How to Prove Fault in a Single-Car Accident Case

March 26, 2012
By Goldberg, Finnegan & Mester, LLC on March 26, 2012 11:35 AM |

Res Ipsa.pngLast week the Maryland Court of Appeals examined a school bus versus tree accident in District of Columbia v. Singleton. Here's the setup:

The plaintiff and his son were riding on a school bus for a field trip to Six Flags. The Plaintiff fell asleep and awoke when the bus was airborne, right before it crashed into a tree. The plaintiff's son didn't know what happened. The plaintiff didn't know why the bus left the road.

The case proceeded to trial--the plaintiff wanted to prove his case using a legal doctrine known as res ipsa loquitur, which all law school students know is Latin for "the thing speaks for itself" (sidenote: the classic res ipsa case that all law students learn about is from 1863 where a barrel of flour rolls out of a building and hits a pedestrian; picture courtesy of www.realmagick.com). What that means is that the plaintiff believed the very fact that the bus was involved in a single-vehicle accident means that it is most likely true that the bus driver was negligent and caused the collision. The plaintiff's case was short--he testified that he didn't know how the accident happened, and he put on some witnesses to talk about the extent of his injuries.

The trial court dismissed the case, holding that the plaintiff's case could not rely on res ipsa. The case was appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which reversed the trial judge's decision. The Court of Special Appeals ruled that "the failure to maintain control of the vehicle presents a prima facie case of negligence." The Court of Special Appeals agreed with the Plaintiff--if the bus left the road, the automatic assumption is that the bus driver was negligent. If something else caused the collision, it was up to the bus driver to raise it as a defense.

The case was again appealed, this time to Maryland's highest court, the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals reversed again, agreeing with the trial judge. The rhetoric of the opinion casts aspersions on the plaintiff for failing to come up with more information--it is difficult to know if the Court would have come out the same way if the plaintiff presented other inconclusive evidence. The Court seemed to want the plaintiff to present testimony from some of the eyewitnesses, the other bus passengers, the emergency responders, or even the police report. The reason none of that was presented, presumably, is because none of it shed any light on the situation. My bet is that the other passengers weren't paying attention; the eyewitnesses probably only saw the crash, and didn't know if there was any other reason for it; the police report may not have had any admissible evidence (police reports are not usually admissible, except for very limited purposes).

I suspect that, even if the plaintiff presented a whole host of inconclusive evidence, the Court would have ruled against him. It cited a Connecticut case where a passenger sued the estate of the driver (who probably died in the collision). There, the court ruled that, because of a lack of evidence, res ipsa did not apply. This is counterintuitive, because res ipsa is supposed to apply precisely when there is no other evidence of cause or fault.

Here is what is required to use res ipsa in a Maryland car accident:

  • The accident is of a kind that does not ordinarily occur absent negligence;
  • The accident was caused by an instrumentality exclusively in the defendant's control; and
  • The accident was not caused by the plaintiff.
So, this case "clarifies" the state of law--if a plaintiff wants to prove a single-car collision using res ipsa, here is a checklist of things that might make the Court more likely to believe the plaintiff:
  • Call other witnesses, even if they have nothing to add. The very fact that a witness did not see any reason for the collision, by itself, may help the judge or jury to understand that there is unlikely to be any other cause of accident. In particular, the plaintiff should get testimony from any witnesses who can comment about whether they say other cars on the road near the crashed vehicle.
  • Get the police report into evidence, or at least try to get it in. At a minimum, the report may clarify that there were no witnesses, or that the police officer saw no other reason for the collision.
  • Call the investigating police officer to talk about whether there was any information (statements from the defendant or other witnesses) about how the accident happened. The police officer should also testify about the weather conditions, the skid marks (evidence that the driver was going too fast, perhaps?), the nature of the road, the condition of the vehicle after the accident (was there a pre-collision tire blow-out?) and the speed limit.
  • Present information about the condition of the vehicle: show that the vehicle had been well-maintained, and some defect was not likely the cause of the collision.
  • Call the driver: The plaintiff should consider calling the driver to testify in the plaintiff's case-in-chief, even if he does not know why the accident happened. Care should be given, though, if the driver is blaming the collision on something other than negligence.
  • Get the driver's medical records to prevent the driver from claiming that a sudden medical emergency was the cause of the collision.
My sense from the opinion is that the Court would have felt better about plaintiff's claim if he had explained the lack of other evidence about the crash. It's not clear if that would have been enough to get the case to a jury, but it would have given the plaintiff a better chance.