The El Paso Court of Appeals recently addressed the question of bystander liability in Murray v. Nabors Well Service. Plaintiff Kevin Murray was a passenger in a vehicle that veered off the travel lanes and onto the shoulder at night, colliding with a trailer connected to a disabled truck that was parked on the shoulder. After the truck had become disabled, and before the collision, a Nabors Well Service employee driving a company truck, Timothy White, had stopped to assist. Murray suffered injuries in the collision, and sued Nabors and White alleging negligence in failing to warn oncoming traffic of the truck and trailer parked on the shoulder.

Because the accident happened at night, and the electrical system of the disabled truck was damaged, the truck and trailer had no lights illuminated to warn of their presence. White had parked the Nabors truck in front of the disabled truck in a hood-to-hood configuration, in an attempt to jump start the disabled truck. When the collision occurred, the vehicle Murray was riding in struck the trailer, setting off a chain reaction by which the trailer then struck the disabled truck, which then struck the Nabors truck.

In response to the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, Murray argued that defendants had a duty to warn of the dangerous condition that existed by virtue of the trucks and trailer parked on the shoulder. The trial court disagreed and granted summary judgment, and Murray appealed.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court, and held that no duty was owed by the bystander defendants, for several reasons:

  1. The bystander did not create the situation that caused the injury. Here, even though the defendants’ truck was also parked on the shoulder, that truck was never struck by the vehicle in which Murray was riding. The bystander did not cause the disabled truck to break down, and thus had no role in creating the dangerous condition.

  2. The bystander did not undertake some action to benefit Murray. While a third party can assume a duty to act and thus be subject to liability if he fails to do so with reasonable care, his liability is limited to those who relied upon his undertaking. Here, White sought to assist the driver of the disabled vehicle for that driver’s benefit—not Murray’s.

  3. The bystander’s actions did not increase the likelihood of harm to Murray. Because the disabled vehicle and trailer remained in the same state and location as they were before White arrived, and because they—and not White’s truck—were the dangerous condition that caused the incident, the likelihood hood of harm to Murray remained unchanged by White’s actions.

The Court concluded its analysis by addressing the public policy considerations of imposing liability on Good Samaritans:

Driving at night in the dark on remote Texas highways carries a certain inherent risk. When a vehicle becomes disabled, even when pulled completely off the roadway as was the case here, the risk to the occupants of that vehicle increases. . . . However, the risk is the driver traveling outside of the roadway, not the presence of a vehicle on the side of the road, whether lit or unlit. Absent the negligence or recklessness of another–or a wholly unforeseeable act of God–a stranded motorist outside the lane of travel would remain safe from most forms of peril presented by the traveled roadway. However, the risk posed to stranded operators would only increase if courts began imposing liability on benevolent persons who, without creating or exacerbating the conditions leading to an accident, sought to assist those in need.

 There is little doubt that if White had carried on his way and not stopped to assist . . . neither he nor his employer would be named in this lawsuit. . . . [A]t least two other vehicles pass[ed the] stalled truck who did not stop and assist, and neither was made a party to Murray’s lawsuit. Texas law would not impute any duty to White or Nabors to warn other motorists . . . simply because he was aware of the potential danger posed by it being there. . . . Murray would have us place a duty on White and his employer to warn of a condition he neither created nor worsened, when he did not undertake to assume any such duty, simply because he chose to help a person in need.

 The Court’s full opinion is available here.

For more information on this article and this topic, contact Mark Killingsworth.