Third Circuit Overturns Trial Court Ruling on Comparative Fault in Vehicle Accident Case

The Third Circuit Court of Appeal recently overturned a trial court ruling on comparative fault in a two-vehicle accident case by reapportioning defendant’s fault from 100% to 50% for both drivers based on the Court’s assessment of each driver’s negligence. Hatman v. Miller, 21-284 (La. App. 3 Cir. 11/03/21), West Reporter Citation not available.

Hatman v. Miller – Background

This case arose from a two-vehicle accident that occurred in April 2017 in St. Landry Parish. Benjamin Hatman was driving south on Prairie Rhonde Highway in an F150 with his wife (plaintiff, Mandy Hatman) and daughters as passengers. Defendant, Mitchell Miller, was operating a sprayer tractor and traveling in front of the Hatmans.

As the tractor approached the intersection, Mitchell attempted to make a left turn onto a side road. At the same time, the Hatman vehicle was attempting to pass Mitchell on the left and a collision ensued. Plaintiff allegedly suffered injuries to her neck and back. Thereafter, Plaintiff sued Mitchell and his insurer. At the bench trial, the Court found that Mitchell was 100% at fault for causing the accident. Mitchell and AIX Insurance Company jointly appealed.

The Appeal

Upon review, the Third Circuit relied on the factors set forth in Watson v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Insurance Co., 469 So. 2d 967 (La. 1985), which includes:

  1. whether the conduct resulted from inadvertence or involved an awareness of the danger;
  2. how great a risk was created by the conduct;
  3. the significance of what was sought by the conduct;
  4. the capacities of the actor, whether superior or inferior, and;
  5. any extenuating circumstances which might require the actor to proceed in haste, without proper thought. And, of course, as evidenced by concepts such as last clear chance, the relationship between the fault/negligent conduct and the harm to the plaintiff are considerations in determining the relative fault of the parties.

The Third Circuit also considered the duties imposed on both a left turning driver and a passing driver. Based on Louisiana Revised Statutes 32:104, a left-turning driver is required to signal his intent to turn at least 100 feet before making the turn and the driver must be able to make the turn safely.

Louisiana Revised Statutes 32:73 and 32:76 involve passing motorists. La. R.S. 32:73(1) states, that “the driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left thereof at a safe distance, and shall not again drive to the right side of the roadway until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle.” Additionally, La. R.S. 32:76 states that no driver shall attempt a left-lane pass of “another vehicle proceeding in the same direction unless such left side is clearly visible . . . to permit such overtaking and passing to be completely made without interfering with the safe operation of . . . any vehicle overtaken.” Lastly, La. R.S. 32:76(A)(2) states that “no vehicle shall at any time be driven to the left side of the highway . . . when approaching within one hundred feet of or traversing any intersection.”

Benjamin testified that he attempted to pass Mitchell twice. Each time he blew his horn and blinked his lights—an eye witness confirmed his testimony as accurate. Benjamin also testified that he was aware of the statute requiring that a passing driver not attempt to pass within 100 feet of an intersection because he had a commercial driver’s license. Mitchell testified that he did not see Benjamin in his mirrors nor did he hear any exterior noises outside the tractor before the accident. The trial court found Benjamin and the eye witness’s testimony to be credible and that the passing maneuver did not cause the accident. Thus, the trial court apportioned 100% fault to Mitchell.

The Third Circuit Ruling

The Third Circuit disagreed with the trial court’s decision, determining “Louisiana Revised Statutes 32:76(A)(2) was intended to avoid what occurred here; an accident at a highway intersection.” The Court weighed the fact that Benjamin received a ticket for attempting to pass within 100 feet of an intersection and possessed a commercial driver’s license indicating that he was aware of the passing laws. The Court ultimately concluded that the accident would never have happened but for the negligence of both drivers and apportioned 50% fault to Mitchell and 50% fault to Benjamin.