Court Applies Last Clear Chance Doctrine in Personal Injury Case

trainTypically, when dealing with personal injury claims, a plaintiff must show that the defendant negligently caused the injuries or harm that resulted, and it was not the plaintiff’s own negligence that was the primary cause of the accident. However, in certain cases, courts may allow plaintiffs to bring claims even if they were significantly responsible for their own injury because it would be unjust or inhumane to allow otherwise. One of these circumstances is when the last clear chance doctrine applies.

A recent case in neighboring Virginia is an excellent example of this doctrine. G.C.’s husband was walking adjacent to railroad tracks while listening to music. Since he had his music turned up, he could not hear the sound of an approaching train behind him. At the time, the defendants, who were operating the train, saw G.C.’s husband near the tracks long before they approached him. Despite seeing him and noticing that he was not moving away from the tracks as the train approached, the defendants did nothing to alert G.C.’s husband of their oncoming presence. They did not blow their horn, make any other noises, or attempt to stop. Instead, the train passed G.C.’s husband, and he was struck by a part of the train that extended out from its side and was killed. G.C. filed a wrongful death lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, she acknowledged that her husband was partially responsible for the accident, since he had been walking along the tracks while listening to music. However, she argued that the last clear chance doctrine applied and that, regardless of his contributory negligence, the defendants were still liable. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that G.C.’s claim was barred by her husband’s contributory negligence. The trial court agreed and dismissed the complaint. G.C. appealed.

On appeal, G.C. argued that her complaint should not have been dismissed because she stated sufficient facts to show that the last clear chance doctrine might apply to her case and, accordingly, that her husband’s negligence did not preclude her claim. Under the last clear chance doctrine, a defendant may be held liable for an accident involving an inattentive plaintiff. If the inattentive plaintiff has negligently placed himself in a situation of peril but is unconscious of this fact, a defendant may be liable if he saw the plaintiff and realized or should have realized that the plaintiff was in trouble and that the plaintiff could be saved through reasonable care.

Here, G.C. alleged that her husband was unaware of the oncoming train behind him and could have moved out of the path of the train had he been alerted by the defendants, who had observed her husband and knew he was headed for an accident. Moreover, the appeals court held that since the last clear chance doctrine applied, it did not matter that G.C.’s husband was contributorily negligent because the doctrine clearly encompasses circumstances in which plaintiffs are negligent, and it still holds a defendant responsible for a failure to exercise their own reasonable care. This is done, according to the appeals court, for humane considerations and to avoid an unfair result. Accordingly, the appeals court held that G.C.’s complaint adequately alleged sufficient facts to survive dismissal and that the trial court should be reversed.

In certain situations in which a plaintiff has been negligent, and this has resulted in an injury, accident, or even death, but another party could have prevented the accident through reasonable care, the last clear chance doctrine may apply. This doctrine can help plaintiffs prevail against defendants under circumstances in which they might not normally be able to do so. However, the last clear chance doctrine applies only in very certain circumstances and must be carefully followed. At the Wolfe Law Firm, our West Virginia personal injury lawyers have a solid understanding of the last clear chance doctrine and have helped West Virginia residents determine whether it may be a viable claim in their case. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the Wolfe Law Firm represents clients in a wide range of injury, criminal defense, and bankruptcy matters. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

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Jurisdiction Over West Virginia Personal Injury Claims – Ford Motor Co. v. Wellman

Vacating Judgments in West Virginia Personal Injury Cases – Phillips v. Stear