$3 Million Verdict Against Unknown Trucker Affirmed by South Carolina Appellate Court – Tucker v. Doe

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you had a car accident due to the negligence of someone else  but you had no way of identifying the negligent party? South Carolina law requires every motor vehicle owner to carry uninsured motorist (UM) insurance, which may allow you to file a lawsuit ostensibly against the “John Doe” who caused the accident, and, if the suit is successful, your UM carrier will be liable for the damages ultimately awarded by the courts (up to the amount of your policy limits).

In theory, this might sound a little bit like shooting fish in a barrel; after all, you and your insurance company are on the same side, right? Unfortunately, no, you are not. Proceedings against a UM carrier can be just as adversarial – sometimes, even more adversarial – than a run-of-the-mill lawsuit in which the actual defendant is known and present at trial.

Facts of the Case

In the recent case of Tucker v. Doe, the plaintiff was a truck driver who was involved in a single vehicle accident while driving a tractor-trailer along I-95 in 2010. According to the plaintiff, he was driving in the right lane when the car ahead of him braked and switched lanes. He said that he could not see what was ahead, so he tried to follow switch lanes, too, but a passing car prevented him from doing so. He then hit something in the right lane, lost control of the truck, and hit a concrete support column.

The plaintiff filed suit in the Circuit Court of Darlington County, naming “John Doe, individually and doing business as Doe Trucking Company” as the defendant and seeking actual and punitive damages from the operator of the unknown truck that had been carrying the item that allegedly caused the crash. The plaintiff’s uninsured motorist insurance carriers answered the complaint on behalf of defendant “Doe.”

Proceedings in the Trial Court

At trial, a tow truck driver testified that he found a large block of metal in the vicinity of the crash. The plaintiff also offered into evidence an affidavit of a man who witnessed the accident; this witness stated that the plaintiff veered “as if to avoid something” just before the wreck. Another trucker testified that, a couple of hours before the accident, he had observed a blue freightliner carrying cargo resembling the metal block turn onto I-95 and that, in his opinion, the load was not properly secured.

The jury found in the plaintiff’s favor, awarding him $2.5 million in actual damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages. The circuit court remitted the punitive damages award to $500,000 but otherwise denied the defendant’s motions for relief from the verdict.

The Appellate Court’s Opinion

The South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the circuit court had acted properly in denying the defendant’s motions for a directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). According to the court, the witness’s affidavit satisfied S.C. Code § 38-77170(2), despite the defendant’s argument to the contrary. The court found unpersuasive the defendant’s argument that the plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence to create a question of fact about whether an unknown vehicle had proximately caused the accident by leaving an object in the road.

The court also found that the defendant had failed to preserve the issue of punitive damages for appeal.

To Speak to a South Carolina Truck Accident Lawyer

Car and truck accidents are all too common on our roadways. If you or a family member is suffering because of the actions of a negligent driver or trucker, call the law firm of Patrick E. Knie for an appointment to discuss your case. You can reach us at 864-582-5118. The initial consultation is free, and many cases are accepted on a contingency fee arrangement. We are currently reviewing cases throughout South Carolina, including Spartanburg and Greenville.

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