Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Court reviews fault in a case involving an automobile accident


Reginald Smith ("the Decedent") died when the exposed metal edge of a device known as a "Guardrail Energy-Absorbing Terminal" ("the crash cushion") penetrated the window of the cab of his moving overturned tractor-trailer and cut him nearly in half. His son, Reginald Denard Usher ("the plaintiff"), filed this action in the trial court against Charles Blaylock & Sons, Inc. The plaintiff also filed a claim against the State with the Tennessee Claims Commission.

The essence of the claims is that the crash cushion was negligently placed at the end of a series of concrete barriers that served to separate traffic entering on and exiting from the roadway connecting to the temporary end of Interstate 140 in Blount County. The alleged negligence was the failure to install a "transition panel" between the last concrete barrier and the crash cushion. Such a panel is designed to cover the otherwise exposed edge of the crash cushion thereby preventing vehicles from "snagging" the exposed metal edge. Eventually, the claim against the State was joined with the claim against Blaylock.

The case was tried to a jury with the circuit judge sitting as the Claims Commissioner; the jury was utilized by the trial judge in an advisory capacity with regard to the claim against the State. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The jury found that the plaintiff's total damages were $2,000,000. It apportioned fault 25% to the Decedent, 37.5% to the State, and 37.5% to Blaylock. Acting as the Claims Commissioner, the trial court went against the advice of the jury and dismissed the claim against the State. The court found (1) that the plaintiff failed to carry the burden of proof with respect to the applicable standard of care for installing crash cushions; (2) that the plaintiff failed to prove a breach of duty; and (3) that, in any event, the Decedent was at least 50% at fault for speeding through a construction zone in foggy conditions.

Later, the trial court granted Blalock's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and entered judgment in its favor. The court held (1) that Blalock was not responsible, as a matter of law, for leaving off the transition panel because the State's inspector on the scene "directed" Blalock to leave it off; (2) that the plaintiff failed to carry the burden of proving, by expert testimony, what a reasonably prudent contractor would have done under the circumstances; and (3) again, that the Decedent was at least 50% at fault. The court, acting as 13th juror, conditionally granted Blalock a new trial in the event the judgment in its favor was vacated or reversed. The plaintiff appeals. We affirm the judgment in favor of the State. We vacate the judgment in favor of Blalock and remand for a new trial as to that defendant.

Opinion available at:

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