Colorado Court: Drivers Not Liable for Hitting Animals in Road

August 15, 2006

Motorists who take reasonable action to avoid hitting large animals on the road cannot be held liable for negligence, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

It was the first time a Colorado court has set guidelines on how to apportion the blame in such traffic accidents, the ruling said.

A three-judge panel reversed a jury’s conclusion that a woman who was driving on Interstate 70 near Georgetown in February 2001 was partly at fault when her car was rear-ended after she slowed down for a herd of bighorn sheep in her lane.

The ruling said Colleen S. McClintic had checked her rearview mirror and saw no traffic before slowing down, but another driver who was behind a semitrailer in the left lane moved to the right to let another vehicle pass, and he crashed into McClintic’s car from behind. The other driver, Donald C. Hesse II, was driving so close to the truck that he couldn’t see into the right lane, the ruling said.

McClintic had surgery for a neck injury and continues to have treatment for pain, said her attorney, William Keating.

A Douglas County District Court jury awarded McClintic $170,000, but said she was 30 percent at fault, which would have reduced her award to about $119,000. The appeals court left the $170,000 award in place but said Hesse was completely at fault.

The court said a legal doctrine examining actions taken in emergencies should be applied in cases like McClintic’s.

Under that doctrine, people who — through no fault of their own —
are placed in a sudden emergency are not negligent if they use the same care that a “reasonably careful” person would use in similar circumstances, the court said. The ruling said McClintic’s decision to slow down was reasonable.

The court rejected Hesse’s arguments that McClintic should have pulled onto the shoulder of the highway and that she slowed too sharply, citing a state law prohibiting motorists from driving so slowly that they impede normal traffic flow. The court said when McClintic slowed down, there was no traffic behind her.

The ruling said the judge should not have submitted the case to
the jury, but rather ruled in favor of McClintic after all the
evidence was presented.

The case is No. 05CA68.

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