Liability for Defective Brakes on a Commercial Truck
Ohio has recognized that the operator of a motor vehicle maintains duty to make sure his or her brakes are working properly. “The operator of a motor vehicle has control over its brake equipment and the maintenance thereof, and he has a statutory duty to maintain the brakes in good working order at all times.” Bird v. Hart, 205 N.E.2d 887, 889 (Ohio 1965); see also Spalding v. Waxler 205 N.E.2d 890 (Ohio 1965); Stump v. Phillips, 207 N.E.2d 762 (Ohio 1965) (“An operator of a motor vehicle has control over its brake equipment and the maintenance thereof.”); Beauchamp v. B. & L. Motor Freight, Inc., 152 N.E.2d 334 (Ohio Ct. App. 1958) (holding that the negligent brake repair of the mechanic was attributable to the defendant and that the driver was negligent in failing to inspect brakes to ensure that the brakes were roadworthy).
In Bird, plaintiff/appellant was operating his motor vehicle in Cincinnati, Ohio, when he was struck from behind by defendant/appellee as plaintiff/appellant was stopped at a traffic light. Bird v. Hart, 205 N.E.2d at 888. At trial on the matter, defendant/appellee argued the collision was not a result of her negligence but rather was a result of an unavoidable, unexpected brake failure. Id. Specifically, defendant/appellee claim that the failure of her brakes was an emergency and that she acted reasonably under the circumstances. Id. The Court instructed the jury, if it “found that the defendant was placed in an emergency situation through no fault of her own and did what a reasonably prudent person would have done under similar circumstances, it was told to return verdicts for the defendant.” Id. The jury found in favor of defendants. Id. In reversing the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court of Ohio stated, “the operator of a motor vehicle has control over its brake equipment and the maintenance thereof, and he has a statutory duty to maintain the brakes in good working order at all times.” Id. at 889. The Court found that defendant/appellee’s brake failure was a self-created emergency. Id. The Court proclaimed that defendant/appellee was negligent as a matter of law. Id. Specifically the Court stated, “[a]lthough the question of proximate cause is ordinarily one for the jury (see White v. Ohio Power Co., 171 Ohio St. 148, 168 N.E.2d 314; Clinger v. Duncan, 166 Ohio St. 21, 141 N.E.2d 156), reasonable minds could only conclude that in the instant case defendant’s negligence was the proximate cause of the collision” and that the trial court should have directed verdicts in favor of plaintiffs/appellants regarding the question of liability. Id.
Continuing on, in the case Kehrer v. McKittrick, 198 N.E.2d 669 (Ohio 1964), the court addressed the issue of “whether an individual who regularly operates a motor vehicle and has failed to properly maintain the emergency brake can claim unavoidable accident as a legal excuse for her failure to stop at a stop sign and yield the right of way.” Kehrer v. McKittrick, 198 N.E.2d 669, 670 (Ohio 1964). In analyzing the issue, the Court stated, “[o]ne who regularly operates a motor vehicle owes a duty to pedestrians and other drivers to have such motor vehicle equipped with two separate means of applying the brakes and also to maintain both means in good working order.” Kehrer, 198 N.E.2d at 672. The Court proclaimed, “[i]f one system fails to operate due to lack of proper maintenance, the operator cannot claim unavoidable accident, even though the other system fails through no fault of the operator.” Id. Moreover, the Court found it was undisputed that defendant’s failure to stop and yield the right of way (because of the defective brakes) was the proximate cause of the collision. Id.
Also, the case Beauchamp v. B. & L. Motor Freight, Inc., 152 N.E.2d 334 (Ohio Ct. App. 1958) provides an interesting insight to the duty to properly maintain the brakes of one’s commercial motor vehicle. In Beauchamp, the driver of a commercial motor vehicle when the driver stopped at a restaurant when he discovered through an inspection that his brakes were not working properly. Beauchamp v. B. & L. Motor Freight, Inc., 152 N.E.2d 334, 336 (Ohio Ct. App. 1958). In an effort to remedy the defective brakes, the driver detached the tractor from the trailer and took the tractor to a mechanic for repair. Beauchamp, 152 N.E.2d at 336. Apparently, the driver made no investigation into the skill or reliability of the mechanic when dropping off his tractor for maintenance on his brakes. Id. After briefly inspecting the repairs the mechanic made, the driver continued on his trip when he attempted to apply his air brakes to adjust his speed to the traffic circumstances and discovered that his air brakes were not working. Id. Subsequently, the driver attempted to deploy his emergency brakes. Id. The emergency brakes did have some effect, but not enough to avoid the collision, and the driver collided his tractor into the rear of an automobile in front of him and causing damage to that automobile and other automobiles there were in front of the struck automobile. Id.
In analyzing the issues of defective brakes, the Court went through an analysis of res ipsa loquitur and then proceeded to state “the duty of exercising reasonable care in the repair of such an instrumentality [defective brakes on a tractor trailer] cannot be delegated by the user.” Id. at 338. In holding the driver negligent for the defective brakes, the Court cited II Restatement of the Law of Torts at page 1146, which provided the following example:
‘A operates a ‘drive-yourself automobile business. He sends his cars for repair to the repair shop of B. Through the negligence of B’s mechanic, the brakes on a care which A lets to C are dangerously defective, although this could not have been discovered by an inspection which it would be reasonable to require A to make before letting the car. Owing to the defective brakes C is unable to stop the car in time to avoid running into a ditch. A is subject to liability to C and D, a friend of C, whom C is taking for a pleasure drive in the car.’
Id. (quoting II Restatement of the Law of Torts, pg. 1146).
The Court found the above hypothesis was found in the facts of the case. Id. at 338. The Court proceeded to hold that the driver was negligent in failing to properly inspect the brakes of the tractor to ensure the brakes could withstand the stress of the journey and that the driver was negligent in the selection of the mechanic. Id. at 338-39.
Based on the above decisions, Ohio seems to follow that defective brakes can help support a proximate cause argument for a collision. A key distinguishing fact from the cases cited and the case at bar is that the cases cited involved violations of a statutory duty to maintain good brakes and the assured-clear-distance-ahead provisions, amongst other Ohio Revised Code provisions. See R.C. 4511.21; R.C. 4513.20. Thus, there may be an argument that these cases are not as binding, but the cases do provide an avenue to establish that the defective brakes caused the collision, and that the tractor trailer should have never been on the roadway in the first place.