Circumstantial evidence of car accident cause not sufficient.

Where plaintiff offered only circumstantial evidence consisting of witnesses’ opinions of what might have caused a car accident, summary judgment for defendants was affirmed.

In Wright v. Doe, No. W2023-00084-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 17, 2024), plaintiff filed suit against a tow truck driver and the company for which he worked. During the underlying car accident, plaintiff was stopped on the right shoulder of the interstate behind a disabled vehicle. The tow truck was in front of the disabled vehicle, and though it was parked on the shoulder, it also protruded into the far right lane. While the tow truck was present, an unidentified driver left the roadway and struck plaintiff’s vehicle, injuring plaintiff, then fled the scene.

Plaintiff filed this suit, asserting that the accident was caused by the negligence of the tow truck driver. Plaintiff claimed negligence, negligence per se, and negligent hiring, supervision and training against defendants, all of which require “proof of both causation in fact and proximate cause.”

Defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis that plaintiff could not show causation. The trial court agreed, granting summary judgment to defendant, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

When responding to defendants’ motion for summary judgment, plaintiff relied on the testimony of two witnesses. One stated that she thought the unidentified driver was in the middle lane, then must have swerved toward the shoulder due to traffic congestion caused by the tow truck. She stated that a vehicle might have stopped in front of the driver, but she did not know what it looked like. The other witness stated that he believed the driver was looking for a clear lane of traffic. He thought that the driver’s brakes may have locked up.

Both witnesses gave their opinions on what could have happened, which the Court of Appeals ruled was not enough to defeat summary judgment. The Court noted that both witnesses were reporting their theories, and that “[t]his sort of conjecture is simply not enough to establish causation by a preponderance of the evidence.”

After reviewing cases where circumstantial evidence was found to be both sufficient and insufficient to “support a finding of fact,” the Court concluded that the testimony offered here was too tenuous. The Court wrote:

[T]he testimony here requires a two-step analysis to connect the conduct of [defendants] to Mr. Wright’s injuries. The witnesses do not state that the tow truck alone caused John Doe to hit Mr. Wright’s vehicle on the shoulder. Instead, they explain that the tow truck created congestion that in turn caused John Doe to head toward the obstacle in the right-hand lane, leave the roadway, and strike Mr. Wright’s vehicle. But even when we take the evidence in the light most favorable to Mr. Wright and accept arguendo that the tow truck caused congestion, we simply do not know “where [John Doe] came from, how [he] got there,” and hence, whether his conduct stemmed from the location of the tow truck, or even from the congestion allegedly created by the location of the tow truck. Thus, … [plaintiffs] have failed to establish that [defendants]’ conduct was more likely than not the cause of John Doe entering the shoulder and striking Mr. Wright’s vehicle.

Because the evidence linking the accident to the tow truck’s position is so tenuous, particularly given that the undisputed facts establish that John Doe’s actions involved him moving toward the obstruction, rather than away from it, Mr. Wright’s proof does little to eliminate the possibility that other factors were the cause of John Doe’s decision to cross at least one lane of traffic. And as [defendants] pointed out at the summary judgment hearing, there are other reasonable explanations for John Doe’s behavior: “Maybe it was a bee that was in the car. Maybe he was on the phone with someone. Maybe he was high. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe he was just going too fast[.]” The narrative the witnesses have created, in which John Doe crossed at least one lane of traffic and then left the roadway to avoid hitting another vehicle as a result of congestion caused by the positioning of the tow truck, while plausible, is no more likely than these other possible rationales.

(internal citation omitted). Because plaintiff could not establish causation, summary judgment was affirmed.

Here, the circumstantial evidence in the form of opinions from lay people was not enough to support a finding of proximate cause or causation in fact. This opinion includes a summary of several cases where circumstantial evidence was used to support the element of causation, and it would be a helpful read for anyone attempting to do the same.

The Court of Appeals released this opinion three months after oral arguments.



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