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Georgia Court Addresses Wrongful Death Claims Arising From Car Accident

Car accidents have the potential to cause serious injuries and even fatalities to the people involved. According to the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety in Georgia, there were 1,223 traffic fatalities on state roadways in 2011. The causes of these devastating accidents may include poor weather and roadway conditions, driver negligence, some form of distracted driving, and many other factors. When a driver’s negligence, in whatever form, is the cause of another’s death, the decedent’s family may seek to hold that person responsible by bringing a court action against him or her. An experienced Atlanta injury attorney may be able to help families achieve a sense of justice by holding the responsible party accountable for the wrongful death of a loved one.

Georgia law sets forth one’s eligibility to bring a wrongful death action. Under the statute (OCGA § 51-4-1), a person may recover the “full value” of damages related to the decedent’s life. Eligible wrongful death claimants may include living spouses, adopted children, biological children, minors (legal guardian), custodial parent or relative, and the administrator/executor of estate. In a recent wrongful death case, CGL Management, LLC v. Wiley, Keiana Wiley was killed when another driver, Michael Thad Clay, crossed over the highway’s center line and collided with her head-on. Clay had been driving his employer’s pick-up truck at the time of the accident. The decedent’s spouse, Bryant Wiley, brought an action against Clay for wrongful death, and an action against his employer, CGL Management (“CGL”), under several tort grounds, such as respondeat superior and negligent hiring, retention, entrustment, and maintenance.

After the discovery phase of the proceedings, CGL moved for summary judgment, asserting that Clay was not “on the job” when the accident took place and that the evidence did not support the plaintiff’s claims. The trial court denied the motion. CGL appealed. The court of appeals reversed parts of the trial court’s decision. According to the facts, at the time of the accident, Clay had been demoted from a management position with CGL, but he was permitted to continue driving a company truck during his commute to and from work. Evidence also revealed several driving infractions committed by Clay in the past.

In its appeal, CGL argued that the trial court committed three errors in denying summary judgment on Wiley’s claims that CGL was negligent. The court of appeals agreed that the record contained no evidence that the company was “vicariously” liable under the theory of respondeat superior, since there was no evidence that Clay was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. Instead, he was merely driving to work. Similarly, the court concluded that CGL could not be liable under claims of negligent hiring and retention because Clay was not acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. The court, however, held that there was a question of fact as to the negligent entrustment claim, based on CGL’s “constructive knowledge” of Clay’s serious past driving infractions.

The court’s decision allows the plaintiff to seek damages from CGL based on the negligent entrustment claim. It will be up to a jury to decide whether CGL’s prior knowledge of Clay’s driving or criminal history created direct liability under a negligent entrustment theory.

As this case illustrates, there are many factors that can support or hinder a recovery for personal injuries and wrongful death. The best course of action is to consult with an experienced injury attorney as soon as possible. Stephen M. Ozcomert has over 20 years of experience handling car accident cases, representing individuals who have been injured as a result of another person’s negligent driving in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. Call us today at (404) 370-1000 to schedule your free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.

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