Evidence of car accident occurring not enough to support negligence claim.

Where defendant driver stated that the accident that injured plaintiff passenger was due to her swerving to avoid a wild animal that unexpectedly entered the roadway, and plaintiff “presented no evidence of negligence on the part of the defendant,” summary judgment for defendant was affirmed by the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

In Owings v. Owings, No. E2021-01330-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 3570880 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 19, 2022), plaintiff was a passenger while defendant was driving. According to defendant, she swerved to avoid hitting a deer that jumped out in front of her, causing her to hit two or three parked vehicles. Defendant was allegedly injured during the accident and filed this negligence suit.

During plaintiff’s deposition, he stated that defendant had “done what she had to do” and “acknowledged that he did not think she had done anything wrong.” Plaintiff also stated that defendant had told him that “something jumped out in front of her,” but that he did not see the animal.

Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, citing plaintiff’s own deposition as evidence. The trial court granted the motion, ruling that “Plaintiff had presented no proof of anything that the defendant did that was negligent,” and summary judgment was affirmed on appeal.

A plaintiff claiming negligence must show that a duty of care was owed and breached by the defendant. (internal citation omitted). While defendant here did not dispute that she owed a duty of reasonable care to plaintiff as a passenger in her vehicle, the issue was whether that duty was breached. A breach of duty “cannot be presumed…simply because an accident occurred.” (internal citation omitted). “To prove negligence at trial, Plaintiff would have to demonstrate that Defendant’s conduct was below the standard of care for a driver exercising reasonable care and that such conduct was the cause in fact and legal cause of the accident and Plaintiff’s injuries.”

Because plaintiff and plaintiff’s counsel had essentially admitted that there was an animal in the roadway, plaintiff’s primary argument was “that a disputed issue of material fact remain[ed] regarding whether swerving to avoid an animal in the road was a negligent action.” The Court stated that plaintiff was essentially arguing that “the absence of proof that anyone other than Defendant was at fault for the accident means that she was one-hundred percent at fault,” an argument the Court quickly rejected.

In affirming summary judgment, the Court explained:

As the nonmoving party, Plaintiff was required in response to Defendant’s motion to do more than simply show that there was some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts and demonstrate the existence of specific facts in the record which could lead a rational trier of fact to find in favor of Plaintiff. Plaintiff has presented no evidence of any negligent action (or inaction) taken by Defendant. …The problem with Plaintiff’s argument is that it is based entirely on speculation and points to no facts demonstrating that Defendant’s actions were negligent except that an accident occurred and that Defendant was driving.

(internal citations omitted).

The Court rejected plaintiff’s argument that defendant needed expert proof regarding the safest way for a driver to react to an animal in the road, as well as plaintiff’s argument that one-hundred percent of the fault had to be distributed to the people involved in the accident. Instead, the Court agreed with defendant that this accident was “unavoidable,” as Plaintiff had failed to present any proof that Defendant was negligent in this case.

The Court concluded by emphasizing that “negligence is never presumed from an accident alone but must be proved by either direct or circumstantial evidence, or both,” and it affirmed summary judgment for defendant. (internal citation omitted). This case is a good reminder that a successful negligence claim requires more than just proof of an accident or an injury.

This opinion was released three months after oral arguments in this case.

Note:  Chapter 73, Section 6 and Chapter 106, Section 1 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.

Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law contains summaries of leading cases on over 500 topics and citations to more than 1500 additional cases.  The 500,000+ word book  (and two others, Tennessee Law of Civil Trial and Compendium of Tennessee Tort Reform Cases) is available by subscription at www.birddoglaw.com and is continually updated as new decisions and statutes impact Tennessee law.  Click on the link to see the book’s Table of Contents.

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