Summary judgment overturned in car accident case.

Where there were questions of fact regarding how much mud was on a road and whether defendants were the cause of the mud, the Court of Appeal reversed summary judgment for defendant trucking company in a car accident negligence case.

In Sullivan v. Carden, No. E2022-01234-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 14, 2023), plaintiff had a car accident when he allegedly hit a patch of frozen mud on a rural road. Plaintiff filed this negligence action against defendant trucking company and its owner, asserting that “his accident was caused by Defendants’ failure to remove excessive mud they had deposited onto the rural road he drove on.”

Defendants were running a logging operation in the area. The access road to the logging site was gravel, and only the logging equipment touched the mud/dirt rather than the gravel. Two days before the accident, the logging equipment was loaded onto trailers and driven to another site. Plaintiff argued that defendants’ actions caused mud on the road to the extent that it created an unreasonably dangerous condition. Plaintiff had a witness who stated that he had taken photos of frozen mud on the road at the site of the accident, that he had seen mud streaming from the logging site, and that he had seen another driver slip on the mud.

Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. The trial court stated that mud was naturally occurring and very common in rural areas, and that it was not an “inherently dangerous substance.” It also stated that “a duty to clean the mud off the road or to clean their vehicles before they enter the roadway would be unduly burdensome and virtually impossible and/or practical to impose upon trucks.” On appeal, summary judgment on the negligence claim was reversed.

While the Court of Appeals agreed with defendants that “whether a duty exists is a question of law,” it found that “there are questions of fact relevant to the legal determination of whether a duty exists.” Based on the evidence presented, the Court explained that there were questions as to how much mud was present, whether the mud froze, whether the risk of injury was foreseeable, and whether the defendants were the ones who deposited the mud onto the roadway. The Court also noted that defendants had not presented evidence of other logging operations that might have been the cause of the mud or shown that the county had notice of the mud, which could affect the existence of a duty.

Because there were genuine issues of material fact, the Court of Appeals reserved summary judgment. The Court also noted that, due to the reversal of summary judgment on the negligence claim, plaintiff’s statutory argument based on a criminal statute was “superfluous.”

This opinion is notable for future car accident cases, as plaintiff somewhat tenuous direct evidence tying defendant to the mud, but he nonetheless managed to get summary judgment reversed.

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

Note:  Chapter 81, Sections 4 and 12 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law have been updated to include this decision.

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