From the desk of Cliff J. Wilson: In this follow-up case to a 2011 Court of Appeals ruling, the Oregon Supreme Court overturned the lower courts, ruling that the jury should have been allowed to decide the claim of a motorcyclist who ran into a chain that he knew existed and that he wasn’t paying attention to.
Claims Pointer: A common defense in negligence cases is that the plaintiff is the sole cause of the injury. On occasion, this question can be taken from a jury and decided by the court, but only if the defendant can show that the plaintiff’s proof is very minimal. Read on to see how the Oregon Supreme Court analyzes this close issue in the context of a distracted driver.
Towe v. Sacagawea, Inc., 357 Or 74 (2015).
Billie Charles Towe was riding his motorcycle on a road that he was very familiar with when he ran into a chain across the road, which caused him injury. The road that Towe was driving on was a private access road owned by Mountain View Rock (Mountain View), a rock quarry. Towe knew that Mountain View occasionally used a chain on the road to keep trespassers out because he had worked at the quarry about 11 to 12 months prior to the accident. Towe had even removed and replaced that chain as part of his prior employment.
On the day of the accident, Towe was riding his motorcycle behind a friend, Koch, who was also on his motorcycle. Koch turned onto the quarry road and Towe followed. On that occasion, the chain was up and blocking the road. As the two men approached the chain, Koch slowed and came to a stop. Towe continued past Koch without breaking and ran into the chain at approximately 25 mph. As Towe passed Koch he looked over and saw that Koch had a concerned look on his face. Towe sued Mountain View in negligence. Mountain View filed for summary judgment in part because it believed that, as a matter of law, Towe was the sole cause of his own injuries.
The trial court concluded that Towe was the sole cause of his injuries because he was riding in daylight and the only reason Towe ran into the chain was because he failed to give a proper lookout by looking over at Koch as he passed him and not paying attention to the roadway. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
The Oregon Supreme Court reversed the rulings of the lower courts. The Court explained that the trial court’s ruling basically concluded that no amount of warning could have prevented Plaintiff’s injuries because Plaintiff was not paying enough attention to his surroundings. The Court examined the factual basis for that ruling. First, the Court pointed out that while Towe admitted that he looked back at Koch, who saw the chain, in the light most favorable to Towe, this was only a glance, and he immediately returned his focus to the roadway.
Similarly, the Court observed that the trial court relied on Plaintiff’s admission that because his eyes were “wandering” as he was driving, he could not possibly be paying attention to the road. The Court stated that a reasonable alternative conclusion from the same fact would be that he was paying attention to the road, but admiring the surroundings, as many drivers do. Besides that point, the Court stressed that such a determination of reasonableness is better left for a jury. Even though Towe knew about the chain’s existence, was driving distracted, and that he looked back at Koch, his claim survived summary judgment because reasonable jurors could conclude that Mountain View’s failure to provide better warnings could have been a cause of Towe’s injuries.
In next week’s case update, we will present the second part of this case, in which the Oregon Supreme Court addressed a novel issue in this case involving liability to trespassers.
Case updates are intended to inform our clients and others about legal matters of current interest. They are not intended as legal advice. Readers should not act upon the information contained in this article without seeking professional counsel.