Will he pay a lot for this muffler?

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It was early morning on a sunny day with no fog or glare. John Doe was hauling a standard, legal load – a small earth-moving machine – on his flatbed trailer. He was driving a wide two-lane industrial highway that skirted a small Alabama town. The speed limit was 45 mph, and he was chugging along in ninth gear of his ten-speed, holding the limit.

Traffic was sparse, the lanes very wide for a two-lane road, and there were few traffic lights with crossroads or pedestrian crossings. Feeling confident that there was little chance of trouble, Doe allowed himself the luxury of daydreaming about sitting in his small boat, fishing for bass with his fancy new lure.

As he turned into a bend in the road, Doe was contemplating that beautiful moment when he would shut off his outboard and suddenly hear the birds on the lake. This quiet imaginary moment was soon spoiled by a Cadillac hearse that suddenly came into view. The vehicle was painted Mary Kay pink, belching oil smoke, and, worst of all, rolling along at less than 40. John wasn’t yet late for his delivery, but there was no extra time, either. Slightly impatient, he allowed himself to close the gap between the vehicles to what he felt was the bare safe minimum at that speed, hoping he would soon see an opportunity to pass.

Just as John’s eyes turned left, scanning the oncoming lane for traffic, the hearse’s driver saw a large truck muffler a little to the left of center in the lane, and swerved briefly onto the shoulder to avoid it. Since the hearse had blocked his view of the road surface, John saw the rusty relic too late to safely swerve his tractor-trailer. His response was to hit the treadle valve with all his might, sending the ABS into action. The front axle cleared the pesky nuisance, but a few seconds later, after only a few apply cycles of the brakes, the inner tire on one of John’s drive axles ran over the muffler. The rebound sent it flying upward, causing a pipe extending from one end to smack a brake chamber pushrod. The result was damage to both the chamber and slack adjuster. After hearing the details, John Doe’s company safety director sent him a letter citing him for allowing a preventable accident to happen.

John contested the warning letter, believing that, since the hearse blocked his view until too late, the object had been impossible to avoid. His company asked the National Safety Council’s Accident review committee to study the details and render its verdict.

The NSC committee, using John’s own estimate of his following distance, decided he had been tailing the Caddy too closely to allow time and highway space to steer around such junk, which can litter any road. To John’s dismay, they ruled the accident preventable.