Trial court’s fault allocation in motor vehicle accident case affirmed.

Where the trial court found in a bench trial that plaintiff was 20% at fault for a motor vehicle accident and the bus driver was 80% at fault, that ruling was affirmed based on the testimony of the witnesses and findings of fact of the trial judge.

In Cook v. Jefferson County, Tennessee, No. E2022-01537-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 12, 2023), plaintiff was seriously injured and totaled his car when he crashed into a bus on a foggy morning. The accident occurred in a school zone, and the bus was stopped across two lanes of traffic, blocking both lanes, as it attempted to turn left out of the school exit.

Defendant presented testimony from an accident reconstructionist who opined that plaintiff had been traveling 15-20 miles over the 25 mile per hour school zone speed limit when he first began braking, and that plaintiff was the cause of the accident. On cross examination, however, the expert admitted that, due to the foggy conditions, plaintiff would not have been able to stop in time to avoid an accident even if he had not been speeding.

The trial judge ultimately ruled that plaintiff was 20% at fault and the bus driver, and thereby defendant county school board, was 80% at fault. On appeal, that ruling was affirmed.

On appeal, defendant argued that the trial court “fail[ed] to consider the unrebutted testimony” of the expert accident reconstructionist. The Court, however, noted that “expert testimony is not conclusive, even if uncontradicted, but is merely purely advisory in character, and the trier of fact may place whatever weight it chooses on such testimony.” (internal citation omitted). Here, although the expert opined that plaintiff was at fault, he also admitted that the accident would have occurred even if plaintiff had not been speeding. The expert testified that the accident would have been less serious had plaintiff not been speeding, but the Court stated that “the nature and amount of damage to person or property are not material” to whether the trial court erred by ignoring the expert’s testimony. The Court of Appeals ruled that there was no error in the trial court’s consideration of the expert’s opinion.

Defendant also challenged the trial court’s allocation of fault, arguing that plaintiff was at least 50% at fault here. The Court noted that the trial court made “eight pages of findings of fact and conclusions of law,” and that the trial court found that the bus driver violated company policy and state law by stopping and blocking two lanes of traffic. Moreover, the trial court stated that it found “a credibility issue with the bus driver’s position and testimony” based on inconsistencies therein. While defendant attempted to argue the sudden emergency and last clear chance doctrine, the Court pointed out that these doctrines “have been subsumed into Tennessee’s system of comparative fault.” (internal citation omitted). Because the trial court properly considered “the drivers’ respective duties according to the ‘rules of the road’ in rendering its fault allocations,” the Court found no error and affirmed the ruling.

After finding that the county school board was the proper party and that the county should have been dismissed, the ruling of the trial court as to fault was affirmed.

This case hinged on findings of fact and credibility, and as seen here, such findings are difficult to have overturned on appeal.

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

Note:  Chapter 81, Section 24 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.

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