Torts

1/4/2015 - Beaufort, SC

Doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur and Circumstantial Evidence in Establishment of Liability Under Guest Passenger Statute.

This was an action by a father for the wrongful death of his child, who was killed in an automobile collision while riding as guest passenger of defendant. Defendant's car, while being driven 50 to 55 M.P.H. on paved highway, went to the left side of the highway and collided with oncoming auto resulting in decedent's death. The trial failed to reveal why the automobile got on the wrong side of the highway. The lower court directed verdict for the defendant on the ground that reckless operation of the vehicle was not proved. On appeal, HELD: Reversed on other grounds. The Supreme Court of Iowa sustained the holding that a finding of recklessness in a case of this character cannot be based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, although recklessness may be shown by circumstantial evidence. Nehring v. Smith, 243 Iowa 225, 49 N.W.2d 831 (1951).

Guest passenger statutes, which have been passed by most of the states, are intended to relieve owners and operators of liability to guest passengers for mere simple or ordinary negligence in the operation of a motor vehicle. In Phillips v. Briggs, 215 Iowa 461, 245 N.W. 720 (1932), the Iowa Court in deciding a "guest passenger case" said that they could find no case where any court had gone so far as to invoke the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur and, therefore, create a presumption or inference of recklessness, and the inapplicability of the doctrine in actions under the guest passenger statute has been upheld in subsequent decisions. Harvey v. Clark, 232 Iowa 729, 6 N.W.2d 144 (1942); Herbert v. Allen, 241 Iowa 684, 41 N.W.2d 240 (1950). Iowa does recognize the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur - where the plaintiff is injured by instrumentalities within theexclusive control and management of the defendant and the happening of such injury was such as in the ordinary course of events would not occur without a lack of due care on the part of the defendant; the happening of the injury itself permits, but does not compel, a finding that the defendant was in fact negligent. Slife, The Iowa Doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur, 35 Iowa L. Rev. 393 (1950). The failure to apply the doctrine in the present decisions can apparently be firmly supported on either of two grounds. First, although the doctrine has been held to apply where one vehicle collides with another moving in the same direction, Harvey v. Borg, 218 Iowa 1228, 257 N.W. 190 (1934); Crochet v. A. & P. Truck Line, 52 So.2d 265 (La. App. 1951), by far the majority view is that the doctrine is inapplicable to a collision between two oncoming vehicles because of the lack of exclusive control and management of all the instrumentalities in the driver of one of them. 9B Blashfield, Cyclopedia of Automobile Law and Practice, § 5983 (1954). The Iowa courts are in accord with this view. Schroeder v. Kindschuh, 221 Iowa 590, 294 N.W. 784 (1940); Welch v. Greenberg, 235 Iowa 159, 14 N.W.2d 266 (1944).

Second, even where driver is in exclusive control of the only automobile involved, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur may give rise to presumption of negligence, but it does not create an inference of that misconduct necessary for liability under the guest statute. Minkovitz v. Fine, 67 Ga. App. 176, 19 S.E.2d 561 (1942). The Iowa statute limits the liability of the owner or operator of a motor vehicle to a guest to instances where the damage is the "result of the driver of said motor vehicle being under the influence of intoxicating liquor or because of the reckless operation by him of such motor vehicle." Iowa Code § 321.494. Conduct arising from mere inadvertence, thoughtlessness or error of judgment, is not recklessness within the meaning of the statute. Harvey v. Clark, supra. To be reckless one must be more than negligent, but conduct may be reckless without being willful or wanton. Herbert v. Allen, supraSchneider v. Parish, 242 Iowa 1147, 49 N.W.2d 535 (1950). To permit recovery it must appear that the driver was proceeding without heed of or concern for consequences, with no care, coupled with a disregard for the safety of his guest. Tomasek v. Lynch, 233 Iowa 662, 10 N.W.2d (1943); Siesseger v. Puth, 213 Iowa 164, 239 N.W. 46 (1931). The happening of an accident, in itself, does not establish recklessness. Duncan v. Lowe, 221 Iowa 1278, 268 N.W. 10 (1936).

The fact that the collision occurs on the left hand side of the road, without more, will not support a finding of recklessness under the guest statute. Wilson v. Oxborrow, 220 Iowa 1135, 264 N.W. 1 (1935); Brown v. Martin, 216 Iowa 1272, 248 N.W. 268 (1933); nor will the fact that the driver falls asleep or permits himself to be overcome by sleep. Paulson v. Hanson, 226 Iowa 858, 285 N.W. 189 (1939); Kaplan v. Kaplan, 213 Iowa 646, 239 N.W. 682 (1931). Failure to exercise sufficient care to see and appreciate the danger is not of itself reckless disregard of consequences. Peter v. Thomas, 231 Iowa 985, 2 N.W.2d 643 (1942). In order to take the question of recklessness under the guest statute to the jury it must be shown that the danger to the guest was known to the driver and he acted in entire disregard of it, Peter v. Thomas, supra, or that the danger was so obvious and apparent that the driver must have used no care at all in failing to observe it. Russell v. Turner, 56 F.Supp. 455 (N.D. Iowa 1944).

The South Carolina Guest Passenger Statute limits liability to accidents which "shall have been intentional on the part of the owner or operator or caused by his heedlessness or his reckless disregard of the rights of others." Code of Laws of South Carolina, 1952 § 46-801. The purpose of the statute was to deny a guest a right of action for simple or ordinary negligence. Oswald v. Weiner, 218 S.C. 206, 62 S.E.2d 311 (1950). Heedlessness alone has been held not sufficient to establish liability; conduct in "reckless disregard of the rights of others" has been interpreted as improper or wrongful conduct evincing reckless indifference of consequences. Fulghum v. Bleakley, 177 S.C. 286, 181 S.E. 30 (1935); Cummings v. Tweed, 195 S.C. 173, 10 S.E.2d 322 (1940).

The South Carolina Supreme Court has repeatedly refused to recognize the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, although holding that negligence or recklessness may be established by circumstantial evidence. Gantt v. Columbia Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 193 S.C. 51, 7 S.E.2d 641 (1940); Eickhoff v. Beard-Laney, Inc., 199 S.C. 500, 20 S.E.2d 153 (1942). A person being on the wrong side of the road and injuring another is not as a matter of law absolutely liable; the circumstances of the situation at that particular time must be considered.Sims v. Eleazer, 116 S.C. 41, 106 S.E. 854 (1920). In the absence of direct evidence the plaintiff must show such circumstances as would justify the inference that the injury which caused the death was due to the wrongful act of the defendant and not leave the question to mere speculation or conjecture; but every other reasonable conclusion need not be excluded, as long as proof of circumstances warranting a given inference is sufficient. Peak v. Fripp, 195 S.C. 324, 11 S.E.2d 383 (1940); Morrow v. Evans, 223 S.C. 288, 75 S.E.2d 598 (1953). Causative violation of an applicable statute constitutes actionable negligence and warrants an inference of recklessness, willfulness, and wantonness sufficient to carry this issue to the jury. Ralls v. Saleeby, 178 S.C. 431, 182 S.E. 750 (1935); Morrow v. Evans, supra. In the recent case of Morrow v. Evans, supra, the violation of the statute against traveling on the wrong side of the highway was proved by circumstantial evidence, and although no guest passenger was involved, recklessness and wantonness were found, and the plaintiff was awarded punitive damages.

The guest passenger statute, which most of the states have adopted, is intended to relieve owners or operators of liability to guests for accidents resulting from simple negligence. Although it is difficult to define with precision the degree of negligence or misconduct for which the operator is liable, it is clear that the guest is not to recover where the driver's mere inadvertence or lack of diligence causes the injury. The Latin phraseres ipsa loquitur has generally come to mean that negligence can be inferred from the accident itself in connection with its bare physical cause, without the aid of any other evidence, when the accident is of a kind which according to the common experiences of mankind does not occur in the absence of negligence. It would seem to be sound legal reasoning to hold that this doctrine is insufficient to prove lack of that degree of care required by the Guest Statute. The unexplained accident is just as likely to have happened because of the driver's simple negligence, lack of attention or even because of his attempt to avoid a collision, and the operator should not be held liable in any of these events.

On the other hand, where the happening of the accident coupled with other circumstances such as skid marks, position of vehicles after collision and distance travelled after impact is sufficient to raise the inference of recklessness, the question should properly be submitted to the jury.

W. Brantley Harvey, Jr.