The Maine Supreme Judicial Court was faced with a number of interesting personal injury liability questions of first impression in the recent case of Murdock v. Thorne.
For instance: Does a motorist who waves forward another driver have a duty to ensure it is completely safe for the driver to move ahead? Further, does a driver in the outer lane of a four-lane road approaching stopped traffic and a driveway on the right have a duty to anticipate traffic turning into his lane when vehicles in the inner lane are stopped short of that driveway for this purpose?
To answer yes to both questions would be to substantially expand the scope of potential liability for motorists. But the state high court wasn’t ready to do that just yet. Justices didn’t completely foreclose on the possibility, but rather concluded the case at hand wasn’t ripe for such a decision. They dismissed the appeals and told litigants they could appeal again once all other relevant matters were resolved by the lower court.
The case involves a Maine state police officer who was seriously injured in a Portland car accident while on-duty in January 2010.
According to court records, plaintiff, a lieutenant with the Maine State Police, stopped his cruiser in a westbound lane of Skyview Driver with the intention of turning left to enter the State Police barracks driveway, which was located on the other side of the road.
Meanwhile, Defendant No. 1, a motorist traveling the opposite direction in the inner eastbound lane, was approaching a line of stopped traffic ahead. He stopped short of the vehicle in front of him so that he could leave a gap in front of the driveway for the officer to turn. At that point, Defendant No. 1 gestured to the officer to wait for a moment. Defendant No. 1 then checked his side mirror and, seeing no oncoming traffic, waved to the officer to indicate he could safely make the turn.
The officer inched forward, continuing to check for oncoming traffic as he turned in front of Defendant No. 1. However, as the officer continued to cross in front of Defendant No. 1, the driver again looked in his mirror and saw another motorist, Defendant No. 2, coming toward then in the outermost eastbound lane. Defendant No. 2 honked and waved to the officer to indicate he should stop, but the officer did not hear or see this. Defendant No. 2, who was traveling at or below the 25 mph speed limit, did not see the officer until it was too late.
Defendant No. 2 collided with plaintiff, who suffered serious injuries as a result. Plaintiff collected workers’ compensation benefits, as he’d been working at the time of the accident. He also filed a lawsuit against both Defendants No. 1 and No. 2, as well as against the police agency’s auto insurance company, Defendant No. 3, seeking underinsured motorist coverage.
Trial court granted summary judgment to Defendants No. 1 and No. 3 on the issue of liability, and also indicated that was a final appealable order. The matter against Defendant No. 2 was still pending.
Plaintiff appealed and Defendant No. 3 filed a cross-appeal against plaintiff.
On appeal, however, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court concluded the lower court had improvidently allowed the appeals to proceed. The court never reviewed the facts of the case on merit, finding that:
- The central dispute of fact that is unresolved is whether Defendant No. 2 was negligent. If it was proven at trial he was not liable, plaintiff conceded, “the entire case would go away.”
- If the court affirmed the summary judgments, it would not end the case at the trial court level.
So essentially, the court found, what they would be issuing is an advisory opinion on what are important issues of first impression and which would affect the public financially. The court stated this wasn’t a prudent court of action. However, if following trial there were claims that survive to judgment and that judgment is appealable, it will mean the court will have a fully-developed record to consider and the case could be weighed at that time.
If you are the victim of a Bangor car accident, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-804-2004 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.
Murdock v. Thorne, March 10, 2016, Maine Supreme Judicial Court
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