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Divided court affirms liability in 'courtesy wave' case

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In a case of first impression, the Indiana Court of Appeals has affirmed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a motorcyclist injured in a crash. One judge disagreed with the majority decision, stating the opinion is contrary to sound public policy.

In Jacob Key, Ted J. Brown and Sally A. Brown v. Dewayne Hamilton, No. 48A02-1007-CT-812, the question the court was asked to review for the first time is whether a driver who signals another driver to proceed onto a roadway is liable for injuries sustained by a third party.

Jacob Key, a truck driver employed by Ted and Sally Brown, was traveling southbound on Indiana State Road 9 when he approached a line of cars stopped at a stoplight. Key stopped, allowing enough space for John Owens to make a left turn in front of him from a perpendicular street. Key got out of his truck, looked behind him, and gave an “all-clear” courtesy wave to Owens, who then pulled out in front of Key to turn left. But Key had not seen motorcyclist Dewayne Hamilton traveling southbound in the adjacent lane. Hamilton, who was traveling above the speed limit, crashed into Owens’ car, and the force of the impact propelled Hamilton over Owens’ car onto the roadway. Hamilton sustained serious injuries as a result of the crash.

At trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Hamilton, allocating fault as follows: 5 percent to Hamilton, 45 percent to Key and 50 percent to non-party Owens. The trial court determined Hamilton’s damages to be $2.2 million and therefore entered judgment against Key and his employers in the amount of $990,000. The defendants appealed the trial court’s determination.

The COA held that 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 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 majority, citing Webb v. Jarvis, 575 N.E.2d 992 (Ind. 1991), concluded that Hamilton had passed a “balancing test” established by the Supreme Court to determine whether a duty exists. In order to impose a duty, the court must balance: (1) the relationship between the parties, (2) the reasonable foreseeability of harm to the person injured, and (3) public policy concerns.

But Judge Paul Mathias disagreed that this case met the three-prong test in Webb, saying because Key did not see Hamilton, and Hamilton did not see Key waving Owens into traffic, no relationship had been established between Key and Hamilton.  

In his dissent, Mathias wrote that Key’s behavior was “laudatory,” because he took the time to thoroughly check for oncoming traffic before waving Owens onto the roadway. “Yet the majority opinion effectively penalizes drivers such as Key, who at least try to discern whether there is any oncoming traffic, by exposing them to liability for any resulting collision,” Mathias wrote.
 


 

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