Judgment For Plaintiff in Negligence Case Reversed on Appeal

In a somewhat rare move, the Tennessee Court of Appeals recently overturned a trial court’s ruling for plaintiff in a negligence case. In Tenn. Farmers Mut. Ins. Co. a/s/o Couch v. Jackson Madison School System Bd. of Educ., No. W2014-02218-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 15, 2015), plaintiff was driving a crop sprayer on a narrow, rural, unlined road. Plaintiff saw a school bus turn onto the road traveling towards the crop sprayer, and both parties agreed that there was not room for both vehicles on the road. According to the trial testimony, the sprayer would have had time to stop but chose not to do so. Plaintiff testified that had he stopped, the accident probably would have been avoided. Instead, plaintiff moved the right tires of the sprayer off the road and, after clearing the bus, the shoulder gave way and the sprayer fell into a ditch, causing fairly significant property damage. Plaintiff sued the bus driver for negligence, alleging that there was more unpaved shoulder on the bus’s side of the road and that the bus driver did not take reasonable care to move his vehicle as far right as possible to avoid the accident.

The trial court ruled that defendant bus driver “was negligent in failing to take reasonable action to avoid an accident under the circumstances that existed at the time of the accident and that the [bus driver] could have foreseen an accident happening through the use of reasonable care.” The Court of Appeals, however, overturned this ruling.

The bus was equipped with three cameras and a GPS device. Based on the bus driver’s testimony and the evidence from these devices, the Court noted that at the time the sprayer passed by the bus, the bus had slowed to four miles per hours, and that the bus completely stopped for a few seconds immediately after the sprayer passed. The sprayer, on the other hand, passed by the bus “at a considerably greater speed.” Further, the bus driver testified that while he did not pull off the road, he did pull over as far to the right side of the road as possible.

Considering this evidence, the Court of Appeals determined that it was “difficult to conclude that [the bus driver] breached a duty concerning roadway safety.” Pointing out that there is no precedent requiring a bus to pull completely off a roadway for another vehicle to pass, the Court reiterated that it was actually the sprayer that was taking up more than half the road and that it was undisputed that the bus was pulled to the edge of the pavement.

Even more than a breach of duty, though, the Court held that plaintiff had not proven causation. While the bus driver slowed down considerably and moved to the far right, the sprayer took no action to stop and continued traveling at about 15 miles per hour in a vehicle only able to go 30 miles per hour. The plaintiff had time to stop, but instead continued down the narrow road expecting the bus to take action to accommodate the extra large vehicle. The Court held that “[t]he evidence, in this regard, preponderates in favor of a finding that the cause in fact of the accident rests with [the sprayer driver’s] actions, or lack thereof.”

In addition, the Court pointed to a nuance of the plaintiff’s testimony wherein he stated that the sprayer had completely passed the bus before the shoulder gave way. The Court determined, based on this testimony, that the sprayer had its wheels off the road before passing the bus and after passing the bus. The Court interpreted this to indicate that “it was not the fact that the sprayer’s tires were off the pavement due to the bus’ location that caused the accident, but rather the fact that the ground gave way at the place where the sprayer went into the ditch.” In further support of this finding, the Court reasoned that there was no evidence that, after passing the bus, plaintiff tried to get his tires back on the road. According to the Court, plaintiff’s “failure to correct the sprayer back onto the road cannot be attributed to any action or inaction on [the bus driver’s] part.” The Court concluded that plaintiff failed to prove causation in fact and proximate cause, and accordingly reversed the trial court’s judgment.

Based on the evidence cited by the Court of Appeals, this result seems reasonable. It is always a bit surprising to see the Court overturn a fact-based decision, as the trial court’s findings of fact enjoy a presumption of correctness. But this case is a good reminder that with proper fact development and a good record, a party that loses at trial can sometimes convince the appellate court that the lower court got it wrong, even on fact heavy inquiries.