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Statz v. Pohl

Supreme Court of Wisconsin
Feb 2, 1954
266 Wis. 23 (Wis. 1954)

Summary

In Statz v. Pohl (1954), 266 Wis. 23, 62 N.W.2d 556, 63 N.W.2d 711, this court established rules for dealing with inconsistent verdicts where the apportionment of negligence was inconsistent with the jury's response to the question of causal negligence.

Summary of this case from Jahnke v. Smith

Opinion

January 6, 1954 —

February 2, 1954.

APPEAL from orders of the circuit court for Dane county: HERMAN W. SACHTJEN, Circuit Judge. Affirmed.

For the appellants there was a brief by Aberg, Bell, Blake Conrad and Carroll Metzner, all of Madison, and oral argument by Mr. Metzner.

For the respondents there was a brief by McAndrews Melli, attorneys, and Richard L. Cates of counsel, all of Madison, and oral argument by Mr. Joseph A. Melli and Mr. Cates.




This appeal involves two actions brought to recover damages sustained in a collision between automobiles operated by Chris Statz and Charles A. Pohl. The collision occurred on June 4, 1952, on Highways 12 and 13 about a quarter of a mile west of Springfield Corners in Dane county. The first action was commenced on July 14, 1952, by Chris Statz, individually, and as guardian ad litem for Betty Ann Statz and James Statz against Charles A. Pohl and his insurance carrier. The second was commenced on July 15, 1952, by Charles A. Pohl against Chris Statz and his insurance carrier.

The accident occurred on a straight, level stretch of concrete highway. The pavement was 20 feet wide with a black center line and had gravel shoulders on either side between eight and nine feet wide. Statz was driving east and had with him in the front seat his daughter, Betty Ann, aged ten, and in the rear seat his son, Raymond, aged five, and his son, James, aged seven. Pohl was also driving east and following Statz. As the two cars entered the straight stretch of road upon which the accident occurred from a curve just northwest of the scene, Pohl was traveling at the rate of 50 miles per hour and Statz about 30 to 40 miles per hour. Pohl was gaining on Statz and was planning to pass him. When the Pohl car was approximately 100 feet behind the Statz car and still gaining, the boy, Raymond, fell out of the left rear door of the Statz car.

Statz's daughter had observed that Raymond proceeded to turn down the window of the left rear door of the car for the purpose of throwing out a piece of watermelon rind from which he had been eating. She called her father's attention to it and said to him, "Raymond is going to fall out." The door opened and while Statz was watching Raymond hanging to it the boy fell out. Statz saw him fall on the pavement about two or three feet north of the center line of the highway. Statz then turned round and opened his own front door against the wind. He allowed his door to close, put both hands on the wheel and applied his brakes for the first time. He turned his car to the right, applied his brakes, and continued forward a distance of from 50 to 75 feet. His car was struck by the Pohl car. The right front of his car was on the right shoulder when the collision occurred.

The foregoing is a recital of some of the testimony given by Statz and is partially contradicted in some respects by Pohl and by the witness Scheel who was also driving east and was about 300 feet behind the Pohl car when the vehicles collided. Pohl testified that he was following Statz at a distance of about 100 feet intending to pass him when the boy fell out. He applied his brakes partially and saw the Statz car come to an abrupt stop in front of him. He passed the boy lying upon the highway and then swerved slightly to his left. He had regained his position on his right side of the highway when the right front of his vehicle struck the left rear of the Statz car.

Scheel testified that he saw Pohl gain on Statz and that just before the impact it appeared to him that Pohl was crossing the center line to pass, and that the distance from where the boy fell out of the Statz car into the passing line to the point of impact was 50 feet.

The issues were submitted to a jury upon a special verdict which found Statz guilty of causal negligence as to lookout, control, coming to a stop on the traveled portion of the highway, and as to control of the actions of his son, Raymond. They exonerated him as to giving an appropriate signal. Pohl was found negligent as to management and control and that such negligence was not a cause of the collision. He was absolved of negligence with respect to lookout and following too closely.

Pohl and his insurance carrier appeal from an order entered on June 5, 1953, setting aside the verdict and granting a new trial.


As we have stated, the jury found Pohl negligent only as to control, but that such negligence was not a cause of the accident. But in answer to the question which inquires as to comparative negligence they also found that Pohl's negligence contributed to the cause of the accident to the extent of 20 per cent. The trial court concluded that the verdict is inconsistent and ordered a new trial. Pohl appeals from that order.

It is not possible to reconcile the conflicting views of this court expressed in opinions dealing with the precise question. Bodden v. John H. Detter Coffee Co. 218 Wis. 451, 261 N.W. 209; Forbes v. Forbes, 226 Wis. 477, 277 N.W. 112, among other cases, must be read as a declaration or at least the recognition of the rule that there is no inconsistency in such findings. We consider, however, that we should adhere to our last expressions on the subject. They are contained in Mitchell v. Williams, 258 Wis. 351, 46 N.W.2d 325, and Wojan v. Igl, 259 Wis. 511, 49 N.W.2d 420, in both of which we held that a verdict such as we have to deal with is inconsistent. The jury's findings cannot be reconciled. If we were to hold that there is no inconsistency we should be required to say that one or the other of the findings is surplusage or immaterial. The question would then be presented: Which? It is impossible to determine from the record or from any other source that the jury meant what it said in answer to one of the questions and that the answer to the other was thrown in only casually and without regard to the form of the questions and in disregard of the court's instructions.

Counsel for Pohl contend that our previous decisions are reconcilable, and if read in the light of the facts appearing in each they must be construed as a declaration of the rule that if the causal negligence is not established as a matter of law the verdict is not inconsistent. There is nothing in the opinion in either of the two latest expressions of the court, Mitchell v. Williams, supra, and Wojan v. Igl, supra, which can be construed as so limiting the rule. The facts in the instant case are such as warrant a finding of causal negligence on the part of Pohl had one been made. We agree with the learned trial judge:

"Where the evidence is in dispute and where a jury would be warranted in finding causal negligence and fails so to do, and then attempts to answer the comparative-negligence question, such failure makes the verdict inconsistent and a new trial must be granted in accordance with the law established in the cases of Mitchell v. Williams, supra, and Wojan v. Igl, supra."

We consider that it may serve a useful purpose to state the rules to be applied when the question, whether findings of a verdict are inconsistent, is presented in a situation such as appears here:

(1) If the issue of causal negligence is for the jury and the party inquired about is exonerated but the jury in its comparison of negligence erroneously attributes to such party some degree of causal negligence, the verdict is inconsistent, and a new trial must be granted;

(2) If it be determined that the party inquired about is free from causal negligence as a matter of law and the jury has exonerated him but has also attributed to him some degree of causal negligence, then the court should strike the answer to the question on comparison as surplusage and grant judgment accordingly;

(3) If the court can find as a matter of law that the party inquired about is guilty of causal negligence and the jury finds that he is not and in the question on comparative negligence attributes to him some degree of causal negligence, the court should change the answers to the questions which inquire as to his conduct from "No" to "Yes" and permit the jury's comparison to stand with judgment accordingly.

Counsel for Pohl do not upon this appeal question the trial court's conclusion that the issue of his negligence was one for the jury. The rule which we have designated as (1) is applicable.

Counsel for Pohl contend that by their failure when the verdict was returned to request that the jury be sent back to resolve the inconsistency counsel for Statz waived the inconsistency. It must be conceded that the court would have acted properly in directing the jury so to act, and that counsel for Statz should have suggested it. But we must now take the verdict as we find it, and having concluded that there is an inconsistency, it is proper to ask: What sort of judgment can be entered upon it? Without being permitted to accept the one answer and reject the other the court was unable, and we are also, to arrive at a conclusion which would support a judgment.

Statz has filed a motion for a review of certain rulings of the trial court. He complains that the trial court erred in refusing to change the answers to the questions inquiring as to his conduct. He was found guilty of causal negligence with respect to lookout, control, coming to a stop, and as to control of the actions of his son.

There is ample testimony to support the findings that he was negligent with respect to control and coming to a stop.

The rule of Thoresen v. Grything, 264 Wis. 487, 59 N.W.2d 682, requires that we hold that the question as to his lookout should not have been submitted. He had a right to assume either that there was no automobile in close proximity to his rear or that, being there, it was under such control as not to interfere with his free use of the road ahead of him.

The nature of Statz's contention with respect to the answer to the question which inquires whether he was negligent as to control of the actions of his son requires that we give it further consideration. A parent's obligation with respect to the control of his child is stated in 39 Am. Jur., Parent and Child, p. 695, sec. 58, as follows:

"Although there are some decisions which have failed to recognize this principle, the general rule is that a parent may be liable for the consequences of failure to exercise the power of control which he has over his children, where he knows, or in the exercise of due care should have known, that injury to another is a probable consequence."

And in 67 C.J.S., Parent and Child, p. 799, sec. 68, as follows:

". . . liability of the parent arises from failure to exercise control over the child where the parent knows, or, in the exercise of due care, should know, that injury to another is a natural and probable consequence of such failure, . . ."

It is stated in Restatement, 2 Torts, p. 858, sec. 316;

"A parent is under a duty to exercise reasonable care so to control his minor child as to prevent it from intentionally harming others or from so conducting itself as to create an unreasonable risk of bodily harm to them, if the parent

"(a) knows or has reason to know that he has the ability to control his child, and

"(b) knows or should know of the necessity and opportunity for exercising such control."

Counsel for Statz cite a number of cases in which this court has denied recovery against a parent for the negligent act of his child. All of these cases are distinguishable in that there the act of the child was committed in the absence of the parent. In the instant case Statz had placed the boy, five years old, in the rear seat of the car, rather than in the front seat where the boy could be observed by him. No safety device or lock was attached to the handles of the rear doors of the car. He is charged with the knowledge that young children ordinarily act thoughtlessly and impulsively. These circumstances call for application of the foregoing stated rules and required submission of the issue to the jury.

Counsel for Statz complain of the following instructions given with respect to the question which inquires as to the control of Raymond:

"Children, wherever they go, must be expected to act on childish instincts and impulses, and others who are chargeable with the duty of care and caution toward them must calculate on this and take precautions accordingly." And

"It is the duty of a person dealing with a child to exercise a greater amount of caution than he would were he dealing with an adult. One should anticipate thoughtlessness and impulsiveness in conduct of a young child."

Considering these instructions in view of the rule as to a parent's duty regarding the control of a young child we can find no fault with them. Actually, they are no more than a statement of what is generally known and what one should have in mind when he places a child of the age of Raymond in the rear seat of an automobile and there unattended by an adult.

We cannot say, as Statz contends, that a question as to the speed at which Pohl drove immediately before the collision should have been submitted. It is uncontradicted that Pohl at no time exceeded a speed in excess of 50 miles per hour, and that when he saw Raymond fall he was about 100 feet behind the Statz car. The rate of speed at which he was driving was not under the circumstances a contributing cause of the accident. If he failed it was with respect to his failure to observe the conduct of Statz and to be guided thereby, or in following too closely, or in the control of his car, — questions as to each of which elements were properly submitted.

Statz contends that it should be found as a matter of law that Pohl's negligence contributed more to the cause of the accident than did his. The evidence in this case is such as to make that issue one clearly for the jury. The statement of facts which precedes this opinion demonstrates that fact satisfactorily.

By the Court. — The order in each case is affirmed.

The following opinion was filed April 6, 1954:


Counsel for appellant, Pohl, and his insurance carrier, in a brief submitted on motion for rehearing, suggest that the rule which we have stated as No. (3) is counter to that declared in Mahoney v. Thill, 241 Wis. 359, 6 N.W.2d 239, and that if it is our purpose to overrule the decision in that case we say so in express terms. We had the case in mind when we said in our original opinion, page 27, that "it is not possible to reconcile the conflicting views of this court expressed in opinions dealing with the precise question" — an attack upon a verdict in a negligence case as being inconsistent.

A reconsideration of the rule expressed has convinced us, however, that rule No. (3) is stated too broadly. It should be limited and stated as follows:

"(3) If but one element of negligence is submitted to the jury and the court can find as a matter of law that the party inquired about in the question is guilty of causal negligence and the jury finds that he is not, and in answer to the question on comparative negligence attributes to him some degree of causal negligence, the court should change the answer to the question which inquires as to his conduct from `No' to `Yes' and permit the jury's comparison to stand with judgment accordingly."

We pointed out in our original opinion that this case calls for application of the rule which we have designated as No. (1). It follows, therefore, that what we said in our opinion with respect to rule No. (3) is dictum. That is true, of course, when it is considered in the determination of the issues in this action. We repeat, however, that the statement was made and should be accepted as now limited as the considered expression of the court made for the guidance of the profession in the hope that the confusion existing by reason of former opinions may be removed.

Motion for rehearing denied without costs.


Summaries of

Statz v. Pohl

Supreme Court of Wisconsin
Feb 2, 1954
266 Wis. 23 (Wis. 1954)

In Statz v. Pohl (1954), 266 Wis. 23, 62 N.W.2d 556, 63 N.W.2d 711, this court established rules for dealing with inconsistent verdicts where the apportionment of negligence was inconsistent with the jury's response to the question of causal negligence.

Summary of this case from Jahnke v. Smith

In Grything, supra, both parties had a clear view of a parked car ahead on the roadway, and though Grything made no observation to the rear, he applied his brakes, which activated the rear warning lights.

Summary of this case from Bentzler v. Braun

In Statz v. Pohl (1954), 266 Wis. 23, 62 N.W.2d 556, 63 N.W.2d 711, we gave careful consideration to the question of inconsistent verdicts, with a view to avoiding new trials where that could be done without injustice.

Summary of this case from Callahan v. Van Galder

In Statz v. Pohl (1954), 266 Wis. 23, 30, 62 N.W.2d 556, 63 N.W.2d 711, it was stated that the rule of the Thoresen Case "requires that we hold that the question as to his lookout should not have been submitted."

Summary of this case from Tesch v. Wisconsin Public Service Corp.

In Statz v. Pohl (1954), 266 Wis. 23, 62 N.W.2d 556, 63 N.W.2d 711, we dealt with special verdicts which find a person guilty of no causal negligence but nevertheless in comparing causal negligence assign some part of it to him.

Summary of this case from Veverka v. Metropolitan Casualty Ins. Co.
Case details for

Statz v. Pohl

Case Details

Full title:STATZ and others, Respondents, vs. POHL and another, Appellants. [Two cases

Court:Supreme Court of Wisconsin

Date published: Feb 2, 1954

Citations

266 Wis. 23 (Wis. 1954)
62 N.W.2d 556
63 N.W.2d 711

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