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Lewis v. Knowlton
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MAINE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT Reporter of Decisions
Decision: 1997 ME 12
Argued December 2, 1996
Decided January 23, 1997
PANEL: WATHEN, C.J., and ROBERTS, GLASSMAN, CLIFFORD, RUDMAN, DANA, and
RITA LEWIS, et al.
[¶1] Defendant Daniel Knowlton appeals from a judgment entered in the
Superior Court (Androscoggin, Delahanty, J.) granting plaintiffs' motion
for judgment as a matter of law and setting aside a jury verdict for defendant
pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 50(b). On appeal, defendant contends that the court
erred in ruling that his conduct constituted negligence as a matter of law.
We agree. Accordingly, we vacate the judgment and remand with instructions
to enter judgment on the jury verdict.
[¶2] Plaintiffs Rita and Philip Lewis, husband and wife, filed a complaint
against defendant seeking recovery for personal injuries sustained by Rita
Lewis in an automobile accident involving three vehicles. After agreeing
on the value of plaintiffs' damages, the parties tried the issue of liability
to a jury. Testimony was received from the drivers of the three vehicles;
Rita Lewis, defendant, and Tammy Theberge.
[¶3] The evidence presented to the jury may be summarized as follows.
The accident occurred at approximately 3:30 p.m. on a clear, dry day at
the intersection of Sabattus Street and Highland Spring Road in Lewiston.
There was no traffic light at the intersection. Sabattus Street is a four
lane street with a 30 m.p.h. speed limit in the vicinity of the accident.
Plaintiff had stopped her vehicle on Sabattus Street to wait for oncoming
traffic to clear as she prepared to make a left hand turn onto Highland
Spring Road. Tammy Theberge had stopped her vehicle behind plaintiff's vehicle.
The Theberge vehicle was pushed into plaintiff's vehicle when it was struck
from behind by defendant's van.
[¶4] Defendant testified that he was traveling at 30 to 35 miles per
hour through heavy traffic, and was maintaining a distance of fifty to sixty
feet behind the vehicles in front of him just prior to the accident. He
was distracted for one or two seconds by a bright yellow van that appeared
in his side view mirror. The yellow van appeared to be approaching at a
fast speed, and as it sped by, defendant noticed that the driver had a "sandwich
kind of stuffed in his mouth." When defendant brought his attention
back to the road, he realized that the vehicles in front of him were braking.
He immediately applied his brakes and skidded to a stop striking the Theberge
vehicle. Defendant testified that, at first, he thought he would avoid the
collision, and that he was almost at a stop when the collision occurred.
He also testified that, but for the one or two second distraction, he would
have avoided the collision.
[¶5] The court denied plaintiffs' motion for judgment as a matter of
law at the close of plaintiffs' case. The jury returned a verdict in favor
of defendant. The court then granted plaintiffs' renewed motion for judgment
as a matter of law pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 50(b), and entered judgment
for plaintiffs. Defendant filed this appeal from the court's ruling.
[¶6] In reviewing a trial court's disposition of a motion for judgment
as a matter of law, we view the evidence together with all justifiable inferences
in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. The motion
should not be granted if "any reasonable view of the evidence could
sustain a verdict for the opposing party pursuant to the substantive law
that is an essential element of the claim." Currier v. Toys 'R' US,
Inc., 680 A.2d 453, 455 (Me. 1996).
[¶7] The burden of proof in a negligence action is on the plaintiff.
To prevail, a plaintiff must prove that a defendant had a duty to conform
to a standard of care and that the breach of that duty proximately caused
an injury to the plaintiff. Sheltra v. Rochefort, 667 A.2d 868, 870 (Me.
[¶8] Based on the evidence presented the jury was not rationally compelled
to conclude that plaintiffs had proven a breach of the standard of ordinary
care. Although Ms. Theberge presented conflicting evidence regarding defendant's
opportunity to stop and the severity of the impact, the jury was entitled
to give more weight to defendant's statement, that, but for the brief distraction,
he would have avoided the accident. "The jury are the judges of credibility
which is not restricted to veracity but relates also to such possible factors
as powers and opportunity for observation, recollection and accuracy of
observation, etc." Carver v. Lavigne, 160 Me. 414, 421, 205 A.2d 159,
163 (1964). The reasonableness of defendant's reaction to the speeding yellow
van was a matter for jury determination.
[¶9] The court ruled that defendant was negligent as a matter of law
because he was "inattentive," violating the rule of the road that
"a driver has a duty to see that which is 'open and apparent' to a
prudent person. Poirier v. Hayes, 466 A.2d 1261, 1264 (Me. 1993). The cited
rule, however, is a rule of ordinary care: "failing to see what, in
the exercise of ordinary care, he should have seen," may constitute
negligence as a matter of law. Palleria v. Farrin Bros. & Smith, 153
Me. 423, 440 (Me. 1958) (emphasis added). It is not a rule of automatic
liability or negligence per se. The burden remains with plaintiff to prove
that defendant was not exercising ordinary care when he failed to see, or
to respond in time to, that which was open and apparent.
[¶10] Whether a defendant has exercised due care is ordinarily a question
of fact for the jury. Lewis v. Penney, 632 A.2d 439, 442 (Me. 1993)(citing
Seiders v. Testa, 464 A.2d 933, 935 (Me. 1983), and Poirier at 1264 ("the
evidence presented a jury issue as to whether defendant could have and should
have seen plaintiff in time to avoid collision")). On this record,
the jury could rationally be unpersuaded by a preponderance of the evidence
that defendant failed to exercise ordinary care. The court erred in ruling
that defendant was negligent as a matter of law.
The entry is:
Attorneys for plaintiffs:
Judgment vacated. Remanded with instructions to enter a judgment
for defendant on the jury verdict.
Paul F. Macri, Esq. (orally)
John E. Sedgewick, Esq.
Berman & Simmons, P.A.
P O Box 961
Lewiston, ME 04243-0961
Attorneys for defendant:
J. Peter Thompson, Esq. (orally)
Philip K. Hargesheimer, Esq.
Platz & Thompson. P.A.
P O Box 960
Lewiston, ME 04243-0960