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Case Study #1: Attorney Analysis

The following analysis of a tractor-motorcycle collision is courtesy of Donald G. Beattie, Beattie Law Firm, Des Moines, Iowa, and offered as a sample of assessing liability:

This is a very good case from both a liability and damages standpoint. Very simply stated and I would repeat continually is that the defendant violated state law by having no reflector. A violation of state law is per se negligence. In other words, the jury will be told that if you find that the defendant (farmer) did not have a reflector or other warning device (a given in this case), the defendant is negligent. The remaining finding for liability against the defendant is whether a causal connection can be established, which I believe it will. The defendant can argue all it wants, but the very purpose of the law is to prevent what happened in this case.

There are other allegations that should be raised by the plaintiff that would be an additional basis to establish liability. First is the fact that the defendant would have actual knowledge that the equipment would literally block both sides of the road effectively preventing oncoming motorists from using the road. Blocking 75% of the plaintiff's lane is the equivalent of complete blocking. In my opinion, this would require extra precautions on the part of the defendant. One of those precautions is using two chase vehicles, one in the front of the equipment and one behind, to warn everyone on the road to pull to the side to let the equipment pass in order to avoid a collision. This would be even more apparent on a bridge.

I would also argue that the defendant should have taken an alternate route, as surely there should have been one that the defendant could have taken to avoid placing motorists in the position of the decedent. Additionally, I would allege that these 3 items are so overwhelming that a claim for punitive damages exists. In other words, the defendant has no excuse for what he did and he should be punished.

I would raise the issue of punitives to help offset the claim of the defendant that plaintiff's decedent was negligent. When liability of the defendant is so overwhelming, a jury tends to forgive otherwise negligent conduct on the part of the plaintiff. This appears to be one such situation. To counteract the defendant's claim that the decedent should have seen the equipment, I would simply state that the purpose of the law was to give notice to oncoming vehicles of equipment extending into a motorist's lane of travel. That is not a normal situation and one an oncoming motorist would be very slow to recognize. I believe this would help to counteract the investigating officer's report that a defendant could argue establishes comparative fault. In addition, you can use the investigating officer report that establishes no fault on the part of the plaintiff. I would also argue that the photographs established there were shadows, which undoubtedly did not help the victim in recognizing the precarious position that the defendant had placed upon him.

I would raise other arguments to counteract the comparative fault position of the decedent. One is the angle at which the equipment and the motorcycle struck each other. To me it indicates that the decedent was trying to take evasive action once he realized defendant was blocking the road. I would also hire an accident-reconstruction expert to utilize a PowerPoint showing how much the defendant was blocking the road and establishing that the motorcyclist would have difficulty in recognizing what was occurring. In all likelihood, the accident reconstruction that was being conducted by the State would undoubtedly be an aid and I probably would simply rely upon the State to show how negligent the defendant was.

Because the decedent was a pillar in the community, with a very good job and a loving family, I would emphasize and reemphasize those factors for both damages and liability. I believe that these factors would go a long way towards overcoming any claim of comparative fault and increases the amount of damages. This is clearly a case in which both damages and liability feed off each other to achieve a result where there would be less comparative fault and greater damages than in normal cases. This is especially so where egregious conduct exists like it does here.