Trammell v. Peoples, No. M2016-02198-COA-R3-CV
(Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 11, 2017)
Countless electronic devices routinely capture video footage of both the profound and mundane events of modern life. Dashboard-mounted cameras, for example, are becoming ubiquitous in commercial vehicles. Video footage of an accident can often be conclusive or at least reasonably determinative of fault. Last fall, Tennessee Court of Appeals held that dash-cam video footage of an accident, although clearly showing the fault of the plaintiff, was not conclusive enough to merit dismissal of a lawsuit before trial.
In 2014, Mr. Peoples was driving a box truck for his employer on I-65 in the middle lane near Nashville, Tennessee. He was traveling within the speed limit. Mr. Trammel and his wife, in the far-left lane in front of the box truck, swerved into Peoples’ lane. Peoples was unable to slow without hitting the rear of Trammel’s vehicle, thus causing an accident. The box truck was equipped with a dash-cam that captured 12 seconds of video footage of the accident.
Trammel sued Peoples and his employer, alleging that Peoples was negligent for following too closely and violating the “rules of the road” that required him to exercise due care while operating the vehicle “under the existing circumstances.” As evidenced by the video footage, those “existing circumstances” included both drivers passing a construction zone with police presence before the collision occurred.
Peoples and his employer filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that the video conclusively demonstrated that Trammel was either completely at fault or, at a minimum, at least 50% at fault for the accident. The video showed that Peoples was not speeding, kept control of his box truck, and Trammel swerved into his lane. Under Tennessee’s system of modified comparative fault, if a plaintiff’s fault exceeds 49%, he or she recovers no damages. Thus, if the undisputed facts—from video footage, for instance—demonstrate that no reasonable jury could find that the plaintiff’s fault was less than 50%, the trial court must dismiss the case as a matter of law. In other words, since juries decide factual disputes and judges decide issues of law, a trial court can grant judgment as a matter of law if the facts are undisputed. The trial judge in Nashville agreed with Peoples that the video clearly showed that Trammel was at least 50% at fault and his case should be dismissed.
Trammel appealed and argued that while the video itself was undisputed, reasonable jurors could differ on whether it showed that he was less than 50% at fault. The appellate court agreed, relying on Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-136(b), one of the “rules of the road,” which provides that “Notwithstanding any speed limit or zone in effect at the time…, every driver of a vehicle shall exercise due care…under the existing circumstances.” The appellate court held that reasonable minds could differ on the allocation of fault since the video showed that Peoples did not slow down when passing the construction zone and arguably violated the “rules of the road.” Accordingly, the appellate court held that Trammel is entitled to present his case to a jury for them to decide fault.
This case is yet another example of the difficulty of obtaining summary judgment in a negligence case. The appellate courts of Tennessee have repeatedly held that summary judgment is not appropriate when there are factual disputes or even arguable factual disputes. As one appellate judge wrote, “summary judgment is not an appropriate vehicle for disposing of a close case or even a ‘razor-thin’ case, or what one might refer to as a weak case…. Summary judgment for the defendant is reserved for those situations where the undisputed material facts reflect that a plaintiff has no case.” Here, the video evidence of the accident was, in the appellate court’s eyes, subject to interpretation and reasonable disagreement. It did not conclusively establish that Trammel was at least 50% at fault. While Trammel appears to have a weak case, the appellate court determined that he is entitled to present it to a jury, even if he would likely lose there nine times out of ten. While video evidence is often critically important, this case demonstrates that it will not necessarily result in dismissal of a lawsuit before trial.
Christopher Myatt is a partner in Spicer Rudstrom’s Memphis office, focusing on litigation throughout Tennessee and Mississippi. He has more than 10 years of experience handling premises liability cases. His practice is also concentrated in business and commercial litigation, product liability, governmental tort liability, insurance coverage, insurance defense and workers’ compensation.
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