The Tennessee Court of appeals recently affirmed a jury’s defense verdict in a rear-end car crash case in Hicks v. Prahl, No. E2013-00285-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 25, 2014). Plaintiff was driving on an entrance ramp trying to merge onto a highway when, according to her testimony, she slowed down to negotiate a sharp curve on the entrance ramp and was rear-ended by defendant’s vehicle. Defendant, on the other hand, testified that plaintiff slowed to a complete stop twice while attempting to merge onto the highway, the second of which immediately preceded the collision. According to defendant, plaintiff came to a complete stop on the entrance ramp and then began moving forward again. Defendant then rotated her neck over her left shoulder to look for approaching traffic and lifted her foot off the brake, causing her car to move forward. Defendant testified that when she returned to looking ahead she discovered that plaintiff had stopped in front of her again. Defendant stated that she quickly applied her brakes but was not able to avoid crashing into the rear end of plaintiff’s car. Defendant explained that she had no reason to suspect that plaintiff would stop a second time because the curve on the entrance ramp allowed defendant to see that there were no cars in front of plaintiff’s car and no other reason for such a stop.
Plaintiff was talking on her cell phone at the time of the crash. Plaintiff’s daughter testified that she was talking with her mother who was using the speaker phone while driving. Daughter and husband also corroborated plaintiff’s testimony about the sharp curve on the entrance ramp requiring significant deceleration. The opinion mentions that plaintiff amended her complaint to seek $1.5 million dollars in damages, although there’s no description of plaintiff’s injuries, medical expenses, or other damages. Plaintiff refused medical treatment at the scene because she did not think it was a “major accident,” but she did go to the emergency room later that day.
At trial, plaintiff testified that she did not ever stop on the entrance ramp while attempting to merge onto the highway, but instead she merely lifted her foot off the gas pedal. When impeached with the averment in the complaint that she was “stopped to wait for traffic,” plaintiff testified that the pleading was in error. Plaintiff also testified that she could not remember making the statements to personnel in the emergency room that she was rear-ended while “sitting stopped in her car.”
Plaintiff appealed the jury’s unanimous defense verdict, claiming that there was no material evidence to support it. The standard of review required the appellate court to take the strongest legitimate view of all the evidence in favor of the verdict, assuming the truth of all evidence that supports the verdict, allowing all reasonable inferences to sustain the verdict, and discarding all countervailing evidence. In so doing, the appellate court determined that defendant did not breach any duty of care owed to plaintiff because it was not unreasonable for defendant to expect plaintiff to continue moving forward into the merge lane and for defendant to look over her shoulder to check for oncoming traffic. Thus there was material evidence in the record to support the jury’s finding that defendant was not negligent.
Plaintiff also argued that the trial court erred in allowing defendant to assert comparative fault based on plaintiff being on her cell phone with her daughter at the time of the crash. Defendant responded on appeal, and the court of appeals agreed, that the issue of comparative fault is irrelevant because the jury found that defendant was without fault and therefore never reached the issue of whether plaintiff was comparatively at fault.
Plaintiff’s final argument on appeal asserted that the trial court made comments in front of the jury that amounted to prejudicial and reversible error. Despite several admonishments by the court and a bench conference outside the presence of the jury, plaintiff’s counsel continued to pursue a line of questioning that the court found to be a misrepresentation of the pleadings and procedural posture of the case. After a thorough review of the transcript, the appellate court found that the trial court’s comments did not amount to reversible error.
Without more information about what happened during trial, my guess is that the jury simply found the defendant to be more credible, especially in light of plaintiff’s conflicting statements on whether she ever stopped on the entrance ramp prior to the collision. Regardless, this case serves as a good reminder that just because you have a client who was rear-ended by another vehicle does not mean that you always have a case of clear liability. Facts and other circumstances (such as plaintiff’s credibility and demeanor during trial) can still lead jurors to find that the rear driver was not a fault.
One also has to wonder whether the demand of $1,500,000 had anything to do with the jury’s attitude in this case. We know nothing about the injuries, the medical expenses, or other losses. But a demand of $1,500,000 in a case where (a) both vehicles were driving at a slow rate of speed; (b) both vehicles were operational after the incident; and (c) the plaintiff did not leave the scene in an ambulance or even go to the ER until later that day raises some questions in my mind about how one could see $1,500,000 in damages.
Now, before I get a bunch of angry comments and emails, yes, I know it is possible for one to have life-altering injuries in such situations. I get it. But I also know that if – just if- the jury thought the plaintiff was seeking to much money they may well punish her for doing so.