A Greene County jury awarded three million dollars to a young man injured when his van crashed into a motor grader that pulled out in front of him in a construction zone. The driver was taken to a hospital with serious injuries that continued to limit his activities long after the accident. The defendant construction company appealed the verdict, but the Supreme Court upheld the entire three million dollar verdict.
The construction company argued that the driver could recover nothing because he was “contributorily negligent.” In most states, if one of the people in an accident is a little bit at fault – 5%, 10%, $25, even up to 49 or 50% at fault – then the individual who is “a little bit at fault” can still recover, but get’s their award reduced by their percentage of fault. So, if a jury awards someone $100,000, but finds them 10% at fault, they couldn’t recover that 10% meaning their award would be reduced to $90,000. However, in Alabama if someone is even 1% at fault – if they are contributorily negligent – they can receive nothing. The construction company argued that for crossing over a double yellow line the driver was negligent per se – and therefore couldn’t recover anything.
The construction company had won a contract to replace a bridge on a public highway. One afternoon the driver came upon the construction site where the grader was in his lane of traffic. The driver and his passengers reported the grader had stopped in the lane, while the construction worker driving the grader said it was in motion. When the van driver tried to get around the grader by crossing over the double yellow line into the opposing lane of traffic – then empty – the grader turned into the van causing a collision.
At least two Alabama statutes may have been violated by the van driver crossing over into the other lane to pass the grader. However, if the van driver was justified in crossing over the double lines, then he wasn’t negligent. The Alabama Supreme Court said that whether the van driver was justified in going into the other lane was a question of fact that was best for the jury to decide and refused to reverse the jury’s determination citing a number of contested facts that the jury could have decided either way: whether there were signs for construction, whether there was a flagger, whether the van driver was going to fast, whether the grader was using appropriate lights and signals, and the like. The Court rejected the construction company’s contributory negligence argument.
Spoliation & Excess Damages
There were two other significant issues at play in the case, spoliation being one of them. Spoliation of evidence happens when one party destroys evidence when it should have been preserved for trial. In this case, the motor grader was repaired before it could be inspected by the van driver’s legal team, and this despite requests to preserve the grader in its damaged state so it could be inspected. When spoliation occurs the judge can punish the offending party in a number of ways. Here the judge how to handle it in the hands of the jury by allowing the van driver’s lawyer to argue to the jury their claim that the construction company had spoiled evidence. Though the construction company complained about this on appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court had no issue with it.
Lastly, the construction company argued that the jury’s award of $3 million dollars in compensatory damages was excessive in light of little economic evidence of losses in that realm. The van driver had approximately $77 thousand dollars in medical expenses and the Supreme Court doesn’t even mention what his lost wages were, if any. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court upheld the $3M verdict, relying on the jury’s central role in such decisions and citing the suffering that the van driver suffered and continues to suffer because of his injuries including a shattered femur.
This is not the first large jury verdict that the Alabama Supreme Court has upheld recently. However, it may be most interesting for providing a road map to plaintiffs’ attorneys for overcoming potential negligence per se claims.