“Last Clear Chance” Doctrine Applied in Tragic Motorcycle Accident in West Carroll Parish

On December 15, 1955, James Edwin Watson, then 20 years old, was driving his Harley-Davidson motorcycle southbound on the two-lane State Highway 17 in West Carroll Parish, Louisiana. He was being followed at some distance by his friend, Douglas Simpson, in a Ford automobile. Both Watson and Simpson intended to make a left turn onto Airport Road on their way to Watson’s house. As they approached the intersection, a vehicle driven by Stanley D. McEacharn, Jr. overtook Simpson’s car on the left. Then, as McEacharn began to overtake Watson’s motorcycle, Watson, unaware of the presence of McEacharn’s car approaching in the left lane, proceeded at an angle into the left lane to make his left turn onto Airport Road. McEacharn’s car struck Watson’s Harley, sending the motorcycle further down the highway before it came to rest in the ditch on the side of the road. Watson’s body was found on the shoulder of the road, approximately half-way between where McEacharn’s car stopped and the motorcycle came to rest.

At trial, Simpson testified that as McEacharn’s car overtook his own, Watson’s Harley was out in front about 450 feet and was traveling, at an angle toward Airport Road, at about five MPH. Simpson said Watson gave a signal of his intention to make a left turn. McEacharn denied seeing any signal from Watson but admitted as he passed Simpson’s car he saw a glimpse of a man on a motorcycle. Both McEacharn and Simpson testified that they did not observe Watson make any turn of the head to the rear to check for traffic overtaking him.

The trial court concluded from the evidence that McEacharn had the last clear chance to avoid the accident but failed to avoid it because of “excessive speed, failure to keep a proper lookout ahead to discover the presence of those who may be in danger, failure to sound his horn, and failure to apply his brakes in time.” Watson v. McEacharn, 99 So. 2d 138, 139 (La. Ct. App. 2nd Cir. 1957). The court concluded that McEacharn’s negligence constituted the “proximate and immediate cause” of the accident, with Watson’s negligence in placing himself in a position of danger only a “remote” cause. Accordingly, the court entered judgment for Watson.

On appeal, McEacharn argued that the trial court misapplied the last clear chance doctrine and that neither party was legally responsible for the accident because both Watson and McEacharn were negligent. The Court of Appeal, in considering McEacharn’s position, reviewed the Rottman v. Beverly case in which the Louisiana Supreme Court explained:

Where the danger is brought about by plaintiff’s own negligence, but is not discovered by defendant, because of a failure to exercise due care, the parties are on equal footing. Their faults are mutual, their negligence is concurrent. It arises from the same cause, viz., failure to observe. The negligence of each party is a contributing cause of the accident. In such case it cannot be determined whether the negligence of the plaintiff or that of the defendant was the proximate and immediate cause of the injury, and neither party can recover. (Rottman v. Beverly, 183 La. 947 (1936))

Finding that analysis inapplicable to the facts of this accident, the court instead relied on a different passage from Rottman:

But if a plaintiff negligently puts himself in a place of danger and his negligence and danger are actually discovered by the defendant, then there devolves upon the defendant a duty which intervenes or arises subsequent to the negligent acts of the plaintiff, and that duty is to save the plaintiff from the consequences of his negligent acts if he can.

Taking this reasoning further, the court noted that the “first duty of those who operate … motor vehicles is to keep a sharp lookout ahead to discover the presence of those who might be in danger.” If motorists

Perform that duty and discover that some one is in danger, then a second duty arises, and that is to use every possible available means to avert injury. If the defendant fails to perform that duty, his negligence in that respect is regarded as the proximate and immediate cause of the injury and the negligence of the plaintiff in putting himself in a place of danger, the remote cause. In such cases the last clear chance doctrine applies even though plaintiff’s negligence continues up to the accident.

In other words, McEacharn had a duty to keep watch for other drivers like Watson who negligently put themselves in harm’s way. Because McEacharn recklessly failed to discover the danger to Watson–and because Watson never became aware of his own peril –McEacharn failed to meet his duty to avoid the accident. This was the negligence which formed the basis of McEacharn’s liability for the crash.

The Watson case illustrates that drivers accept substantial responsibilities every time they get behind the wheel. Also, the case demonstrates that in light of these many duties, fault-finding in accident cases can be a difficult challenge. Injured parties should be sure to consult knowledgeable counsel who can help them build a negligence case and obtain the recovery they deserve.

If you have been injured due to someone else’s fault, call the Berniard Law Firm toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 right away.