James Hankins and Avril Calhoun win consolidated appeal, where Georgia Court of Appeals holds employee’s intervening criminal conduct of taking a work vehicle and causing a series of accidents broke the chain of causation.

Michael Crann and Michael Self filed separate lawsuits against Local Mechanical and its former employee Steve Moss, relating to a series of motor vehicle accidents occurring on August 14, 2017.  More specifically, former employee Steve Moss took without permission a work vehicle from the job site in Dawsonville, and he then drove that vehicle towards the downtown area of Dawsonville, ultimately causing multiple motor vehicle accidents en route to the vehicle’s final resting place inside a Moe’s restaurant.  Numerous motorists and pedestrians involved in the series of accidents sustained injuries, and a total of four lawsuits were filed against Local and Mr. Moss relating to the August 14, 2017 incident. 

 In the four cases, James obtained summary judgment, and Mr. Crann and Mr. Self appealed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment for James’ client, Local Mechanical.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals consolidated the Crann and Self appeals and issued one opinion, affirming the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. 

Although the Plaintiffs in the Crann and Self cases asserted a variety of negligence-based theories against Local (i.e. negligent retention and training, vicarious liability, etc.), Mr. Crann and Mr. Self only appealed the grant of summary judgment on the negligence claim.  The trial court granted Local’s motion for summary judgment, finding the intervening criminal conduct was the proximate cause of Mr. Self and Mr. Crann’s injuries. On appeal, the Court of Appeals analyzed whether Mr. Moss’ intervening criminal conduct relieved Local of liability for the alleged negligence of its employee.  The Court of Appeals decided Mr. Moss conduct of taking a work vehicle without permission and then causing a series of accidents broke the causal chain, making it proper for the trial court to grant summary judgment to Local.

The Court of Appeals noted Mr. Moss worked for Local as a plumber’s assistant, and Mr. Moss reported to Robbie Alexander, the work project general superintendent.  While driving to the work site on the day of the accident, Mr. Moss acted quiet during the drive, but he made some comments about using drugs over the weekend and about whether his life was worth living.  Although Mr. Alexander testified that he was concerned about Mr. Moss, he didn’t think Mr. Moss was under the influence of alcohol or drugs and didn’t think Mr. Moss was suicidal. 

At the work site, Mr. Moss made similar comments but also talked about religion and asked Mr. Alexander to pray with him.  During this conversation, Mr. Moss commented about heaven and hell, whether his son would go with him after he died, and how to bring religion into his life.  Unbeknownst to Mr. Alexander, during the work at the job site, Mr. Moss had gone up to the top of the parking deck and considered committing suicide.  When Mr. Moss returned (Mr. Alexander assumed he had gone to the bathroom), Mr. Moss was sweating and clearly agitated.  Out of concern for his co-worker, Mr. Alexander cranked up the work vehicle and allowed Mr. Moss to sit in the air-conditioned vehicle, hoping he would feel better.  After Mr. Moss got into the work vehicle, Mr. Moss took the vehicle without permission and then he drove the vehicle into town, causing multiple vehicle accidents.  Mr. Moss concluded his taking of the vehicle by driving the vehicle into a Moe’s restaurant.  Regarding the basis of Mr. Moss’ actions, it was alleged that Mr. Moss was trying to kill himself during the accidents and he had wanted to be raptured during the accidents. 

On appeal, the Court of Appeals held Mr. Moss’ actions broke the causal chain by his intervening criminal conduct.  Looking at the recent Supreme Court case of Johnson, the Georgia Supreme Court held that a rental car company and its manger were not liable for injuries due to the intervening criminal conduct of any employee who stole a car.  In reaching its holding, the Supreme Court noted that the criminal conduct of the employee was unforeseeable because there was no evidence that an employee’s taking of a vehicle and being involved in a high-speed chase was reasonably predictable. 

Applying the holding in Johnson, the Court of Appeals reasoned that although there were signs of Mr. Moss struggling emotionally, Mr. Moss’ theft of the work truck and attempt to commit suicide was not the probable and natural consequence that Mr. Alexander could have reasonably anticipated.  Based on the evidence, both Mr. Alexander and Mr. Moss knew that Mr. Moss was not permitted to drive the work vehicle, and he had never taken the vehicle before without permission.  Also, Mr. Moss neither appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol nor had he previously displayed impulsive behavior on the job site due to his post traumatic distress disorder.  Accordingly, the Court of Appeals found Mr. Moss’ conduct was too remote as a matter of law to render Local liable for his actions.  Therefore, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. 

This appellate win for James and Avril’s client brings to an end five and one-half years of litigation arising from the August 2017 motor vehicle accidents.