We wrote a while back about causation, and the difficulty in some cases of determining who is responsible for an accident when there are multiple people who may have acted negligently. A recent case reinforces the idea that victims must show that accidents are foreseeable, and more than just one-time, freak accidents in order to hold a defendant liable for injuries.
Tragic Case Leads to Suit
The case began when a woman with an elevated blood alcohol level—three times the legal limit–decided to get behind the wheel of her vehicle. The road she was driving on curved, and due to her impaired senses, she failed to navigate it properly. Instead, she actually accelerated her car as the road turned, causing it to veer off the road.
The road curved about fifteen feet away from a hotel. As a result, the car slammed into a cabana in front of the hotel. The car collapsed the structure, killing the victim who was in the cabana at the time. The victim’s estate sued the hotel for negligence. Specifically, they alleged that the hotel knew or should have known that the road was very close to the cabana, where patrons were located, and that the hotel failed to do anything like erect any type of barrier that would prevent cars from veering into it.
The victim presented evidence that cars actually travelled straight towards the cabana area, before the road veered into the curve. An expert testified that had a barrier been erected, such as palm trees, the car would not have crashed into the cabana. The victim also presented evidence showing that in 2011, representatives of the hotel had emailed city officially complaining about speeding on the road. Former employees testified, likening the road in front of the hotel to a freeway. A stop sign placed by the hotel on the road to curb speeding, was previously removed by the city.
Thus, the victim argued, the hotel had knowledge that an accident on the road was foreseeable, yet took no real action to protect its patrons, who were located just feet from the roadway.
Defendant Argues Against Foreseeability
The Defendant pointed out that in 49 years, there had never been an off-road accident at the location, that the hotel complied with all building codes, and that even if speeding was known, it was a risk only to those trying to cross the road—not to people in or around the cabana.
The defendant pointed out that the cabana actually was reinforced by large concrete and steel beams, which themselves would serve as a barrier to most traffic. An expert testified that to knock one of these down, a car would have had to have been travelling at over 50 miles an hour.
Another expert testified that the road was no different than others in business areas, and that there were no visual obstructions or irregularities in the road itself.
The jury agreed with the victim in part, holding the hotel 15% responsible for the accident. The hotel appealed, arguing again to an appellate court that there was no way that the hotel could anticipate or foresee an accident like this, and that there was nothing inherently dangerous about the location or setup of the cabana area.
Court Finds Against Victim
The appellate court held that the curve, by itself, was not a dangerous condition that would give rise to any duty by the hotel to take any specific action. The Court noted the many years that the road had been there without an accident. While prior accidents at a location are not conclusive as to whether a landowner is negligent or not, the absence of any prior accidents indicated that this was a situation where an accident was “merely possible,” as opposed to “reasonably foreseeable,” which the law requires.
With regard to the hotel’s knowledge of speeding on the road, the Court pointed out that the hotel had never voiced any concern that people in the cabana area were in danger. As such, it could not be said that they had any prior knowledge that the area was dangerous.
Court Discusses “Freak” Accidents
The Court pointed out that sometimes accidents are so bizarre or unpredictable, that a defendant cannot be held liable for failing to anticipate they would happen.
This is often the situation in cases where cars veer into buildings. Courts have often held that business owners cannot reasonably foresee or anticipate that a rogue car will veer off of a road and plow into it, absent some evidence of prior occurrences that would give rise to such knowledge.
This is especially true where a property is not in violation of any building code, or, as in this case, where the road that traffic travels on has a relatively low speed limit.
Even if the hotel had foreseen the possibility that a car would veer off the road and crash into patrons, the appellate Court felt that the hotel had adequate protections. These included a curb, a palm tree, hedges, and a cabana with steel and concrete beams.
The Court also felt that the real cause of the accident was the drunk driver, one who was intoxicated way above the legal limit and who jumped the curb at an extraordinary high speed—enough to collapse the heavily reinforced cabana 15 feet away from the road.
Thus, the appellate court overturned the verdict, finding the hotel could not be liable for the victim’s injuries.
Make sure that you have the evidence you need to prove your case against every party that may be responsible for your injuries. Contact Brill & Rinaldi today for a free consultation to discuss your injury case.