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Stay in your own lane

Stay in your own lane

June 25
08:20 2019

Stay in your own lane

Shortly before 6:00 p.m. on November 5, 2014, Mercedes Brown was driving her 2003 Dodge Intrepid and carrying two passengers. They had just shopped at Advance Auto Parts on Winnsboro Road and were leaving to go to Brown’s mother’s house about five blocks west. This entailed making a left turn out of the Advance Auto Parts parking lot and onto Winnsboro Road, a four-lane, east-west artery. Brown successfully crossed the two eastbound lanes and entered the left westbound lane. She then collided with a 1998 Ford Mustang being driven west by Archie Keaton. Brown and Keaton gave significantly different accounts of exactly where the impact occurred.

Brown testified that before she left the Advance Auto Parts parking lot, she stopped, looked to make sure the road was clear, and noticed the Mustang in the parking lot of Mac’s Fresh Market, almost directly across from Advance Auto Parts. She saw that the road was clear, made her left turn, and got halfway into the left westbound lane when the Mustang hit her. She admitted she did not see the Mustang coming until it hit her; she assumed the driver had been pulling out of the driveway of Mac’s, making a right turn. After impact, she could not move the Intrepid because the axle was broken.

Keaton, a 78-year-old retired trucker, testified that he had not been in the Mac’s parking lot that evening. Driving in the right westbound lane, he saw the Intrepid trying to exit from Advance Auto Parts; he thought the driver was cutting straight across to ABC Auto Parts, directly across the street (and next to Mac’s). When he saw her continuing to move through the left lane, he slowed almost to a stop. Brown’s Intrepid ran into the left front of Keaton’s Mustang, breaking the headlight and parking light and bending the strut and hubcap. Keaton was ambiguous about whether he came to a complete stop or just to a slow crawl and would not say that the Intrepid “fully entered” the right lane before impact. He was consistent that he was always in the right lane and that if Brown had stayed in the left lane there would have been no collision. He also testified that when police arrived, about seven minutes later, both vehicles were still in place.

Brown filed suit against Keaton and his automobile liability carrier, Affirmative Casualty Insurance Company. Affirmative Casualty went into receivership; its claims subsequently were administered by Louisiana Insurance Guaranty Association (LIGA). In September 2017, LIGA moved for summary judgment. In support, it offered the depositions summarized above. It also offered the deposition of Officer Tarra Smith, who worked the accident and wrote the accident report. Her diagram showed the Intrepid turning left and crossing three and a half lanes before striking the Mustang in the far right lane. Smith also stated that she ticketed Brown for failure to yield and having no driver’s license. Brown admitted that she paid the ticket.

Brown opposed LIGA’s motion for summary judgment, offering her affidavit to reiterate that she saw Keaton backing out of a parking space at Mac’s but did not think she needed to “keep him under observation.” She also asserted that Keaton must have tried to make a right turn into the “inside” lane, and if he had stayed in the right lane there would have been no accident.

The city court denied summary judgment, ruling that it could not determine in what lane of traffic the accident occurred.

In January 2018, the case was tried before a different judge of the city court. The parties stipulated that they would submit the case “on the entire record,” using the depositions developed in the motion for summary judgment. Brown’s counsel said he had subpoenaed one of the passengers in the Intrepid, Caryette Wilson, but had been unable to find her for service.

LIGA’s counsel filed documents about claims that arose from the accident. These showed that Brown’s two passengers, her friend Caryette Wilson and Wilson’s one-year-old daughter, had filed a personal injury claim against Brown’s insurer, GoAuto; GoAuto settled with them for $3,605 and made no claim that Keaton was partly responsible. Also, Keaton made a property damage claim, which GoAuto settled for $1,506. LIGA argued that these settlements, the police officer’s report, and Brown’s guilty plea to failure to yield proved that she was solely at fault in the accident.

The city court rendered judgment stating that the sole cause of the accident was Brown “making entry onto and across a roadway when she could not safely negotiate such a maneuver, and in failing to keep a proper lookout.” The court also found that Keaton “rightfully occupied the lane of travel” at the time of the collision. The court dismissed Brown’s claims. Brown appealed.

On appeal, Brown argued that the city court erred in finding her solely at fault in causing the collision. She conceded that a left-turning motorist has a duty to proceed with caution and to keep a proper lookout, but she argued that a right-turning motorist also owes a certain duty: not to make a wide turn that crosses into the left lane. She contended that Keaton was either turning right or going straight ahead; either way, he breached a duty of care. She asserted that the accident occurred in the left lane and that Keaton was not being honest about how far he strayed to the left when he made his right turn. In the alternative she submitted that if the accident happened on the center line, there should be comparative fault. She asked for judgment finding that Keaton was 100% at fault or at least 50% at fault.

Both parties agreed that their vehicles were still in place when Officer Smith arrived, and her diagram put the point of impact in the middle of the right lane. Moreover, Smith wrote that Keaton told her he was “traveling west on Winnsboro Rd in the far right lane when he was struck by” the Intrepid. This, the court said, supported Keaton’s testimony that he was in the right lane on impact and countered Brown’s view that they were in the left lane or straddling the centerline.

The court found it significant that Brown’s own insurer, GoAuto, paid her passengers’ personal injury claims as well as Keaton’s property damage claim, never asserting that anyone but Brown was at fault.

Although acknowledging that some evidence would undermine the city court’s finding, the court of appeal said it was not enough to make that finding clearly wrong or manifestly erroneous. The judgment of the city court was affirmed.

Brown v. Affirmative Casualty Insurance Company-Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Second Circuit-January 16, 2019-No. 52,446-CA.

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