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Texas Court: Truck Driver not liable for accident with Motorcycle causing Injury

Below you will find an excellent lawyer written guest article authored by Maryland Personal Injury Attorney Ron Miller:

In a Texas case this month, Crum v. Goza, the Texas Court of Appeals had to decide whether to overturn a jury’s verdict in an trucking/motorcycle accident case. The facts are really interesting and I think it has a lot of application to what we are doing here in Rhode Island.

Crum was a police officer assigned to ride a motorcycle and escort a three-vehicle caravan because it included an eighteen-wheeler that had an oversized load. Before leaving, a planned route was devised and a permit was created. It was policy that any deviations from that route, when known ahead of time, were to be communicated to the caravan. Policy also required that navigation changes be noted on the permit.

Originally, the route was supposed to turn left on Highway 249 from Beltway Road. However, the police officer decided that route would create traffic problems, so he testified that he informed all members of the caravan that they were instead going to proceed straight on Beltway Road at the Highway 249 intersection.

The evidence and testimony about the change in plans was contradictory. There was no change noted on the permit. One member of the caravan gave a statement to the insurance company that he didn’t know about any change. At trial, however, he testified that he did know about the change. Another member of the caravan testified that there was no meeting about a change.

The defendant testified that informed the other drivers through his CB radio that he was moving left, and no one responded.

When guiding a caravan, the practice of the escorting police motorcycle is to ride to the left of the caravan, go ahead to any intersections, block traffic while the caravan moves through, and then drive to catch up and overtake, repeating the process at the next intersection. The defendant switched from the right lane to the next lane to prepare for a left-turn, as originally intended. As he moved one lane further to the left (the left turn-only lane), he collided into the police motorcycle, which was on the left and moving forward to overtake the caravan, in order to clear the intersection.

The jury found that the plaintiff was negligent for the accident, and any negligence by the defendant did not cause the accident.

The plaintiff appealed, and pinned his hopes on a negligence per se argument. Negligence per se is a legal shortcut—the jury doesn’t have to decide if the defendant followed the “reasonable person standard,” but it allows a jury to decide that violation of a rule is automatically a breach of duty. In this case, the plaintiff argued that the rule, as contained in the Texas transportation code, precluded a driver from merging into another lane when it is unsafe to do so.

The Court agreed with the jury’s verdict, and relied on the jury’s presumable understanding of the evidence: the truck driver was intending to move left, announced his intention to do so without contradiction, looked into his rear-view mirror to see the police officer stopped at the previous intersection, began his merge, and then collided into the motorcycle when the motorcycle sped up.

I have to think that the jury got this wrong. The rule is clear, and known to us all. It is unacceptable to merge into a lane where another vehicle is. The motorcycle, with its flashing lights, should have been visible. An eighteen-wheeler cannot merge that quickly, meaning that it is unlikely that he started the merge well before the motor cyclist was in the way. It seems pretty clear that he simply didn’t see the police officer.

In a state like Maryland, even if the truck driver was found negligent, the plaintiff might still lose the war. Texas, like Rhode Island, has modified comparative negligence, which means that a plaintiff cannot recover for his injuries if his negligence is over 50% of the reason for those injuries. If his negligence is 50% or less, then he recovers for the full amount of his damages, minus the percentage of his negligence. Maryland, on the other hand, currently has contributory negligence. The plaintiff’s negligence, even if it is 0.000001%, is a complete bar to recovery (though this might change in the near future). If the jury decided that the plaintiff was negligent, either because he failed to inform the team of the route change, or because he sped up while watching the truck driver merge to the left, he would be completely out of luck.

On the other hand, this case really shows how hard it is to disrupt a jury’s verdict. That is a good thing. It’s a big responsibility for a court to take a jury’s verdict away—the jury is the conscience of the community, and we have relied on a jury of our peers to weigh the evidence in cases for over 200 years.

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