Comparative fault of drivers is not a question of law for the court
The Sixth Circuit reversed the District Court in an Eastern District case this month, and sent a death case back to the lower court for a new jury to consider. In Biegas v. Quickway Carriers, Inc., the widow of a dump truck driver sued the driver and employer of a semitractor that struck her husband after he climbed out of his disabled truck on the freeway shoulder.
Biegas claimed that the defendant, who admitted he was traveling slightly above the speed limit and following 150' behind another truck, would have had time to avoid her husband if he had left a gap of 600' between him and the truck he was following, as required by motor carrier regulations. Biegas also pointed to the State Police reconstruction which documented the defendant's vehicle striking the decedent's equipment several inches OUTSIDE the traveled lane and the fog line.
The defendant claimed that Biegas' decedent was more than fifty percent at fault as a matter of law, on that ground that Biegas' his employee reported that he was in the narrow space between his equipment and the travel lane when he was struck. The Defendant claimed that Biegas must be more than fifty percent at fault because he climbed out of his cab and walked down the side of his equipment--where he was vulnerable to beign struck--without looking back to see the Quickway truck approaching. Sadly, the trial court arrogated to itself the right to determine this issue and instructed the jury that Biegas was more than fifty-one percent at fault as a matter of law.
The appellate court noted that given the defendant's 3 inch encroachment outside the fog line, the fact that defendant's vehicle struck the decedent's vehicle on the shoulder, and the fact that defendant's driver's admitted to traveling above the speed limit and also admitted failing to comply with safe-following-distance rules, it was error for the court to rule as a matter of law that Biegas' fault was greater than fifty percent of the total fault (which would exclude any recovery for non-economic damages). The Sixth Circuit judges confirmed that this decision of relative fault--where there is evidence of fault by both drivers--is a question of fact and judgment for the jury, not the judge. One Judge would have upheld the jury's verdict because the jury ultimately assigned Biegas 53 percent fault, however, the majority of the judges rejected this argument, noting that it was unreasonable to assume that the judge's ruling of "more than fifty-one percent fault as a matter of law" did not influence the jurors' ultimate decision.