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Published: Sunday, 3/16/2008

Yellow light is not a signal to turn

Dear Dale: If a driver turns left on a yellow light, then an oncoming car strikes him at an intersection, who is at fault? Note that in this case, the turn was made before the light changed to red. This is a true experience that happened to someone I know, but the person still got cited for turning on a caution light.

ANSWER: Just who would be at fault in a situation like this is the type of issue we deal with in our personal injury law office regularly. And, if the attorneys involved in these types of cases can't agree who is at fault, it's a question they have to put before jurors to decide.

It's impossible for me to give you a definitive answer on whether the turning driver - let's call him Driver A - was at fault here, but I can tell you I'd rather be handling the case for Driver B. It might be helpful to look at the instructions that jurors would receive from a judge in this situation.

According to the standard jury instruction dealing with left-hand turns, a driver making such a turn is supposed to yield the right of way to an oncoming driver who is within the intersection or so close to the intersection as to create an immediate hazard. Failure to yield the right of way is negligence, according to the jury instruction.

Another instruction the jury likely would be given states that a driver facing a steady yellow signal is warned that the light is about to change to red.

In the situation you've described it seems to me that Driver A should have yielded to Driver B if both of them entered the intersection on a yellow light. If I were representing Driver B, I'd argue that the rule is a driver making a left-hand turn must yield to oncoming traffic. I'd tell the jury that according to the instructions given by the judge, Driver A was negligent.

But often there's a bit of a twist in cases like these. Driver A will be waiting to make a left-hand turn on a yellow light and the light will turn red before Driver B enters the intersection. Once the light turned red, Driver B should have stopped and Driver A would have the right of way to clear the intersection.

Your question seemed to indicate that both drivers entered the intersection on a yellow light. So, it looks like Driver A should have yielded to Driver B rather than assuming B was going to stop on the yellow.

Even if Driver A were found to be negligent, he would still have some cards to play at trial. His attorney likely would raise the issue of comparative negligence, which means that the jury would be asked to determine whether each driver shared some fault. Specifically, the jury would be asked to determine if the other driver's conduct also was negligent and, if so, apportion the negligence between the two drivers.

For example, the jury might find that Driver B didn't act as a reasonably prudent driver in this situation by entering the intersection on a yellow when Driver A was indicating he was about to turn. Let's say the jury thought Driver A was 75 percent responsible for the accident by making the left turn and Driver B was 25 percent responsible by not stopping at the yellow light. In that case, any award to Driver B would be reduced by 25 percent.

But, in comparative negligence situations, if the person bringing the lawsuit is found to be more at fault than the defendant, the plaintiff collects nothing. So, in our example, if the jury found that Driver B was more than 51 percent negligent for not stopping at the yellow light and letting Driver A make his left turn, Driver B would collect nothing on his claim.

If there's a practical lesson here, I guess it's that none of us should assume that it's safe to make a left turn on a yellow light until you see that the oncoming traffic has stopped.

Dale Emch practices law at the Charles E. Boyk Law Offices, LLC, in Toledo. In his column, he will discuss general legal principles and answer readers' questions. Neither Mr. Emch nor The Blade present or intend his column to be taken as legal advice. Readers seeking legal advice should consult with an attorney. Readers should send their questions to Mr. Emch at demch@charlesboyk-law.com or Dale Emch, 405 Madison Ave., Suite 1200, Toledo, OH 43604.



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