When a negligent driver leaves the scene of a wreck, an injured person may be left with only uninsured motorist coverage to pursue with respect to the at-fault driver, unless the driver can be identified by license plate or other means. But what if a commercial vehicle causes an accident, and the owner can be identified based upon logos or other identifying characteristics of the vehicle? Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, even if the owner of the vehicle can be identified, such as by the victim's observing that the allegedly at-fault tractor trailer says "UPS" and its color matches the company's color, the victim might not be able to recover against the company. This is because before a vehicle owner can be liable for a driver's action, the victim or plaintiff must be able to show that the driver was acting in the course and scope of his or her employment at the time. A number of Georgia Court of Appeals decisions illustrate this point.
Georgia Court of Appeals decisions involving commercial vehicle and tractor trailer hit-and-run accidents
In Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority v. Morris, a 2015 Georgia Court of Appeals decision, the plaintiffs were ultimately able to prove liability against MARTA at a jury trial even though the driver of the MARTA bus did not stop following the collision. The plaintiffs presented evidence that:
- The vehicle was marked as a MARTA bus
- The driver wore an outfit that matched the MARTA uniform
- The bus stopped shortly after the collision and dropped off passengers
Based on these facts, the Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiffs had sufficiently proven that the driver was acting within the course and scope of his employment with MARTA, and therefore MARTA could be held liable.
The Court of Appeals distinguished several earlier cases in which the plaintiff had not been able to prove that the driver was acting within the scope of his or her employment. In Burns v. United Parcel Service, a 1975 case, for example, the Court of Appeals ruled that a plaintiff who argued he was injured by a UPS truck had not proven that it was driven by a UPS employee in the course and scope of his employment with the company. Although the plaintiff testified that he was hit by a brown tractor trailer with the letters "UPS" on the door of the truck, and a UPS representative confirmed that this generally matched the description of the company's vehicles, the court found that the plaintiff still had not proven that the vehicle was driven by a UPS driver while on company business. Specifically, the Court of Appeals noted that:
We have held in very similar factual situations that plaintiff's evidence as to the type of truck marked with a distinctive insignia was insufficient to authorize inferences of ownership of the tractor-trailer; or that it was being operated by an agent or employee of [the company] in the course of his employment.
In contrast, in the MARTA case, there was substantial evidence that the bus was, in fact, operating as a MARTA bus at the time, particularly given the fact that the plaintiffs presented evidence that passengers were dropped off after the accident.
Other issues - victim's consumption of alcohol and jury's award of attorneys' fees to plaintiffs
The MARTA case also presents two additional points of significance to personal injury victims.
First, the driver of the vehicle hit by the MARTA bus (one of the injured plaintiffs) admitted to having an alcoholic beverage at dinner prior to the accident. MARTA argued to the Court of Appeals that it should have been entitled to ask the jury to apportion part of the fault to that driver due to that fact. The court disagreed, based on the investigating officer's statement that he saw no evidence of intoxication or negligent driver on the part of that driver. Therefore, the case affirms that fact that even if a victim has had some alcohol to drink before an accident, that fact may not be relevant to the case unless there is evidence that it contributed to the wreck. As the court noted, "the presence of alcohol in a person's body, by itself, does not support an inference that the person was an impaired driver."
Second, the jury also awarded attorneys' fees to the plaintiffs. The Court of Appeals affirmed the jury's award. It did so, based on a specific statute, OCGA 13-6-11, that permits an attorneys' fee award to plaintiffs where the defendant has acted in "bad faith." In this case, the bad faith alleged was the failure of the MARTA bus to stop after the accident, in violation of another section of the Georgia Code, OCGA 40-6-270. Because of this, the Court of Appeals agreed that there was enough evidence to support the jury's award of attorneys' fees based on the bus driver's bad faith.
Personal injury and wrongful death cases involving tractor trailer accidents can be complicated and often involve state and federal regulations governing commercial vehicles. We have significant experience representing those injured by the negligence of commercial truckers and can help navigate the often difficult path of proving liability for injuries or death caused by these vehicles.