When there is a multi-vehicle, chain reaction accident, conclusions regarding liability can be difficult to reach. Because multi-vehicle accidents usually involve high insurance payouts, insurance companies typically assign trained accident investigators to examine the facts of each claim.
Often, it comes down to who was in the rear (as drivers are expected to maintain a safe driving distance), whether speed, distraction or alcohol was involved and the time and distance between one accident and another. Insurance companies may view pileups as several individual accidents, depending on the circumstances.
In the case of Baumann v. Zhukov, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit was asked to weigh liability in a fatal truck accident that killed a father, pregnant mother and two young children in two separate vehicles that were struck by a fatigued truck driver that failed to stop with the rest of traffic that was backed up on the highway from an earlier crash.
Plaintiffs in this case, representatives for the decedents’ estates, sued not only the driver of the truck that struck them but also the at-fault driver in the earlier crash that caused the traffic jam. The appellate court ultimately ruled the at-fault parties in the initial crash could not be held liable for the deaths because they had not proximately caused those injuries. Rather, it was the actions of the fatigued trucker that caused their fatal injuries.
According to court records, the facts of the case began around 4:20 a.m. on a highway in Nebraska back in September 2012. A semi-truck driver struck an object in the road, and his vehicle lost air-brake pressure. The trucker pulled over and stopped his rig largely in the right-hand land. Accident reconstructionists would later determine the driver could have and should have completely pulled over onto the shoulder.
The trucker turned his hazard lights on, but kept them closer to his truck than regulations stipulated. About 15 minutes later, another tractor-trailer approached and, without even attempting to slow down or change lanes, struck the disabled truck. The collision was a fiery one, and the driver of the second truck was killed. The mess on the highway was substantial, and the westbound lanes were totally blocked. A traffic jam of nearly a mile resulted from the initial truck accident.
Police, fire and ambulance units responded, their hazard lights and sirens activated. At the rear of that traffic jam was a family, driving two separate vehicles. The pregnant mother and two children in one car, the father behind them. A tractor-trailer approached the stopped traffic at 75 mph and failed to stop or even brake.
The truck struck the father’s vehicle, which slammed into the mother’s vehicle which was propelled underneath a tractor-trailer in front of her. All members of the family were killed. It was later determined the trucker who struck them had been driving for 14 hours straight.
Representatives of the family’s estate sued a number of parties, including the driver of the first truck and his employer and the estate of the second truck driver and his employer. The allegation was the negligence of the first two truck drivers created conditions that reasonably and foreseeably resulted in family’s deaths.
However, the claims against the first two drivers were dismissed on summary judgment when the court determined it was the third trucker’s negligence that was the efficient intervening cause of the deaths – not that of the first two truckers. There was no causal connection between the first two truckers’ negligence and the deaths.
Plaintiff appealed, but the federal appeals court affirmed.
It was noted that under Nebraska law, causal connection between one crash and another is severed when:
- Negligence of a third party intervenes
- The third party had full control of a situation
- Third party’s negligence could not have been anticipated by defendant
- Third party’s negligence directly resulted in injury to plaintiff.
In this case, the only viable defendants are those who may be held liable for the third truck driver’s negligence.
Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.
Baumann v. Zhukov, Oct. 1, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
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Florida Motorcyclist Killed in Collision With Dump Truck, Sept. 29, 2015, Orlando Truck Accident Lawyer Blog