• Tennessee Court Extends Duty of Truck Drivers to Encompass Protecting Other Drivers from the Actions of Third Parties
  • May 6, 2008 | Author: Sheri A. Fox
  • Law Firm: Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC - Chattanooga Office
  • J.B. Hunt driver Sean Hansen successfully avoided a direct collision with a truck that had slowed and almost stopped directly in front of him. However, Hansen and his employer were not able to avoid a jury verdict holding them 25 percent at fault for the injuries sustained by the drivers of the truck when the rig following directly behind Hansen slammed into their vehicle, pushing it into a third eighteen wheeler stopped in construction-zone traffic.

    In Knight v. Flanary & Sons Trucking, Inc., the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the jury verdict finding that Hansen's negligence was a cause of and a substantial factor in bringing about the Plaintiffs' injuries. Knight v. Flanary & Sons Trucking, Inc., 2006 Tenn. App. LEXIS 433 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 29, 2006).

    The accident. The accident occurred at approximately 4:00 p.m. on August 7, 2002, in Madison County, Tennessee. Three brothers, Brian Knight, M. Chance Dudley and Chad Dudley (collectively, Plaintiffs), were riding together in a pickup truck pulling a U-Haul trailer. Plaintiffs were driving westbound on Interstate 40 in the far right lane. Hansen was traveling directly behind them. Immediately behind Hansen was another eighteen wheeler being driven by Patrick Sturm for Flanary & Sons Trucking.

    At some point, the parties entered a construction zone and traffic slowed, causing the Plaintiffs to slow and almost stop behind another eighteen wheeler stuck in a line of traffic. Hansen, who was immediately behind the Plaintiffs, was unable to stop his truck in time, so he veered right into the emergency lane to avoid a direct collision with the truck. Hansen managed to miss the Plaintiffs' truck, but struck the top right rear corner of the U-Haul. After Hansen swerved, Sturm was unable to stop and drove his truck directly into the U-Haul and then into the Plaintiffs' truck, forcing it into the eighteen-wheeler truck in front of them. The Plaintiffs' truck caught fire, and all three brothers suffered serious personal injuries.

    The trial. The Plaintiffs filed suit in Madison County Circuit Court. Sturm and Flanary Trucking were able to settle with the Plaintiffs before trial; however, the Plaintiffs proceeded to trial against Hansen and J.B. Hunt. After a three-day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiffs, and found Hansen and J.B. Hunt 25 percent at fault for Plaintiffs' injuries.

    The appeal. Hansen and J.B. Hunt appealed, claiming that the evidence at trial showed that the intervening negligent conduct of Sturm was the sole proximate cause and the cause-in-fact of the Plaintiffs' damages. They also argued that they had no duty to control the conduct of the second truck driver, a third party. Hansen and J.B. Hunt did not claim that Hansen was not negligent. Instead, they argued that, because the truck driven by Hansen did not actually strike the Plaintiffs' truck, Hansen and J.B. Hunt could not be held legally responsible for the Plaintiffs' injuries.

    The Court of Appeals decision. The Court affirmed the jury's verdict, holding that the evidence at trial was sufficient to show that Hansen's conduct was the proximate cause or the cause-in-fact of the accident.

    The Court addressed causation in fact, or 'but for' causation, stating that "[i]n order to establish 'but for' causation, it is not necessary that the defendant's act be the sole cause of the plaintiff's injury, only that it be a cause." In reviewing the evidence, the Court found that, despite the construction warnings and the fact that the Plaintiffs had stopped, Hansen was unable to stop his truck in time to avoid striking them without veering off the road. The evidence further showed that Hansen did not apply his brakes before veering off the road. Thus, Sturm, who ultimately hit and injured the brothers, was unable to see that traffic was slowing and unable to see the Plaintiffs' vehicle until after Hansen had veered off the road.

    The Court then addressed the issue of proximate cause. The Court found that "Hansen's conduct was a 'substantial factor' in bringing about the Plaintiffs' injuries. Had Hansen operated his truck in a manner that was not negligent, the entire accident may have been avoided, or at least the injuries suffered by the Plaintiffs likely would not have been so severe."

    Finally, the Court addressed Hansen and J.B. Hunt's argument that they owed no duty to the Plaintiffs after Hansen avoided colliding with them; thus, that they had no duty to control the conduct of the second truck driver, a third party. The Court agreed that "persons do not have a duty to control the conduct of other persons to prevent them from causing physical harm to others." However, the Court found that Hansen and J.B. Hunt were not being held liable for injuries caused by Sturm's conduct, but instead were being held liable as a result of Hansen's own negligence and the resulting consequences. The Court determined that "the injuries suffered by the Plaintiffs fell within the range of the risks created by Hansen's negligence," and that Hansen, "[t]herefore, had a duty of care to the Plaintiffs, and that duty was breached."

    The moral. The duty owed by Tennessee drivers to other drivers on the road appears to have been extended by the Court of Appeals. It is no longer sufficient to operate a motor vehicle so as to avoid mishaps with others on the roadways. Instead, drivers now also must do what they can to protect their fellow drivers from the actions of third parties.