Motorist's Duty to other Motorists

Brown v. Hamilton (Ind. Ct. App. Feb. 28, 2012)

- Originally published February 28, 2012

The Court of Appeals held that a driver who signals to a second driver that it is safe to proceed owes a duty to a third motorist who is injured because of the second driver’s reasonable reliance on the signaling driver. This case used a Webb v. Jarvis analysis and extended the rule announced in Claxton v. Hutton, 615 N.E.2d 471 (Ind. Ct. App. 1993), that a signaling motorist owes a duty to the driver at which he or she directs the signal. The Brown rule is inconsistent with decisions from California, Georgia, Michigan, and Ohio, which hold a motorist’s non-delegable duty of care for other motorists and duty to yield to preferred motorists prohibits that motorist from relying on a signaling motorist. Judge Mathias dissented.

In Brown, the signaling driver was named as a non-party. An interesting question is why the Court (or the parties) framed the issue as one of duty. Non-parties may be assigned fault even if they owed no duty to the plaintiff, as long as they contributed to cause the plaintiff’s injuries. See Bulldog Battery Corp. v. Pica Investments, Inc., 736 N.E.2d 333, 338 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000) (“The nonparty defense is not limited to instances where the named nonparty is or may be liable to the plaintiff.”).

It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court decides to accept transfer in this case (assuming a petition is filed). The Court has questioned the utility of Webb in the past and this case would seem to provide a good opportunity to address Webb’s ongoing validity. Further, the Supreme Court may wish to clarify the interaction of duty and non-party defenses, as the Court of Appeals and the parties characterization of duty seems to conflict with the previous precedent on this point.

Regardless, this case is important for both plaintiffs and defense attorneys who represent parties involved in traffic accidents. Both sides should quickly determine whether any third parties should be named as defendants or non-parties, as a jury could determine that the signaling party bears substantial fault for the accident – in Brown, the signaling party was assigned 50% of the fault.

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