by: Daniel M. Witte, Attorney
We've all done it before - given a hand-signal to a driver in another car - at intersections, in parking lots, etc. But what does it mean if a collision would then result, could you then be responsible for the collision, at least in part, because of your "wave"? Our Indiana Court of Appeals recently looked at that question and answered, under the specific facts of the case before it, that yes, you can have fault for a collision as a result of a hand-signal to another driver. This decision creates new Indiana law.
In the case of Key v. Hamilton, decided on February 28, 2012, the Court of Appeals held that Key, a truck driver who conspicuously signaled an "all clear" to John Owens, who wanted to turn left in front of a line of stopped traffic, could be assessed fault for the resultant collision between Owens and Dewayne Hamilton, who was riding a motorcycle in the lane of travel next to Key.
The collision took place on State Road 9 in Madison County. Traffic was lined up at a stoplight on SR 9 at its intersection with Huntsville Road. Owens was on Market Street and wanted to turn left onto SR 9 to proceed north. Key's truck was the first vehicle stopped in the line of traffic on SR 9 north of its intersection with Market Street. Key, seeing that Owens wanted to turn left, got out of his seat, stood on his truck's door sill, and then made a conspicuous search of traffic before signaling to Owens that it was "all clear." Key obviously did not see or account for Hamilton's motorcycle, which was southbound on SR 9.
Hamilton was severely injured in the motorcycle accident collision with Owens and he subsequently brought suit against both Key and Owens. At trial, Key filed a motion to be removed from the fault consideration for the collision, saying that he owed no duty Hamilton. The trial court denied that motion and the jury ultimately found under Indiana's Comparative Fault Law that Key had 45% fault for the collision; Owens 50%; and Hamilton had 5%.
Key appealed the jury trial result and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling, stating that because of the steps Key took in signaling to Owens, he assumed a duty he may not have otherwise had: "Key investigated the traffic behind him before determining that it was clear for Owens to turn left. Key was not just engaging in the typical courtesy wave, indicating that he only was going to allow Owens to pass in front of him. Instead, he engaged in a thorough examination of the traffic behind him before waving Owens through, indicating that it was 'all clear.' Key genuinely believed the intersection was clear, as he testified that he would not put someone in the 'position of danger' if there was oncoming traffic. Because of this investigation on the part of Key, it was reasonably foreseeable that Owens would rely on this signal and pull into the intersection without being able to see oncoming traffic himself due to the obstruction caused by Key's truck. If there was an unseen oncoming motorist, like Hamilton, it would be foreseeable that Owens could collide with him in the intersection as a result of his reasonable reliance on Key's all clear' signal."
Under the facts of the Key case, it is now possible to have fault for waving or giving a hand-signal to another driver if a collision results. However, the Court of Appeals specifically stated that it was limiting its outcome, so as not to discourage "courteous driving": "Finding that Key owed a duty to Hamilton will not discourage courteous driving behavior in Indiana.This is so because the ordinary 'wave on' would not result in liability. This decision will not generate liability for the courteous driver who, for example, allows someone to pass through an intersection with a four-way stop sign ahead of him.That behavior does not create a relationship between the two drivers, nor should it. If that courteous driver, however, were to engage in such behavior as Key did to ensure the other driver's safety in passing through the intersection, behavior that was reasonably relied upon by Owens, then he will be held to have a duty to that other driver."
So like many things in life, the lesson here is be courteous, but be careful . . .