Doctrine of “Avoidable Consequences” Leads to Summary Judgment for Defendants

Janet Weston, the decedent, was approaching an intersection in Glynn County that she was very familiar with. The intersection was a “two way” stop with through traffic proceeding on Georgia State Route 303. Ms. Weston had negotiated this intersection multiple times over several years and she understood she was required to yield the right-of-way to any traffic on SR 303, which often included logging trucks and other heavy vehicles traveling at or above the posted speed limit of 55 mph.

When she approached the intersection on the day of the accident, Ms. Weston’s view was apparently blocked by a parked front end loader which had been left on the side of the road by defendant Dewey Harper. The loader had suffered mechanical difficulties and defendant Yancey Brothers, Inc. had previously performed repairs on the loader. The driver and owner of the tractor trailer which struck Ms. Weston were also defendants.

A witness driving behind Ms. Weston testified that Ms. Weston came to a complete stop at the stop sign, realized that the loader obstructed her view of traffic, slowly inched forward to get a better view, saw that the tractor trailer was bearing down on her and, believing that her car’s front end was too far into the lane of the tractor trailer to avoid a collision, suddenly accelerated in hopes of getting out of its way. It was undisputed that Ms. Weston could have reached her destination by reversing course and taking another route.

The Court of Appeals wrote that, under the doctrine of avoidable consequences, “the plaintiff’s negligence in failing to avoid the consequences of the defendants’ negligence is deemed the sole proximate cause of the injuries sustained and, therefore, is a complete bar to recovery, unless the defendant wilfully and wantonly inflicted the injuries.” Although the issue of whether a plaintiff exercised due diligence for her own safety is ordinarily reserved for a jury, in some cases it may be summarily adjudicated “where [the plaintiff’s] knowledge of the risk is clear and palpable.”

The Court of Appeals believed that this was such a case. In other cases in which defendants may be negligent but the plaintiff, exercising ordinary care, could have avoided that negligence, this doctrine should be raised as an affirmative defense and may be, under the right circumstances, a basis for obtaining summary judgment.

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About the Author

Michael Rust graduated from Emory University in 1980 and Emory University School of Law in 1983 where he was Notes and Comments editor of the Emory Law Journal (Law Review). Since that time, he has maintained an active trial practice in the state of Georgia both in State and Federal Courts. Mr. Rust teaches litigation as part of Emory University School of Law’s annual Trial Practice Program. He has received AV rating from Martindale Hubble, the highest rating afforded to lawyers by their peers.