Court of Appeals rules Saginaw County jury was properly told of truck driver’s ‘failure to have a valid medical card’ and ‘improper inspections’ in truck accident lawsuit
It was my case that went to the Michigan Supreme Court where the insurance company appealed the admissibility of bringing a negligent entrustment claim and allowing safety violations of a truck driver into evidence, so you can bet I’ve been following this issue closely ever since.
It truly matters because it protects the public.
Of all the shameful games that I see defense lawyers play, trying to sweep serious safety violations under the rug to hide them from juries by admitting liability is the most sinister because of the public policy implications involved for all of us. It makes us all markedly more unsafe on our roads and highways if trucking companies know they can ignore the mandatory safety rules that are in effect to keep us safe, and then just admit negligence on the eve of trial to keep all of these safety violations from ever being heard by a jury.
Sometimes it takes the form of admitting liability in order to prevent the jury from hearing how a dangerously unfit truck driver was surfing the Internet for porn (an actual case I was involved in) or talking on the phone when the wreck occurred. Sometimes it is a long history of drug use or a long history of causing preventable truck accidents and traffic safety violations that the company ignored and still hired the driver anyways.
Other times, it takes the form of what recently happened in one Saginaw County trucking accident case: The trucker’s (and insurance company’s) defense lawyers tried to convince the judge that the trucker’s status was irrelevant to the issue of whether the truck driver was negligent or not.
Thank goodness there are judges who see through this malarkey and allow a jury the facts so a just result will ensue. The greatest way to protect the public and prevent future carnage on our roads is to enforce the traffic safety laws as they are written.
In Melrose v. Warner, that’s exactly what happened with a two-judge majority on the Michigan Court of Appeals.
In Melrose, where a trucking accident left the victim with “disabling injuries for the rest of his life,” the defense lawyers tried to hide from the jury the fact that the truck driver had violated safety statutes which required him to have a valid medical card and to properly inspect and maintain his truck.
But the two-judge majority on the Court of Appeals was buying it:
“Evidence of regulatory failures, while prejudicial to the defendant, do not appear to be ‘substantially Outweighed’ or unfairly prejudicial under these circumstances, and therefore, were properly admitted.
Failure to have a valid medical card is relevant
The victim in Melrose challenged the truck driver’s competence on grounds that he hadn’t had a valid medical card at the time of the truck wreck.
The Court of Appeals agreed:
“Having and maintaining a valid medical card is a required component of being properly licensed to operate a commercial vehicle. Being properly licensed is relevant to one’s driving competency, and therefore, we conclude that defendant’s failure to have a valid medical card at the time of the accident could be relevant to the matter at issue.”
Improper inspections are relevant to truck driver negligence
Again, the Court of Appeals agreed with the victim in Melrose that the jury should hear evidence about how the truck “did not properly maintain the truck”:
“Regulations regarding daily inspections require that those inspections be documented. We consider the proper documentation of inspections to be an essential part of conducting those inspections, not merely evidence pertinent to the credibility of a party claiming that the inspections took place. Improper inspections are clearly relevant to whether a driver should have noticed a problem with the tires before driving on them.”
The relevance of safety violations to trucking negligence
The Court of Appeals explained that violations of a “safety statute” are deemed to have “real relevance” to whether negligence occurred in a truck wreck case only under the following circumstances:
- The “safety statute” that was violated was “intended to protect against the result of the violation”;
- The truck crash victim was within the class intended to be protected by the [safety] statute” whose violation is at issue;
- The evidence shows that the safety-statute violation “was a proximate contributing cause of the occurrence.