Liabilities at the Scene of an Accident

According to the Seattle Times, a jury awarded a woman 2.7 million dollars for hitting a horse in the road. The award went against the phone company alone, not the phone company driver, not the person attending the horse, not against another driver who had pulled over but did not warn other drivers and certainly not against the driver who was injured from hitting the horse due to her own negligence.

This case is a clear demonstration of how our legal system seeks after the person, or entity, with the deepest pockets. So, if you don’t want your pockets lightened, get your safety management program in place.

Here is what happened, as rendered in the news report: An attended horse got loose and ventured into the road. It was hit by a phone company truck. The driver either left the scene or parked his truck down the road; the article is not clear. Another driver came upon the horse in the road, pulled over, and began looking for the owner, which seems to indicate the horse’s attendant had also left the scene. Shortly after that, another driver came upon the dead horse, hit the carcass and was injured.

It is hard to figure how the driver did not see something as large as a fallen horse in the road and the fact that another driver came upon the horse and pulled over is evidence the horse was observable and that the female driver who hit the horse was not attentive to her driving. So, in effect, the jury awarded the person who was not paying attention a multi-million dollar settlement for two reasons: 1) the inattentive person was injured; and 2) the defendant had deep pockets. The reason I am making this clear is not only to indict our litigious court system but also to emphasize the importance of making certain your employees follow detailed and clear safety management policies and understand they are responsible to protect other employees and the general public because they will not protect themselves.

During the trial, the offensive attorney entered into evidence the phone company had a safety policy requiring the driver to remain at the scene and take steps to reduce the possibility of further accidents. However, the driver testified that stopping was dangerous and that he also could not backup because the accident had damaged one of his side mirrors. Obviously, the employee was not aware of company policy, or was not thinking about it during a critical event.

Sidenote: At this point, it appears the company did everything they were required to do by having a safety policy that addressed this type of event. So, you may wonder why it was the phone company that was penalized rather than the driver. The reason is two-fold: 1) In the law, the employee is an agent for the employer and the employer is responsible for the activities of the employee on company time; and 2) Having a safety policy in place is not sufficient. The employer is responsible to train the employee to understand the policies and enforce the practices. Actual reading of this case may give other reasons as well.

The gap between what was required and what the employee did can probably be measured in the training, or lack of training, provided by the company. The basic requirements of every job should be clearly explained during orientation training and the employee should demonstrate a clear understanding of what was taught. This should be documented and should be repeated at least once a year. Specialized training may have other requirements.

The actions of any employee can have direct, or indirect, effect upon other employees and the general public. It is important all employees are thoroughly trained in their responsibilities; be made aware of the dangers of their occupation; how to work safely; and know what to do when something goes wrong. Be prepared, be responsible – make certain you have a qualified, effective safety management program in place and train your employees to understand the full scope of their responsibilities.

Call Dean, at Cougar Gulch Group, LLC, for a free consultation, 208-699-6877.

Read the news story at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2012303117_horseverdict08m.html?prmid=obinsource

About the author: Dean Isaacson

General contractor since 1975 (currently with Idaho Contractor). Previously held Certified Safety Administrator status from the National Association of Safety Professionals. Expert witness and forensics in construction related cases. Will help you with project management and marketing. We do cold calls and trade shows.

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