It’s not uncommon in situations where multiple vehicles crash on the same road in short succession that authorities and/ or insurance companies will find one or more drivers at-fault – even if the at-fault driver(s) didn’t directly strike the victim. The question is whether the person alleged to be at-fault took action that proximately caused the other vehicles to crash.
However, when there is no direct contact, proving causation can be difficult. This is especially true when a certain amount of time has elapsed between one collision and another, as a recent case before the South Dakota Supreme Court showed.
According to court records, a motorcyclist attending a weekend motorcycle rally was traveling on eastbound on his bike along a curved highway. At around 3 p.m. this motorcyclist, who it was later determined was impaired, turned one of those curves at a high rate of speed and drove into a ditch. The impact of that collision killed him.
Neither his motorcycle nor any of the related debris was obstructing the highway. State highway patrol troopers got there about eight minutes later to investigate the accident. One of the troopers was stationed on a curve near the crash site to alert motorists coming in the other direction. However, there was no trooper stationed on the other side of the highway.
At 4:39 p.m., about one hour and 40 minutes after the fatal motorcycle accident, another motorcyclist was approaching that same curve – the one with no trooper ahead to warn of the crash. As he rounded that same curve, described by the biker as a “blind corner,” he encountered a motor home that was stopped directly in his lane of travel. There was a vehicle approaching in the other direction, so the biker couldn’t veer into the other lane. His only choice was to slam on his own brakes to avoid crashing into the motor home. He lost control of his motorcycle, crashed and was seriously injured.
The second motorcyclist sued the estate of the decedent motorcyclist for personal injury. He alleged the first motorcyclist was negligent by driving drunk and speeding and that his actions, resulting in a crash, created a dangerous condition that proximately caused plaintiff’s injuries.
Defendant estate moved for summary judgment, conceding that while decedent was negligent in causing his own accident, he was not the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries. Specifically, defendant argued the estate was relieved of liability because the state troopers failed to warn westbound traffic of the crash, which defense argued was the superseding cause of the crash.
Circuit court denied estate’s motion for summary judgment, finding there were genuine issues of material fact in dispute as to whether defendant’s negligence proximately caused plaintiff’s crash. State petitioned for a discretionary appeal, which was granted by the state supreme court.
State supreme court justices reversed. The court ruled that where a substantial amount of time had elapsed, the initial crash didn’t obstruct the road and the later crash was caused by distraction/ law enforcement having taken control of the scene/ other circumstances, an initial negligent defendant won’t be liable for injuries suffered in a subsequent crash as a matter of law.
Call Fort Lauderdale Injury Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Howard v. Bennett, April 19, 2017, South Dakota Supreme Court
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Manufacturers Recall Defective Bikes for Safety Hazards, March 29, 2017, Motorcycle Accident Lawyer Blog