Under Washington law, a driver intending to turn left at an intersection must yield to a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction that is in the intersection or close enough to be an immediate hazard. This rule seems fairly straightforward and suggests that the vehicle turning left will usually be at fault in an accident in an intersection. Seattle car accident attorneys know, however, that the law is not that simple, and the facts of a particular accident may mean that the driver of the vehicle turning left is not liable for the accident.
A recent case illustrates how the driver turning left is not always found to be at fault. In this case, the plaintiff was on a motorcycle in the curbside lane traveling south. This lane was a right-turn-only lane for vehicles other than buses. There were a total of three southbound lanes.
The defendant was traveling north. When the defendant reached the intersection, there was traffic in the two southbound through lanes, but they had left a gap for vehicles to turn left. The defendant entered the intersection to make her left turn. As she was making the turn, she saw the plaintiff in the curb lane. She stopped in front of the southbound through lanes, before reaching the curb lane.
When the plaintiff saw the defendant, he braked suddenly. The sudden stop caused him to fall to the ground, and he sustained injuries. The vehicles did not collide.
The plaintiff filed a negligence lawsuit. The defendant then moved for summary judgment. The plaintiff argued the defendant breached her duties under RCW 46.61.185 and RCW 46.61.190(2). The trial court granted the motion, and the plaintiff appealed.
The appeals court first considered the plaintiff’s argument that the defendant breached her statutory duty to yield the right-of-way. The appeals court acknowledged that the defendant was the disfavored driver and had a duty to yield under RCW 46.61.185. The appeals court acknowledged that she had the primary duty to avoid a collision.
The appeals court determined that the primary issue was the meaning of “yield the right-of-way.” The appeals court looked at the plain meaning of the language in the statute and consulted the dictionary definitions of “yield” and “right-of-way.” The appeals court found that a failure to yield the right-of-way occurs when a driver “fails to give up to another vehicle the right to pass in front of that vehicle.” It found that the defendant had yielded the right-of-way because she stopped before getting to the curbside lane where the defendant was traveling. The defendant did not enter the plaintiff’s right-of-way. She stopped before she got there, meaning she yielded the right-of-way. The appeals court found the defendant met her duty under the statute.
The plaintiff also argued the defendant breached a common law duty based on the clear stretch of road doctrine. The appeals court noted that this doctrine is codified in RCW 46.61.190. This doctrine requires that, when there is an obstruction blocking the view of a disfavored driver, and the obstruction is one that can reasonably be expected to move, the disfavored driver must wait for the obstruction to move so that she can see the stretch of road where a favored driver might be traveling. The appeals court found there was nothing in the record indicating there was an obstruction, so there was no duty for her to wait for an unobstructed view.
The appeals court found that there was no breach to support a negligence claim. The court further found no genuine issue of material fact under either argument, and therefore it affirmed the summary judgment.
This case shows that a left-turning driver is not always at fault for an accident. The court here found that she had not breached her duties under the law. Although the lack of collision was relevant in this case, it was the court’s finding that there was no breach that resulted in the favorable result for the defendant. Different facts may have led to a different result, even if the vehicles did not collide. Indeed, the result here may have been different had the defendant reached the plaintiff’s lane before stopping, even if the plaintiff’s injuries were caused by a fall from the motorcycle rather than a collision.
The Washington car accident attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC, have a thorough understanding of right-of-way laws in Washington. If you have been injured in an automobile accident, call us at (206) 622-6562.
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Image: FreeImages.com / Brian Nunnery