions under this doctrine. First, the driver must have been furthering the company’s business at the time of the accident. Second, the driver must have been acting within the scope of his duties.
A trucking company may also be liable under a theory of negligent hiring and retention. The appropriate standard of care in a negligent hiring or retention action is whether the company knew or should have known that its driver was not suited for his particular employment. The unique facts of each case determine whether this standard is met. Generally, the plaintiff must proffer some evidence that the trucking company knew or should have known that it hired an incompetent or unsafe driver.
In recovering damages, an injured party may request special and general damages. Special damages are damages that the plaintiff actually incurred as a result of the alleged negligence, such as medical bills, loss of employment, and lost profit. These damages must be pleaded completely and specifically in the complaint. General damages consist of such injuries as pain and suffering, and the plaintiff does not have to list a specific amount. If a death occurs, a plaintiff may be able to recover for the wrongful death or his or her decedent. The measure of a wrongful death recovery is the full value of the life of the decedent, an amount that includes an economic element and an intangible element.
Punitive damages are allowed when the defendant’s actions were deliberate or where they show an entire want of care and a conscious indifference to the consequences. Courts have allowed punitive damages in some cases such as when there was a hit and run. Punitive damages may also be permitted when an accident results from a pattern of dangerous driving, or when a trucking company directly or indirectly encourages dangerous driving through its own policies and procedures.
The information provided above is a very general summary of the law of automobile and truck accidents at the time this text was prepared. Because this analysis is subject to change depending upon recent cases and legal developments, you should not rely on this summary as legal advice. As with any important legal question, you should always consult a lawyer licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Our lawyers are licensed to practice in all state and federal courts in Georgia.