It’s a common roadway gesture you’ve likely seen and probably done yourself: You are preparing to make a left turn into a driveway. Traffic in the opposing lane approaches a red light ahead of that driveway. A motorist approaches the driveway and stops short. He is leaving you enough space to make your turn into that driveway. The driver waves you ahead, letting you know you can turn.
You rely on that gesture with the understanding that person isn’t going to tell you to go when there are cars coming? But what if it’s not actually completely safe? Does that driver owe any duty whatsoever to make sure that it is?
That was the issue in a recent car accident case before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. In Murdock v. Thorne, a police lieutenant was waiting to pull in to the driveway of a police station. It was a four-lane road. Opposing direction traffic was stopped ahead of a red traffic light. A motorist traveling the inside lane of that opposing traffic stopped short of the police station driveway, so as to let the officer make his turn.
At first, the driver motioned for the lieutenant to wait a moment. He then checked his rear mirrors before turning back to the officer and waved him ahead, indicating it was safe to go.
According to court records, the officer inched his way forward to cross the opposing lane of traffic. He said he was relying on his own sight – and not the indication given by the other driver – but he still would not have proceeded had the driver not waved him ahead.
Just then, the motorist in front of whom the officer was crossing looked back in his rear view mirror and spotted another vehicle approaching. It was later determined that vehicle was traveling at or below the 25 mph speed limit.
The motorist who had waved the cop ahead now laid on the horn and started waving, in an effort to communicate that it was no longer safe. However, the officer did not hear or see this. He continued to proceed and was struck by the approaching vehicle.
He suffered serious injuries as a result.
The officer then filed a lawsuit against the motorist who waved him ahead, the driver who struck him and the insurance company that provided underinsured motorist coverage through his employer.
He also collected workers’ compensation benefits from his employer. So serious were his injuries that he was forced to resign from the police department later that year.
In his lawsuit, he alleged the other two motorists were negligent and that the insurance company was required to pay him underinsured motorist benefits.
The lower court granted summary judgment to the motorist who had waved the officer ahead as well as to the insurance company. However, the issue of whether the motorist who struck him was liable was still at issue.
Plaintiff appealed the summary judgment issued to the other two defendants to the state supreme court. However, justices dismissed the appeal. They noted that the questions raised in this case were important matters of first impression for the state, and could result in significant expansion of liability if they sided with plaintiff. However, because the matter was not fully resolved at the trial level, the court felt it could proceed with a review of the case on appeal.
Once the remaining claim proceeds to the judgment phase, any outstanding issues can be addressed at that time.
If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Murdock v. Thorne, March 10, 2016, Maine Supreme Judicial Court
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