Washington Appeals Court Upholds Defense Summary Judgment for “Favored Driver”

The right-of-way can be an important issue in automobile accident cases.  It can be difficult for a plaintiff who fails to yield the right-of-way to recover compensation from the other driver.  A Washington appeals court recently reviewed a case in which the plaintiff was hit by an oncoming vehicle as the plaintiff attempted to turn left in Colburn v. Trees.

The accident occurred when the plaintiff, traveling north, turned left at an intersection and was struck by the defendant, who was going south.  There were no turn lanes at the intersection.  The defendant approached in the left lane, but he moved to the right lane after seeing a bus preparing for a left turn in the left lane.  The bus partially obstructed each driver’s view.  Each entered the intersection on a green light.  The defendant continued south, while the plaintiff crossed the southbound lanes to turn left.  The defendant tried to swerve but still struck the plaintiff’s vehicle.

The plaintiff sued the defendant, and the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defense.  The plaintiff appealed.

A plaintiff in a negligence case must prove the defendant owed him a duty of care and breached that duty, proximately causing the plaintiff’s injuries.  Summary judgment is only appropriate when there are no genuine issues of material fact.  The plaintiff argued there were genuine issues of material fact because the defendant violated eight traffic codes and was negligent in several ways.

The defendant was traveling straight through the light and therefore had the right-of-way.  He was the “favored driver.”  The plaintiff was turning left across traffic and was therefore required to yield.  The plaintiff was the “disfavored driver.”

The plaintiff argued the defendant’s speeding was a proximate cause of the collision.  In Washington, however, a favored driver’s speeding is not a proximate cause if his vehicle is entitled to be where it is and if the favored driver could not have avoided the collision if he had not been speeding.  To show that speeding was a proximate cause, the plaintiff must provide evidence that allows the fact finder to infer the point of notice, or the time when a reasonable person using ordinary care would realize the other driver would not yield.  The plaintiff failed to provide that evidence.  The plaintiff argued that if the defendant was going the speed limit, he would have had an additional 1.2 seconds.  The appeals court found the plaintiff did not take into account the deceleration time and failed to establish that the increased time would be sufficient for the defendant to recognize the danger and avoid the collision.  The plaintiff also failed to show that the speeding affected the defendant’s point of notice. Without establishing the point of notice, the plaintiff could not show that speeding was a proximate cause of the accident.

The plaintiff also alleged that the defendant’s delayed use of his turn signal was negligent.  The defendant said he engaged the signal about 20 feet before changing lanes.  The plaintiff argued that if the defendant had signaled 80 feet earlier, as legally required, he would have seen the signal and could have avoided the accident.  The appeals court found there was no evidence that the plaintiff would have seen the signal.  Based on the plaintiff’s testimony, the appeals court found his attention was on the bus and other vehicles.  He did not see the defendant’s vehicle while its signal was on or while it was in the right lane.  The appeals court found no support for the plaintiff’s argument that he would have seen the signal if it had been engaged 1.36 seconds earlier.

The plaintiff argued the defendant violated RCW 46.61.140(1), which prohibits changing lanes except when it is safe to do so.  The appeals court also rejected this argument, finding the evidence indicated the defendant had changed lanes safely.

Additionally, the plaintiff argued the defendant drove inattentively.  The plaintiff submitted a witness declaration in support of his position, but the appeals court found the witness made conclusory statements that were not supported by facts.  Speculation is insufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact.

Finally, the plaintiff argued the defendant was negligent in swerving right, which was the same direction the defendant was moving.  A finding of negligence cannot be based on a split-second decision that was reasonable at the time, even if an alternative decision seems more appropriate in hindsight.  Additionally, the appeals court found no evidence that the way the defendant swerved was a proximate cause of the accident.  The plaintiff did not show that it was unreasonable for the defendant to swerve right or that he could have avoided the collision if he swerved left.

The plaintiff also argued that the “deception doctrine” applied and would allow him to recover from the defendant.  The deception doctrine was developed to soften the harsh results of Washington negligence per se and contributory negligence laws.  This doctrine applies when a favored driver deceives a reasonably prudent driver into thinking he can safely turn left.  Courts have stated that the action must be “tantamount to an entrapment….”  The doctrine can apply when the disfavored driver sees the favored vehicle and is deceived by the driver’s actions.  The doctrine does not apply if the disfavored driver sees the favored vehicle an instant before the collision. The appeals court found no evidence of deception.  That the plaintiff saw the defendant’s vehicle in the left lane without a signal was not sufficient to support the application of the deception doctrine.  The plaintiff did not see the defendant stop behind the bus, and the defendant did nothing to indicate he would do so.  Additionally, the plaintiff did not establish that he would have seen the defendant’s signal if he had indicated the lane change earlier, so the delayed signal did not support the application of the doctrine.

The doctrine can also apply when the disfavored driver carefully looked but could not see the negligently operated favored vehicle because of an obstruction.  The obstruction, however, cannot be one that can be reasonably expected to move.  Here, the plaintiff would have had a clear view once the bus left the intersection.  The plaintiff failed to show that the deception doctrine applied.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s order.

This case illustrates how difficult it can be for a disfavored driver to succeed in recovering from a favored driver.  It is not impossible for the disfavored driver to succeed, but he or she must show that the defendant’s negligence proximately caused the injury.  If you have been injured in an automobile accident, the Washington car accident attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC can help you. Call us at (206) 622-6562 to discuss your case.

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