Court Rejects Assertion that Video of Crash Determined Fault Allocation as a Matter of Law

Even with video showing the crash, a court may find that there are issues of fact concerning fault allocation surrounding a car accident.

In Trammell v. Peoples, No. M2016-02198-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 11, 2017), plaintiffs were involved in a car accident with defendant. Defendant was driving a box truck “in the course and scope of his employment,” and the truck was equipped with a camera on the dash. The camera recorded twelve seconds, including the eight seconds before the crash and the four seconds after. The video showed defendant “traveling at a speed of approximately 60 miles per hour in a middle lane while passing a construction scene monitored by police vehicles immediately to the right.” Plaintiffs were shown traveling ahead of defendant in the far left lane. “In the four seconds before impact, [plaintiff driver] initiates his turn signal and begins to merge into [defendant’s] lane. Unable to slow in time, [defendant’s] truck collides with the vehicle operated by [plaintiff], causing it to spin.”

Plaintiffs filed this negligence suit alleging that defendant’s failure to keep his truck “under proper and reasonable control” was the cause of the accident. Defendants (the driver and his employer) filed a motion for summary judgment, relying on the video to show that plaintiff “was more than 50 percent at fault and that [defendant] acted as a reasonably prudent person would have under the circumstances…” In a deposition, defendant driver testified that plaintiff “swerved his vehicle into my lane of traffic directly in front of the box truck that I was driving causing my truck to collide with the read end of [plaintiffs’] vehicle,” and that there were no signs as he approached the construction on the side of the road indicating a speed limit of less than 65 miles per hour.

In response to the summary judgment motion, plaintiffs submitted affidavits from two individuals who claimed to have experience investigating traffic accidents and who each stated that, based on the video, they believed the accident was the fault of defendant driving too fast in a construction zone.

The trial court granted summary judgment to defendant, holding that “reasonable minds could not differ that [plaintiff driver] was 50 percent or more at fault for the accident,” but the Court of Appeals reversed.

The Court looked at three issues on appeal. First, it considered plaintiffs’ argument that the “court erred in granting summary judgment before discovery could be completed[.]” The Court noted that plaintiffs “requested and received additional time in which to conduct discovery,” and thus rejected this argument, finding that plaintiffs “were provided adequate time in which to respond to the summary judgment motion.”

Next, the Court examined defendants’ argument that the affidavits submitted by plaintiffs should have been excluded. The Court agreed with defendants here, finding that “[w]hether considered as lay or expert opinion testimony, the evidence offered was not helpful when the trier of fact could view the videotape and draw its own conclusion.” The affidavits were thus inadmissible.

Finally, the Court analyzed plaintiffs’ argument that there were genuine issues of material fact regarding the allocation of fault. The Court first noted that a duty existed here due to Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-136(b), which states that “every driver of a vehicle shall exercise due care by operating the vehicle at a safe speed…under the existing circumstances…” It then rejected defendants’ assertion that the video conclusively showed that plaintiff was at least 50 percent at fault for the accident. The Court found that “reasonably minds could differ as to the allocation of fault and whether [defendant] acted as a reasonable person.” According to the Court of Appeals, “[w]hile the recording established that [plaintiff] changed lanes in an abrupt fashion, the recording also established that [defendant] did not slow his speed while passing a construction area with police presence.” The Court ruled that there were fact issues surrounding whether defendant “breached a duty to exercise due care under the existing circumstances[,]” and summary judgment was thus reversed.