Federal Tort Claims Act Case Lays Out Burden of Proof; Furry et al. v. United States

The Seventh Circuit United States Court of Appeals has affirmed a decision by the district court judge regarding the burden of proof in a Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) case.

Ronald Williams was a substitute U.S. Postal Service letter carrier who had parallel parked his truck to visit a friend.  The plaintiffs in this case, David Furry and Diane Nye, were driving by that home when their vehicle collided with the parked U.S. Postal Service truck, which was driven by Williams.

Furry and Nye testified that they did not see the postal truck before the impact. Williams, realizing that regardless of the outcome, he would be fired for the use of his truck to visit a friend, offered Furry $500 not to report the incident.  

Whether Furry accepted the offer is in dispute. Either way, after the incident, Williams drove away from the scene and returned to his postal route. Nye wrote down the number of Williams’s vehicle. 

About half an hour after the incident, the plaintiffs called the police to report the accident. The reporting officer recorded the plaintiffs’ version of the accident, but the officer did not find any evidence of the accident.

Later the same day, the police officer located Williams and questioned him. Williams first denied involvement in the collision and claimed he had never seen Furry or Nye. Williams resigned from the postal service the next day.

Furry and Nye sued the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act, claiming that Williams’ negligence caused them injuries and damages. 

In dispute was whether Williams struck the Furry/Nye vehicle or whether the Furry/Nye vehicle struck Williams’s vehicle.  Williams did not appear at the trial. The plaintiffs offered neither expert testimony on the cause of the collision nor any eyewitness testimony beyond their own. The reporting officer testified at trial about the damage to the vehicles and his interaction with the plaintiffs, but the district court did not find him qualified to give an opinion as to which vehicle struck the other.

The district court judge also found that plaintiffs were unable to provide adequate eyewitness testimony since neither one could say that they saw the postal truck hit their vehicle or that they saw the postal truck before the impact. The lack of eyewitness testimony alongside the lack of expert testimony, blended with the other possible explanations of the accident (the plaintiff sideswiping Williams’s truck, hydroplaning due to heavy rain or other explanations) left the court to conclude that the plaintiffs had not met their burden of preponderance of the evidence. The plaintiffs appealed. 

Since there was no law issue in question, the appellate court weighed only the facts and whether the district court had clearly erred in the construction of those facts.

The appeals court acknowledged that Williams was being negligent in the use of his mail truck, but denied that there was any evidence that his negligence was the cause of the accident. The plaintiffs argued that since Williams left the scene of the crash, it could be inferred he was negligent. The court reasoned that because Williams knew that he should not have detoured from his mail route after this incident, he had reason to flee from the scene. The appellate court therefore found no clear error in the district court’s decision and affirmed the decision for the United States. 

David Furry and Diane Nye v. United States, No. 12-1888 (March 13, 2013).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling automobile and truck accident cases for individuals and families for more than 37 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Morton Grove, Franklin Park, River Grove, Palos Park, Orland Park, Burr Ridge, Chicago (Lake), Calumet City, Dolton and Bensenville, Ill.

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