Bench trial verdict for plaintiff in truck wreck case based largely on credibility affirmed.

Where the trial court found plaintiff 25% at fault and defendant 75% at fault in a negligence case related to a crash between a car and tractor trailer, the Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict for plaintiff.

In Kindred v. Townsend, No. W2021-01481-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App Dec. 7, 2022), plaintiff filed this negligence suit against defendant and defendant’s employer based on a motor vehicle accident. Defendant was driving a tractor trailer while employed by defendant employer, and she turned left at an intersection. There was contradictory testimony regarding whether the traffic light was giving a green turn signal, a yellow turn signal, or a permissive green light when defendant began her turn. Plaintiff was approaching from the opposite direction and was not yet to the intersection when the light for her lane turned green. She proceeded through the light without slowing down, and her car and defendant’s tractor trailer collided.

During the bench trial, the trial court heard testimony from the parties, the patrolman who responded to the accident, a city traffic engineer, three eye-witnesses and two experts. Much of the testimony focused on the color and timing of the defendant’s traffic signal. After hearing all the evidence, the trial court found that defendant entered the intersection on a permissive light and that defendant was 75% at fault, and it assigned plaintiff 25% of the fault for the accident. The trial court awarded plaintiff significant damages, including over $1.5 million in economic damages and over $1.4 million in noneconomic damages (which was reduced by the statutory cap), and it found defendant employer vicariously liable. Defendants appealed this ruling.

On appeal, defendants argued that defendant driver “did not breach her duty of care because she initiated her turn while the traffic signal governing her lane of traffic was a green arrow, and her turn was protected; the arrow turned yellow after [defendant] entered the intersection; and [defendant] had no way to know how much time would elapse between the protected green arrow and the permissive green ball.” In its analysis, the Court of Appeals reviewed the testimony of all the witnesses and the credibility determinations made by the trial court. In affirming the trial court’s ruling, the Court of Appeals explained:

In a non-jury case, the record comes to us with a presumption of correctness as to the trial court’s factual determinations that we must honor unless the evidence preponderates otherwise. The evidence in this case clearly demonstrates that the traffic light governing [defendant’s] left turn cycled from a protected green arrow to yellow at least seven-to-eight seconds before the collision occurred. On review of the record…, we conclude that the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s findings that: (1) [defendant] attempted a left hand turn…when her turn could not be safely completed, and (2) at the time of [defendant’s] turn, the traffic light for oncoming traffic…had changed to green. Furthermore, the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s apportionment of fault…[.]

(internal citations omitted). Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

This case hinged on findings of fact and witness credibility, and this opinion illustrates how difficult it can be to appeal a judgment based largely on credibility determinations.

This opinion was released less than one month after oral arguments in this case.


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