I met a really nice woman last week who young high school son was tragically killed in a car accident in which he was a passenger. I meet the nicest people in this job and I always wish it was under different circumstances.
Anyone who drives is very familiar with this scenario in this wrongful death case. You’re out on the road and see another driver who is trying to make a turn or change lanes. Empathy is natural because you have been in that same situation yourself. You recognize that you’re in a position to maybe help them out a little so you back up a few feet, make some eye contact, and graciously hand signal for them to “go ahead.” Most of the time the other driver gladly advances, gives a thanks signal, and everyone drives away with warm, fuzzing feelings of roadway civility (unless they do not give “the wave” which should be a felony).
But what if they proceed with their turn in response to your friendly signal and get T-boned by an oncoming truck in the next lane that neither of you saw coming? I knew the answer to this question, but it was a sort of “The Law of Ron” type thing — I had no actual source for my conclusion and a few lawyers at my office disagreed. So I thought my research would make a good blog post for other lawyers.
Reliance on Signals from other Drivers is not a Valid Defense
In the scenario described above, the driver who made the turn in response to the signal (“Driver A”) is clearly at fault for the accident. Driver A cannot avoid liability because he turned in reliance on the “go ahead” signal from the other driver (“Driver B”). Under Maryland law, drivers have a duty to check oncoming traffic before turning and that duty cannot be delegated to other drivers. Myers v. Bright, 327 Md. 395, 402 (1992). In Myers, the defendant attempted to avoid responsibility for an accident because he was “waived on” by a truck driver before turning. The court rejected that argument and explained that:
[s]omeone wanting to make a left turn is not relieved of responsibility because another motorist signals that the coast is clear. Bright’s obligation, as he moved left across the path of other vehicles, was to keep a lookout for such traffic, and not depend upon the act of another.
Id. at 402. So in our scenario above, let’s say Driver A gets sued by the guy in the other lane (“Driver C”) who t-boned him. Driver A will clearly be held liable because Driver C had the right-of-way. However, let’s say that Driver B was also injured in the accident and he decides to sue to Driver A too. Driver A may have a valid contributory negligence defense against any claims brought Driver B.
Drivers Who Signal Can be Sued for Negligence
Drivers do not have an affirmative duty to signal to others that it’s safe to proceed. However, if a driver voluntarily gives a signal, they can be held liable if someone relies on the signal and gets in an accident. This rule is based on the “voluntary undertaking” doctrine, which is well-established in tort law. When someone voluntarily decides to act, they assume a duty to act carefully. The Maryland appellate courts have specifically held that drivers who give “go ahead” signals can be sued under a voluntary undertaking theory. The case establishing this point of law in Maryland is Kemp v. Armstrong, 40 Md.App. 542 (1978), cert. denied, 284 Md. 741 (1979).
In Kemp, 2 dump truck drivers (Spindler & Kemp) were driving parallel to each other on 3 lane road. Kemp signaled that it was clear for Spindler to cross in front into the left lane for a U-turn. Spindler crossed in front of Kemp into the center lane but caused an accident with the plaintiffs as he continued into the left lane. The plaintiffs sued Kemp for negligently signaling to Spindler. The Court of Special Appeals confirmed that signaling drivers such as Kemp can be sued for negligent performance of a voluntarily assumed duty:
Kemp did in fact assume the voluntary duty of checking the traffic conditions in the left lane for the purpose of determining whether Spindler could safely come across his path into the left lane … Having assumed that duty, even though gratuitously, he was bound to act carefully.
Kemp 40 Md.App. at 546. Although the negligent signaling claims against Kemp were held to be valid, the Court ultimately concluded that Kemp’s signal was not the proximate cause of the accident. This was because the other truck driver, Spindler, testified that he did not actually rely on Kemp’s signal and checked for himself before crossing into the left lane. But the case is good law for the proposition that there is liability under this scenario.
Because Maryland law is so clear, I did not bother to spend a lot of time look at other jurisdictions. But for out-of-state lawyers reading this post, here are some other cases I have seen that agree. Here are a few of the seminal cases around the country:
- Louisiana: Massingale v. Sibley, 449 So.2d 98 (La.App. 1 Cir. 1984). The plaintiff struck a car taking a right turn out of a parking lot. The car coming out of the parking lot was signaled out by a truck stopped on the road. The plaintiffs in Massingale sued both the car and the truck driver. Reversing a summary judgment ruling from the trial court, the Louisiana Court of Appeals reversed holding that: “The conflicting interpretations of the meaning of the hand signal present a genuine issue of material fact as to whether or not [the truck driver] gratuitously assumed and/or breached a duty owed to [the driver]…. A resolution of this factual issue requires a credibility evaluation of the conflicting evidence and precludes the granting of a summary judgment.” This court also cites Kemp in its ruling which is how I found this case.
- Missouri: Miller v. Watkins, 355 S.W.2d 1 (Mo. 1962). A school bus driver was found to at-fault when an eight-year-old passenger was hit by a truck that the school bus driver had waved through as he waited for his passenger.
- Wisconsin: Wulf v. Rebbun, 25 Wis.2d 499, 131 N.W.2d 303 (1964). Plaintiff was waived into traffic by the operator of a truck parked along the curb. “These decisions rest upon a rationale most aptly stated by Justice Cardozo: ‘It is ancient learning that one who assumes to act, even though gratuitously, may thereby become subject to the duty of acting carefully, if he acts at all.’
- New York. Dolce v Cucolo, 966 NYS2d 581 (2013). A driver with a green light stopped short of the intersection and hand gestured to another driver who was waiting to turn into a gas station parking lot. The second drive hit an oncoming motorcyclist truck the motorcyclist who had passed the first driver on the right. “When one driver chooses to gratuitously signal to another person, indicating that it is safe to proceed or that the signaling driver will yield the right-of-way, the signaling driver assumes a duty to do so reasonably under the circumstances; this duty is owed to pedestrians and other motorists and passengers as well as to the person who is being signaled.”