Court OKs Suit in Death of Drunk Teen Left in Pickup

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The Tennessee Supreme Court has revived a wrongful-death case against four men whose intoxicated friend died after they left him in the open bed of a pickup truck for fear he would vomit on them.

The mother of Cody Downs is entitled to a jury trial, the court said, on either of two theories of liability –- that his friends “owed him a duty to exercise reasonable care to refrain from conduct that creates an unreasonable risk of harm” or voluntarily “assumed a duty by taking charge of [him] because he was helpless.”

Downs, 18, was struck by two oncoming vehicles as he was trying to run across an interstate freeway. If the defendants put him in the bed of the truck, the duty to exercise reasonable care would apply since, the opinion said, “it is common knowledge that riding unrestrained in a vehicle can result in preventable injuries and deaths.”

An appeals court had summarily dismissed the case against Downs' roommate Ryan Britt, the pickup's owner Scott Hurdle, driver Jerry Eller, and passenger Mark Bush, citing the lack of any “prohibition against an adult riding in the open bed of a pickup truck.”

Downs and his friends initially rode in the pickup's cab as they headed home on Interstate 65 from a party in Cool Springs, Tenn., to his apartment in Nashville. After he became nauseous, they stopped alongside the freeway so he could throw up.

Someone then suggested that Downs travel the rest of the way in the bed of the pickup so he would not vomit on anybody. Several miles later, his friends realized he was no longer there but they continued on to his apartment without looking for him.

Writing for the Supreme Court, Chief Justice William M. Barker noted that “the record is unclear whether the defendants assisted Mr. Downs into the bed of the truck, physically put him there, or whether he voluntarily agreed to ride there.” The resolution of that factual issue, he said, would determine “the nature of the duty the defendants owed Mr. Downs.”

If Downs got into the bed of the truck voluntarily, the duty would be that owed under the Restatement of Torts by “One who ... takes charge of another who is helpless adequately to aid or protect himself.”

“[T]here are genuine issues of material fact with respect to whether Mr. Downs was 'helpless' and whether the defendants 'took charge of' him,” Barker said.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Janice M. Holder concluded that the defendants owed Downs a duty to exercise reasonable care and the jury should only have to decide “whether the defendants breached that duty and caused the decedent's death.”

On the causation issue, the appeals court found it was not foreseeable that “a young man who, upon all accounts was happy and showed no signs of the intention to harm himself, would run into the interstate as the result of being 'put' or 'assisted' into the bed of the pickup truck.'”

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