Posted On: February 29, 2012 by Parr Richey Obremskey Frandsen & Patterson

Indiana Court of Appeals Determined Pendleton, Indiana Motorist Owed a Duty of Care to Motorcyclist After Waiving Motorcyclist Through Intersection Indicating it was Clear

In the case of Hamilton v. Key (Cause No. 48D01-0905-CT-749), Dewayne Hamilton (the plaintiff) was riding his motorcycle and was seriously injured after a collision with another motorist at the intersection of two roads located northeast of Pendleton, Indiana. Hamilton was driving in the left southbound lane and Jacob Key (the defendant) was driving in the right southbound lane. Key was stopped in his employers’ truck at the intersection due to traffic that had stopped in front of him; traffic was also stopped behind him, however traffic was not stopped in the left southbound lane. Another vehicle, driven by John Owens, was travelling eastbound toward the intersection and had stopped at the intersection to make a left turn to go northbound.

Key thoroughly looked around for traffic approaching the intersection from the north in the lane to his left (Key actually got out of his truck, stood on the doorsill, and examined the traffic) and motioned to Owens that it was safe to enter the intersection to make the left turn. Owens’s view north was obstructed by the line of stopped traffic in the right southbound lane. As Owens entered the intersection, Hamilton also entered the intersection in the left southbound lane on his motorcycle and collided with the car being driven by Owens. Hamilton sustained serious injuries and filed a lawsuit against Jacob Key. Hamilton also sued Ted and Sally Brown, alleging they were responsible as Key’s employers.

At trial, Key and the Browns (collectively referred to as the “Defendants”) argued they owed no duty of care to Hamilton. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Hamilton and the trial judge entered judgment against the Defendants for $990,000 (the Defendants were found to be 45% at fault by the jury and Hamilton’s damages totaled $2.2 million). The Defendants appealed the judgment and the Court of Appeals of Indiana issued an opinion (Cause No. 48A02-1007-CT-812). Of main concern on appeal was whether the Defendants owed a duty of care to Hamilton. In its opinion, the Court stated:

Hamilton’s complaint alleged negligence on the part of the Defendants, which is comprised of three elements: “(1) a duty [of care] owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, (2) a breach of that duty by the defendant, and (3) an injury to the plaintiff as a proximate result of the breach.” [Citation omitted.] But consideration of duty and breach of duty always begins with consideration of the venerable legal concept of the “reasonable person.” As stated in the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 283 (1965), “[u]nless [sic] the actor is a child, the standard of conduct to which he must conform to avoid being negligent is that of a reasonable [person] [sic] under like circumstances.” Negligence occurs when conduct falls below this standard. “Lack of reasonable care that an ordinary person would exercise in like or similar circumstances is the factor upon which the presence or absence of negligence depends.” [Citation omitted.] The negligence issue in this case therefore turns generally on what ordinary persons in the positions of Hamilton, Owen, and Key would have expected and how such ordinary persons would have conducted themselves under circumstances like or similar to those before us. More specifically, the question of negligence is whether Key’s conduct in signaling Owens breached a duty to Hamilton that reasonable persons in Key’s, Owen’s, and Hamilton’s respective positions would have recognized and expected to exist.

The Court referenced a 1993 Court of Appeals opinion in a case with similar facts (Claxton v. Hutton). In that case, the defendant won at trial on summary judgment, but was reversed on appeal. The Court of Appeals said that the issue of whether the defendant owed a duty of care to the injured motorist could only be reviewed on the particular facts of the case, making summary judgment inappropriate.

Next, the Court reviewed three factors in a balancing test to determine whether a duty of care existed in this case. The three factors are: (1) the relationship between the parties, (2) the reasonable foreseeability of the harm to the person injured, and (3) public-policy concerns. Webb v. Jarvis, 575 N.E.2d 992 (Ind. 1991). The Court found that a relationship existed between Hamilton and Key because “they were driving on the same road, at the same time, at the same location. Further, before the accident occurred, Key investigated the traffic behind him thoroughly before determining that it was clear for Owens to turn left.” Owens testified that he observed Key investigate and relied on Key’s determination before entering the intersection. The Court therefore found that a relationship existed between Key and Hamilton.

The Court also determined that the harm to Hamilton was reasonably foreseeable. Under Webb, the harm is foreseeable if “the person actually harmed was a foreseeable victim and . . . the type of harm actually inflicted was reasonably foreseeable.” Because Owens relied on Key’s investigation and because Key admitted at trial that waving someone into an intersection can place that person in danger, the Court determined that Hamilton’s injuries were foreseeable. The Court also determined that Hamilton was a foreseeable victim because “[i]f there was an unseen oncoming motorist, like Hamilton, it would be foreseeable that Owens could collide with him in the intersection as a result of his reasonable reliance on Key’s ‘all clear’ signal.”

Lastly, the Court determined that public policy concerns warrant the imposition of a duty of care. The Court stated:

Society has an expectation that individuals will be held liable for the results of their actions. Public policy, therefore, demands that we hold an individual responsible for the reasonably foreseeable results of his behavior; allowing an individual to escape liability for damages he causes would fly in the face of the normal expectations of our civil society. As a result, we find that imposing a duty of care upon Key and therefore allowing a jury to weigh the facts and apportion fault as it deemed appropriate is in furtherance of sound public policy.

Specifically, the injuries sustained as a result of Key’s actions were not too remote that holding Key liable would be illogical, unfair, or risk not putting a potential tortfeasor on notice that he could be held liable for his actions. Imposing liability on Key would also not place an unreasonable burden on him; he did not have to act in the way that he did, but once he decided to, society demands that he should be held liable for the reasonably foreseeable results of his actions. Finally, there is a sensible stopping point to this creation of a duty. The commonly used courtesy wave will never be sufficient to create a duty on the part of the signaling driver. It is only when a driver engages in such a thorough examination of traffic in order to ensure another driver’s safety and gives an “all clear” signal, as was the case here, that a duty can be found.

The Court disagreed with the Defendants’ argument that this decision will discourage courteous driving behavior or diminish the responsibility of “signaled drivers.” The ordinary, courteous “wave on” would not impose a duty on the signaling driver and, thus, not result in liability. Moreover, signaled drivers may not reasonably rely upon a simple hand gesture to mean that the intersection is safe to enter. But when a driver engages in such a thorough investigation of traffic and signals another driver, the signaled driver should be allowed to rely on the signaling driver’s assessment to some extent.

In conclusion, the Court of Appeals determined that Key owed a duty of care to Hamilton because a relationship existed between them, the harm to Hamilton was reasonably foreseeable, and public policy concerns warrant the imposition of a duty of care.

Also on appeal, the Defendants argued that Key’s conduct was not the proximate cause of Hamilton’s injuries because Hamilton’s injuries were not foreseeable or a natural consequence of Key’s actions and because Key’s actions did not set the events into motion. However, the Court determined that these arguments were unpersuasive. The Court stated that the determination of whether Key’s conduct was the proximate cause of Hamilton’s injuries was a determination of foreseeability that was properly left to the jury.