Illinois Appellate Court Erodes the "Unavoidable Collision" Doctrine
february 26, 2015
Your driver is traveling along a highway with the right of way and approaching an intersection when a driver at a stop sign suddenly pulls out in front of your driver. There is a terrifying crash. The driver of the auto and two passengers are killed. Under the facts, one would certainly think that the driver of the auto was clearly responsible for the accident. Nevertheless, a jury, faced with similar facts, found against the defendants and awarded over $18 million.
In Powell v. Dean Foods Company, 2013 IL App (1st) 082513-B, the body of law surrounding the "unavoidable accident" doctrine took a marked departure from precedent. The defendant company argued that plaintiff's actions (pulling out in front of the truck) rendered the accident unavoidable and that it was therefore not liable. The defendant cited several prior decisions which appeared to be on point.
In Powell, the defendant driver estimated that he was traveling 40 to 45 mph. Plaintiff's expert opined that he was traveling 49.5 mph, while the defense expert concluded he was traveling 37 mph. The speed limit was 40 mph. Further, evidence was presented on both sides regarding whether the defendant driver had exceeded his driving time and whether he was fatigued.
The court acknowledged that a driver has a duty to stop at a stop sign and yield the right of away. However, with respect to the defendant truck driver, the court noted:
[A]lthough the driver on a preferential highway has the right to expect that the vehicle approaching on the secondary roadway controlled by a stop sign will obey the stop sign and yield the right-of-way, the driver does not have an absolute right to proceed into the intersection. Rather, the preferential driver 'has a duty to keep a proper lookout, observe due care in approaching and crossing intersections, and drive as a prudent person would to avoid a collision when danger is discovered or, by the exercise of reasonable care, should have been discovered.'
Powell, 2013 IL App (1st) 082513-B, ¶ 59.
The court found that the jury could have concluded that the defendant driver's speeding was the legal cause of the collision because the other driver may have "misjudge[d] how long it would take the semitruck to reach the intersection." Powell, 2013 IL App (1st) 082513-B, ¶ 61. According to the court, the jury could have concluded that the defendant driver could have avoided the collision, but failed to do so. There were a number of evidentiary issues that were improperly handled by the trial court. Despite the appellate court's holding with respect to the unavoidable collision doctrine, the case was reversed and remanded. Nevertheless, damage to the "unavoidable collision" doctrine remains.