Truck Driver’s Evasive Maneuver Insufficient to Form Basis for Liability

By: Christopher J. Hoare, Esq.

A trucking company and its tractor trailer driver who avoided contact with the rear of a stopped vehicle by pulling into the adjoining lane without contacting with other vehicles was dismissed by summary judgment in the recent appellate decision of Matino et al. v. Tipton Trucking, LLC, A&L Harper Trucking Co., et al.

A tractor trailer combination, a dump truck and a flat bed truck were following one another around a curve in the road as they approached a traffic signal ahead.   The tractor trailer driver testified that the dump truck had been tailgating him for the past several miles and that he was distracted.  He was looking in the rear view mirror constantly.  The tractor trailer driver suddenly saw a line of stopped cars waiting for a red light around the curve.  Believing the dump truck was going to strike the rear of his trailer, the combo driver pulled his rig into the shoulder lane and stopped safely.  The tractor trailer did not come into contact with any cars or trucks in so doing.  The dump truck, seeing the stopped traffic ahead, stopped short and the rearmost vehicle, a flatbed trailer struck the rear of the dump truck and then drifted into the oncoming lane where it contacted an automobile killing its driver.

The rearmost flatbed trailer defendant hired an accident reconstruction expert who concluded in his report that the tractor trailer operator contributed to the accident by his sudden lane shift and stop.

At the close of discovery, the trial court granted summary judgment on behalf of the owner and driver of the tractor trailer who pulled into the shoulder lane to avoid impacting the stopped automobiles and NJ Superior Court- Appellate Division affirmed.   The Court ruled that the plaintiff failed to carry her burden of proof that the tractor trailer’s evasive maneuver caused or contributed to the subsequent accident involving the other vehicles.  The plaintiff’s expert ignored the eyewitness testimony and the statements of the drivers to the effect that the tractor trailer driver was concerned that the dump truck behind him was tailgating his truck.  The fact that the tractor trailer had not contacted any other vehicle was also a major factor in the appellate court’s affirmation of the summary judgment.

The decision to file a motion for summary judgment is an important one.  Summary judgments that depend on the factual evidence require careful questioning during the depositions of all eyewitnesses and parties as well as a critical assessment of plaintiff’s expert witness opinion for its sufficiency.   But if the defendant does its homework, the rewards are great.