In a recent opinion, Long v. Greyhound Lines, Inc., 203 Tenn.App. LEXIS 405 (Tenn.Ct.App. 2013), the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to two of the defendants involved in a multiple vehicle accident involving tractor trailers and a Greyhound bus. The decision is interesting to lawyers practicing in the area of personal injury, because of its strong affirmation of the legal principle that negligence (and causation) are not amenable to summary judgment. The decision should also be of some interest to lay persons, because, in essence, it puts the question to the jury of whether a motorist doing nothing more than “rubber necking” at the scene of a prior accident can or should be held liable for causing a subsequent accident.
In the Long case, the plaintiff (Ms. Long) was involved in a collision with an eighteen-wheeler truck on Interstate 40 in Tennessee. Ms. Long’s car was smashed and rendered inoperable in the left lane of the highway. Following that collision, another large truck stopped on the right shoulder (emergency lane) of the highway to render assistance. Ms. Long, at some point, crossed the road on foot (or was carried across) to wait for help in the emergency lane. Another car, shortly thereafter, came across the scene and — inexplicably — stopped in the right hand lane. Because there were only two lanes, the highway was now completely blocked. A Greyhound bus then came across the scene of the accident and, unable to stop in time, hit the car which had stopped in the right hand lane, pushing it into the truck parked in the emergency lane and pinning the driver and plaintiff (Ms. Long), causing severe spinal fractures.
The trial court had granted summary judgment to the driver of the late arriving car, finding that as a matter of law her actions in stopping her car were not negligent. It was this decision that the Court of Appeals reversed. In essence, the Court found that there was conflicting testimony in the record about where exactly each of the vehicles was stopped and why. There was evidence that this vehicle was not forced to stop at all, but could have continued traveling past the accident. Or, if they wanted to stop to render assistance, they should have pulled off on to the shoulder. The evidence, however, would support a finding that they stopped without regard to other traffic on the road and thus made a minor accident into a serious one, resulting in permanent and serious spinal injuries. Whether the driver of the second car should be held responsible was determined by the Tennessee Court of Appeals to be a question for the jury.
As I said above, the opinion is of interest to injury lawyers and can be used to urge lower courts to allow all theories of negligence in a particular case to go the jury. In our legal system, judges should not be deciding what actions are negligent and what actions are not — that is a factual question for a jury. For non-lawyers, or really for highway drivers out there, “don’t stop to rubberneck!” There are so many examples of tragic accidents over the years that happen after an initial highway collision, when drivers or witnesses don’t properly move their vehicles out of the way or themselves create hazards and cause collisions.