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Pizza Hut defense verdict upheld

A restaurant is not liable for a traffic accident involving a delivery driver’s disabled vehicle, in a case that Pizza Hut has been litigating since the mid-00s.

On Jan. 4, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a defense verdict for Pizza Hut, in a case that Judge Barbara Milano Keenan calls a “textbook case of superseding causation under Virginia law.”

Glen Fletcher sued Pizza Hut after Fletcher’s vehicle was struck by a car driven by Rene Ayala, who ran a red light at a Manassas intersection. Fletcher alleged the restaurant was vicariously liable based on the presence of a disabled car left by its owner, the pizza delivery driver, in a traffic lane at the intersection where the accident occurred.

Fletcher, a 68-year-old retired Methodist minister, suffered traumatic brain injury and won a $3.3 million verdict against Ayala in Prince William Circuit Court, one of the largest in Virginia for 2007.

Fletcher’s claims against Pizza Hut were nonsuited in state court after pretrial rulings excluded such evidence as the pizza store manager’s directive to remove the Pizza Hut sign from the stalled vehicle. The revived claims were removed to federal court, and the case was tried on the sole issue of Pizza Hut’s vicarious liability for the driver’s allegedly negligent acts. A jury deliberated less than three hours before delivering a verdict for Pizza Hut.

Writing for the three-judge panel in Fletcher v. Pizza Hut of America Inc., Keenan agreed that, as a matter of law, Ayala’s negligence was the sole proximate cause of the accident, even though the jury decided the case on different grounds.

Keenan said the 4th Circuit panel’s task was to decide whether Ayala’s actions “so eclipsed any negligence by Pizza Hut or its employees that, as a matter of law, Ayala’s actions became the sole proximate cause of the accident.”

Ayala testified that the last time he saw the traffic signal governing the left-turn lane, before he made a left turn, the signal displayed a green arrow. But he admitted he may have been mistaken and the traffic signal for the blocked left-turn lane may have changed to red before he made the turn, as a witness testified. Testimony from other witnesses also supported the conclusion that Ayala had run the red light.

Based on the testimony, Keenan said, Ayala acted negligently because he disobeyed the red light governing the left-turn lane, and failed to ensure he could safely turn into the intersection. His actions produced the collision and, without his actions, the accident would not have occurred. So his negligence was, as a matter of law, a proximate cause of the collision between his car and Fletcher’s vehicle.

Ayala’s independent act of negligence entirely supplanted any prior negligent act by Pizza Hut or its employees, the court concluded.
By Deborah Elkins

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