D.C. Court of Appeals Rules on the Scope of the “Last Clear Chance” Doctrine in Auto Accident Cases

by | Oct 13, 2016

The District of Columbia is one of the few jurisdictions that applies the law of “contributory negligence.” For example, this means that if a wrongdoer negligently operates his vehicle so as to cause a motor vehicle collision, but the victim also did something negligent that contributed to the accident – even if the victim was much less at fault than the wrongdoer – then the victim cannot win a lawsuit against the wrongdoer.

However, the District of Columbia also recognizes another legal doctrine that softens the rule of contributory negligence. This legal doctrine is called the “last clear chance” doctrine. This means that if the wrongdoer was negligent and the victim was also contributorily negligent; and, as a result, the victim was put in a position where he/she was helpless to save him or herself; and the wrongdoer was still in a position to avoid injuring the victim, then the wrongdoer had the “last clear chance” to prevent injury and is responsible for the harm that follows.

In a recently decided case, Fisher v. Latney, the District’s high court, the Court of Appeals, further defined the circumstances under which the last clear chance doctrine may apply. In Fisher, the plaintiff was driving on three-lane roadway in the right lane. The plaintiff then changed lanes suddenly from the right lane all the way to the left lane, just in front of the defendant’s vehicle. The left bumper of plaintiff’s vehicle then came into contact with the front of the defendant’s vehicle. As a result of the collision, the plaintiff was injured.

At trial, the plaintiff acknowledged that there was evidence that he was contributorily negligent, but he asked the judge to permit the jury to find that the defendant was still liable under the last clear chance doctrine. The judge refused and, on appeal, the Court of Appeals held that this was the right decision for two reasons: First, there was no evidence that the Plaintiff was unable to save himself from the danger that he had put himself in by changing lanes suddenly; and, second, there was no evidence that the defendant was in a position to save the plaintiff, as the plaintiff’s lane-change was sudden and unexpected.

Where you’ve been injured in a motor vehicle collision, determining whether you may have been contributorily negligent – and whether the wrongdoer can still be held liable under the last clear chance doctrine – can require expert legal analysis. If you have been hurt in an automobile collision, you should contact the personal injury attorneys at Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel, P.C., for a free consultation to see whether you have a strong case.

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