Whodunnit: Evaluating An Accident With Several Possible Causes

By Michael GrossmanFebruary 06, 2017Reading Time: 6 minutes

There's a common misconception that accident attorneys will often sue anyone even tangentially related to a wreck--especially if those distantly-involved parties have deep pockets. The idea of course is that profit, not prudence, guides the attorneys' decision-making. It's a deeply cynical stance that is perpetuated by pop culture's insistence on portraying attorneys as vultures and profiteers. Quite to the contrary, though, attorneys' business is the zealous representation of their clients.

When an accident has multiple possible sources of injury, some people believe attorneys will seek to apportion blame to everyone involved. The theory behind that might be to hedge his bets toward obtaining a settlement; if the different defendants are fiscally solvent, the goal might be to take a "shotgun approach" and seek restitution from multiple parties.

Another myth is that an attorney just looks for who has the deepest pockets and goes after them, regardless of their liability for the accident. While a small number of attorneys may practice this way, they do a disservice to their clients by risking a small chance for a large gain, in place of just getting the compensation that a liable defendant can provide.

One example of a scene where liability might be in question occurred early in the morning on Friday, January 27th in Plano, Texas.

What Happened?

According to the Plano Police Department, the accident occurred near an Oncor Energy work site in the right northbound lane of Interstate 75. A line of traffic very slowly was making its way by the site, and a tractor-trailer owned by PepsiCo joined the line with its hazard lights on, indicating that it would be moving slowly.

As authorities described the accident, the driver of a Toyota Prius, 25-year-old Christopher Paul Kreneck, appears not to have noticed that the truck ahead of him had stopped. At approximately 2:20 a.m., Kreneck's vehicle ran into the back of the truck under the President George Bush Tollway overpass. As he was still traveling at a high rate of speed, the collision proved fatal; he was reported dead at the scene. His girlfriend and passenger, 19-year-old Tayler Reeves-Wimberly, was critically injured by the collision, and passed away in the hospital on Sunday, January 29.

No further details have yet been released.

Investigation Can Answer Some Important Questions

In most wrecks it helps to have as many answers as possible to address any ambiguities about their causes. Unfortunately, news sources are sometimes only able to glean scraps of information gathered from official department communications. Using known details, it can be hard to say exactly what happened or where liability might truly lie in a crash. For these situations, a more comprehensive third-party investigation can be very helpful in gathering useful information, such as:

  • Were all involved parties obeying traffic laws? Many is the time that interviewed witnesses, especially first-party witnesses involved in the crash, will "accidentally" neglect to mention that they were speeding, or that they had ignored some form of traffic control sign. The news report suggests that the driver of the Pepsi truck was moving slowly with his hazards on, but if that information came from the driver himself, there may be some embellishment or outright fabrication there. We've talked before about some of the pitfalls of trusting a crash survivor's testimony as gospel when creating a report, since people are innately wired to paint themselves in the best possible light. "They came out of nowhere," "The engine just stalled," and even "I don't know what happened" may be true, but also not the whole truth. Many is the occasion when it turns out that a motorist was intoxicated or dangerously exhausted; furthermore, distracted driving is a growing epidemic among all drivers, and it might have been a factor when Kreneck didn't realize the traffic had stopped.
    Other motorists from the scene may also have been interviewed about the wreck, but hard data is not affected by points of view or self-interest. An objective analysis of the scene and any data that can be obtained from involved vehicles' Engine Control Modules (ECM) could lend some insight into whether each driver was obeying traffic laws when the incident occurred. If the trucker is determined from such an analysis to have acted negligently, it is possible that he and by proxy his employer might be considered liable for damages.

     

  • Did intoxication play a role in the incident? The reported details of this case lend themselves to a certain measure of speculation, though I want to emphasize that I am not pointing any fingers. Given that the collision occurred just after 2 in the morning, it is worth considering that Christopher Kreneck may have been on his way home from an establishment that served alcohol. Most bars in Texas have a late-hours permit (as outlined by TABC § 105), meaning they can serve alcohol until 2:00 a.m. There is a significant rise in DUI crashes between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. as patrons leave or move between bars; the TABC graphic below represents 2015 census data to this effect:
    TxDOT 2015 DUI crash stats by hour

    Intoxication has not been indicated as a factor in this collision, but the fact pattern--the time of the crash and a reported failure to reduce speed--are two elements often present in dram shop cases. Were it discovered that a motorist who died in a crash had been served beyond the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) limit of .08, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the last bar to serve him a drink might be liable for his compromised judgment.

  • Was the Construction Site Secured and Properly Marked? This can be a major point to clarify when investigating circumstances like those in Plano. Work crews sometimes have a bad habit of improperly marking the boundaries of their site, or leaving equipment in the way of traffic. If the work site is not barricaded against traffic or signaled by lights or flares, it isn't out of the question for a wayward vehicle to enter the work zone and crash, particularly at night. Moreover, if crews are at work, the laborers themselves must exercise extreme caution if exiting the boundaries of the job site. The sudden appearance of a pedestrian in the roadway is a catalyst for a collision. It can create quite a situation if a car moving at highway speeds has to abruptly brake upon sudden discovery of a construction site or one of its workers. Flooring the brakes at 70 miles per hour creates enormously dangerous circumstances, both for the motorist who does it and for any vehicles behind him. These concerns are recognized by most metropolitan areas, and traffic control policy & procedure manuals are drafted by the city's chief traffic engineers (you can have a look at Dallas' current manual, last revised in 2011, through the city hall website).
    If any hazardous elements are present at one of these job sites, it is possible to consider the company in charge of the work as liable for any damages to passing traffic. It does not necessarily appear from the news reports that Oncor's work area presented any dangerous surprises to traffic; vehicles, including the Pepsi truck, allegedly passed the site in the remaining open lanes. However, if a crash happens near a job site it might behoove an investigator to inspect the work area as well for any errant equipment and adequate signage/traffic direction measures.

     

These and other questions warrant looking into in a crash with multiple possible sources of negligence. Providing some peace of mind to loved ones is often an end unto itself, even if the data gathered by private investigators does not support a theory of liability.

It's Often More Complex Than It Seems at First.

When details are somewhat lacking in a wreck, there is some room for speculation about what could be considered the proximate cause of the collision. While examining the crash, investigators would likely need to carefully consider all available sources of information in order to form a clearer picture. An accident's proximate cause is singular in nature; a crash cannot be blamed on all of these possible issues. In incidents where several sources of negligence could theoretically be present, it's important to check into them all.

Some attorneys will read about an accident like this and get target fixation. They'll see names like Pepsi or Oncor and dollar signs start to flit across their dreams. They'll neglect the point that based upon reports, another party seems more likely to have been negligent. This isn't to suggest that these firms bear zero liability, but absent a thorough, independent investigation, it doesn't appear likely so far.

I can't tell you how many times people have called our firm and told us their current attorneys are pursuing a "big white whale" instead of going where the evidence takes them. Realistically, it doesn't matter that there was a Pepsi truck at the scene if the driver of that truck didn't do anything wrong. It doesn't matter than Oncor was running new power lines so long as they marked their construction area properly. However, some attorneys will strive to find liability--evidence be damned.

As mentioned before, this doesn't help the client. Juries aren't stupid and they don't make companies pay money to victims when they didn't do anything wrong. Instead, the only way to help a victim in an accident that involves multiple potential defendants is to clearly establish the liability of each party with rock-solid evidence. This ensures that victims not only get the compensation that they deserve, but that the right people are penalized for their wrongdoing.

Negligence is an unfortunate presence in the business of daily life, and it can take many forms. When lawyers try to pursue long-shot paydays instead of going where the evidence leads them, they not only do a disservice to their client, but sully the profession, making it more difficult for clients in the future to hold the negligent accountable.