In a negligence action, where the plaintiff is seeking compensation for injuries sustained in a car accident, the notion of who was at “fault” can dramatically affect the ability to recover damages. The highest court in the state recently agreed to hear an appeal in a case concerning Georgia’s “apportionment statute” – which requires the jury to divide responsibility for an injury among those who “contributed to” it, including non-parties, based on their respective percentage of the fault that caused the injury. In any auto accident case, it is extremely important to understand the applicable laws and how they relate to the specific circumstances of your claim. For this reason, anyone who has been hurt in a car accident is encouraged to reach out to an experienced Atlanta injury attorney as soon as possible.
In an earlier blog post, we reported on the appellate court’s decision in the above-referenced case, Zaldivar v. Prickett (Ga. Sup. Ct. 2015). Here, the plaintiff brought an action to recover damages for injuries he allegedly sustained in a car accident with the defendant. While each party blames the other for the accident, the defendant also argued that the plaintiff’s employer, Overhead Door Company – which is not a party to this action – was negligent to have “entrusted” the plaintiff with a company truck and therefore should bear some responsibility for any resulting injuries.
The plaintiff argued that the apportionment statute allows one to attribute fault to a non-party only to the extent that the non-party committed a tort that was the proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff. In response, the defendant argued that the statute contemplates an assignment of fault to non-parties without liability to the plaintiff. The trial court concluded that the employer’s negligent entrustment could not possibly have been a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. The majority of the court of appeals affirmed, relying in part on an earlier Georgia court opinion. In a dissenting opinion, however, one judge pointed out that assignment of fault to a non-party does not require that the non-party itself have liability in tort for the injury to the plaintiff.
The state’s highest court granted certiorari and ultimately reversed the appellate court’s decision. The court concluded that the negligent entrustment of an instrumentality (here, the vehicle) could be a proximate cause of an injury to the person to whom the vehicle was entrusted. The court further “disapproved” the earlier decision relied upon by the court of appeals to the extent that the case suggested that negligent entrustment can never be a proximate cause of an injury to the person entrusted.
In reaching this conclusion, the Georgia Supreme Court undertook an in-depth review of the statutory language, and in particular, the meaning of the term “fault.” Essentially, the statute codified the doctrine of “comparative negligence.” For example, under the provision a plaintiff would not be entitled to receive damages if he or she is 50 percent or more responsible for the injury or damages claimed. The court distinguished between “fault” (and proximate cause) and liability, pointing out that you can have fault without liability.
This case seems to expand the scope of who may be considered to be at “fault” under Georgia’s apportionment statute. Clearly, such a determination can be complicated and dependent on the facts and circumstances surrounding each individual case. If you have suffered injuries in a car accident due to another’s negligence, it is important to speak with an experienced injury attorney as soon as possible after the incident occurred. Stephen M. Ozcomert is an injury attorney with over 20 years of experience handling car accident cases, representing individuals who have been injured as a result of another’s negligence in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. Call us today at (404)-370-1000 to schedule a free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.
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