JP: Auto accident case boils down to the rule of reason

Many times in litigation the parties are faced with the classic choice between a bird in the hand and two in the bush.  A recent case demonstrates this problem nicely.

Judge Frank Conti

Judge Frank Conti

Plaintiff sued defendant for $9,999.99, a penny less than the statutory limit for civil actions in justice court.  The parties were driving on a city street when a third vehicle made an ill-advised u-turn, cutting off the defendant and causing her to swerve and strike plaintiff’s car, causing minor damage.

Defendant was able to take down the license-plate number of the offending car as it sped away.

A police officer arrived at the scene and issued the defendant a citation for failure to control the speed of a vehicle to avoid a collision, despite both parties agreeing that the third car caused the accident.

Although a license-plate search was successful, the officer couldn’t issue a citation without identifying the driver.  Both parties testified the officer told the defendant that it would’ve been better if she had let the third car hit her.  The wisdom of that advice will be examined momentarily.

Prior to trial a mediation hearing was conducted to attempt settlement.  The plaintiff submitted a claim to the defendant’s insurance company for the repair of his 1994 Geo Metro, which was valued at $800.

The insurer offered $1,500, but the plaintiff steadfastly refused, citing the fact that he had spent over $2,500 in the past year on various other repairs completed prior to the accident.

At trial the plaintiff, to his credit, admitted that he had seen the third vehicle’s bad u-turn, and further admitted that he didn’t think the defendant was at fault.  He leaned heavily on the officer’s opinion that the defendant shouldn’t have tried to avoid hitting the other car.  He also clung stubbornly to his notion that every dime he ever spent fixing his 17-year-old car should be included in assessing its value.

In auto accident cases, the fact that a party was issued a traffic citation is not necessarily fatal to their cause if a civil lawsuit is subsequently filed.  The officer arrived well after the event, and pieced together what happened based on what he saw and what people told him.

A simple weighing of the fault of the two drivers remaining at the scene resulted in the defendant getting a ticket.

State law requires all drivers to use reasonable care for the protection of others, which includes an obligation to avoid colliding with other vehicles.  The defendant wasn’t legally or morally obligated to let the third car hit her in order to avoid hitting the plaintiff’s car.

When a split second is all one has to react, neither law nor common sense requires such robotic calculations.  A reasonable person in the defendant’s position would try to avoid a car swerving into her lane.  Also, the plaintiff admitted that he saw what was happening around him, but gave no hint as to what he did to avoid the collision.

The plaintiff’s failure to prove the defendant’s negligence resulted in judgment for the defendant.

Editor’s note: Mr. Conti is the elected justice of the peace for the Dreamy Draw Justice Court, which serves northeast Phoenix and parts of Paradise Valley.

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