Where defendant was driving a truck that had a blowout on the interstate, defendant did not have a duty to remove the tire debris from the road.
In Walker v. McMillin, No. M2020-01507-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 420666 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 11, 2022), plaintiff was injured in a one-car accident caused by tire debris on the interstate. The tire debris came from a blowout on defendant’s truck, which occurred around 5-7 minutes before the accident. After the blowout, defendant slowed and pulled onto the shoulder of the road about half a mile away from the debris. Defendant set out triangle warnings around his truck and called a tire service provider and his employer.
Plaintiff filed this negligence suit against defendant truck driver and his employer one month after the accident. Plaintiff sent defendants an evidence preservation notice, which included a request that defendants preserve the tires that were on the truck, but the old tires were not preserved.
After hearings and additional briefings, the trial court granted summary judgment to defendants on all claims. The trial court found that there was no evidence that defendant calling law enforcement would have changed the outcome; that there was no evidence regarding negligent failure to maintain the tire because there was no evidence of what caused the tire to fail; and that defendant did not have a duty to remove the tire debris from the road. On appeal, the trial court’s ruling was affirmed.
Duty is an essential element of any negligence case, and a critical issue in this case was whether defendant had a duty to remove the tire debris from the road after the blowout. When considering whether a duty exists, several factors are to be considered, including “the foreseeable probability of the harm or injury occurring” and “the relative costs and burdens associated with” the defendant engaging in safer conduct. (internal citation omitted). In light of the dangers of entering an active interstate to remove debris, the trial court found that defendant did not have a duty to remove the tire remnants from the roadway, and the Court of Appeals agreed. The Court explained:
[R]etrieving the tire tread would have required [defendant] to walk—or run—into the middle of an active interstate highway. This cannot be described as relatively safe conduct given the high rate of speed at which motorists drive on closed-access highways such as Interstate 24. We recognize that…the presence of a large tire tread in the middle of an interstate highway poses a foreseeable risk of harm or injury to motorists. Nonetheless, requiring [defendant] to traverse the highway, gather the debris, and return to the shoulder would simply compound the risk of harm. The same reasoning applies to [defendant’s] alleged duty to warn others about the tire tread. …Like walking onto an interstate to retrieve tire debris, walking onto an interstate highway to place additional objects around the tire debris cannot be described as relatively safe conduct.
Accordingly, the Court affirmed the finding that defendant had no duty to remove the debris or place warnings on the road.
The Court next looked at plaintiff’s allegation that defendant negligently failed to call law enforcement after the blowout. There was deposition testimony from a police officer stating that it likely would have taken police around nine minutes to respond to a call, but plaintiff failed to cite to that evidence in his response to defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Instead, he simply admitted to defendant’s statement that 5-7 minutes passed between the blowout and the accident and submitted no additional statement of material facts. Because there was no evidence to support the assertion that calling police would have protected against the crash, summary judgment on this ruling was affirmed.
Finally, the Court affirmed the ruling that plaintiff was not entitled to any sanction based on defendant’s spoliation of the tire evidence. The trial court essentially ruled that plaintiff’s arguments regarding spoliation were “too-little-too-late,” as plaintiff learned about the tire being lost in 2013, more than six years before plaintiff asked the trial court to impose sanctions in a Motion for Reconsideration filed after defendant’s first motion for summary judgment was partially granted in 2020. The Court of Appeals found that the trial court used the correct standard in analyzing this issue, and it agreed that the trial court’s decision was “not outside the range of acceptable dispositions.” Summary judgment for defendant was therefore affirmed.
The biggest takeaway here is the Court’s ruling that defendant did not have a duty to remove the tire debris from the interstate, as this is the first Tennessee case to address this issue. While the presence of debris in the roadway created a risk, the Court found that the danger of removing it, both to defendant and to other drivers, outweighed any benefit of such action.
This opinion was released one month after oral arguments in this case.
Note: Chapter 30, Section 1 and Chapter 73, Section 6 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.
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