Large truck accidents – particularly when they also involve passenger vehicles – cause some of the most devastating injuries due to the size disparity. Often people in passenger vehicles stand little chance of avoiding injury when they collide with semi-trucks.
Truck crash lawsuits can be tricky because there are often numerous stakeholders involved in the transportation process, including the carriers, independent contractor drivers, truck owners and others. When crashes involve numerous trucks and passenger vehicles, questions of liability can become even more complex.
This was the case in Baumann v. Zhukov, a matter recently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. There were essentially two separate crashes, and the question was raised regarding whether the negligence of those involved in the first crash could be considered when weighing the damages of those affected by the second crash.
According to court records, tragedy struck on a Nebraska highway early one morning in September 2012 when a semi-truck driver collided with another semi-truck that was disabled in the far right lane.
The driver of the stalled truck had struck an object in the roadway, and his parking brakes applied automatically. Experts would later determine he could have moved off to the shoulder after the incident, but he didn’t do so. And although the trucker placed flares behind his truck, he did so too close to the rig, in violation of federal regulations. Another truck traveling in the same direction struck the first, causing the vehicles to catch fire and ultimately resulting in fatal injuries to the driver of the second truck.
A major traffic jam accumulated, with emergency vehicles on scene, lights flashing. Many vehicles stopped safely, and a number turned their hazard lights on. At the rear of that traffic jam was a family of four – a pregnant mother and two small children in one vehicle and her husband in the vehicle behind her. In front of them was a third semi-truck.
From behind, a fourth semi-truck approached. That driver, it was later learned, was in violation of hours of operation guidelines and had been driving 14 hours straight. He failed to stop or even slow down as he approached the mile-long traffic back-up. He slammed into the father’s vehicle at 70 mph. The father’s vehicle was propelled into the mother’s vehicle, which in turn was launched underneath the semi-truck in front of her. The entire family was killed.
A personal representative of the family’s estate sued the driver of the fourth truck, as well as his employer. Also added to the complaint were the drivers of the first two trucks and their employers. Plaintiff asserted the negligence of the first two truckers resulted in a traffic jam that created conditions that reasonably and foreseebly led to the family’s deaths.
Attorneys for the first two drivers and their employers moved for summary judgment. They asserted plaintiff failed to show their clients’ actions were the proximate cause of the deaths. Defense lawyers argued it was the negligence of the fourth trucker that was an “efficient intervening cause,” that in turn severed any causal connection between the conduct of the first two truckers and decedents’ injuries.
District court agreed and granted summary judgment motion favoring the defense. Plaintiff appealed.
The federal appeals court affirmed. The court indicated it could find no state-level decision indicating the intervening negligence of a second accident was a reasonable or foreseeable consequence of the negligence resulting in an earlier accident.
Although the risk of highway stoppage following a truck crash is well-known, but several factors have to be considered when determining whether there is a causal connection between one crash and another. Those include:
- The lapse of time between crashes
- Whether force initiated by the original tortfeasor continued in active operation up to the injury
- Whether the act of the “intervenor” (subsequent tortfeasors) is considered extraordinary
- Whether the intervening act was a normal response to the situation created by the original tortfeasor
Here, the court considered the half-hour time lapse between the first crash and the second. Further, there were a number of other trucks that had safely stopped in the nearly mile-long jam. Emergency vehicles had lights and sirens on and other vehicles had their hazard lights on too. The visual cue to stop would have been obvious for at least a mile prior to approach, even though it was still dark, the court concluded. Thus, the fourth trucker’s intervening actions were extraordinary. This meant that the causal connection between the negligence of the first two truckers was severed by the actions of the fourth.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Baumann v. Zhukov, Oct. 1, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
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Castro v. Thomas – North Carolina Pedestrian Accident, Oct. 14, 2015, Charlotte Car Accident Attorney Blog