Plaintiff’s Wrongful Death and Survival Action can Proceed, as Triable issues exist as to Negligence and Last Clear Chance Doctrine

Patrick Donahue of Wise & Donahue, PLC obtained a favorable decision from the District of Columbia Court of Appeals which reversed the Trial Court’s grant of Summary Judgment in Defendant’s favor, in the action Estate of Harris v. United Parcel Services, et al., District of Columbia case CAB-5180-15.  The Court of Appeals reversed the award of summary judgment because there were triable issues regarding negligence and application of the “last clear chance” doctrine which should go to the jury.

The case involved an action for wrongful death arising out of a motorcycle and truck collision.  On July 29, 2013, the appellee Reginald Bennett, a truck driver for United Parcel Service (“UPS”), was turning left when the delivery truck he was operating collided with a motorcycle operated by the deceased, Robert Harris.  Mr. Harris’ Estate (“Plaintiff”) brought an action against UPS and Bennett for wrongful death and survival.  The Estate was represented by Wise & Donahue, PLC.

The Trial Court granted summary judgment in favor of UPS and Bennett, holding that Mr. Harris was traveling over the speed limit and this was the sole cause of the accident.  The Trial Court also held that Plaintiff’s evidence did not satisfy any of the four requirements of the last clear chance doctrine–and the Estate therefore could not establish liability on that ground.  The District of Columbia bars recovery to plaintiffs who are contributorily negligent, unless they can prove that the defendant had the “last clear chance” to avoid the accident.

On appeal, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed the award of summary judgment, finding that there were triable issues regarding the speed Mr. Harris was travelling at the time of the collision.  The Court found that the trial court “overlooked other evidence in the record suggesting that Mr. Harris might have been travelling at a speed closer to the posted limit or slow enough that he did not cause the accident”.

The Court of Appeals also found sufficient evidence in the record that a reasonable juror could find that the four prongs of the “last clear chance” doctrine were met by Plaintiff.  The Court first noted a “narrow exception” to the rule barring recovery to a contributorily negligent plaintiff exists under District of Columbia law where the plaintiff can demonstrate by the preponderance of the evidence that the defendant had the “last clear chance” to avoid the accident.  The “last clear chance” doctrine has four factors[1].  The Court of Appeal found sufficient evidence that all four factors were met:

“More fundamentally, however, the record does appear to contain sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable juror to find for the estate—as to each of the four requisite factors.”

The judgment of the trial court was reversed, and the matter remanded for further proceedings.


[1] The four factors a Plaintiff must prove by the preponderance of the evidence to prevail under the “last clear chance” doctrine are: “(1) that the plaintiff was in a position of danger caused by the negligence of both plaintiff and defendant; (2) that the plaintiff was oblivious to the danger, or unable to extricate [himself] from the position of danger; (3) that the defendant was aware, or by the exercise of reasonable care should have been aware, of the plaintiff’s danger and of [his] oblivion to it or [his] inability to extricate [himself] from it; and (4) that the defendant, with means available to him, could have avoided injuring the plaintiff after becoming aware of the danger and the plaintiff’s inability to extricate [himself] from it, but failed to do so.”  Washington Metro. Area Transit Auth. v. Young, 731 A.2d 389, 394-95, (D.C. 1999).

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