SIMBLEST v. MAYNARD No. 661, Docket 34285.
427 F.2d 1 (1970)
Samuel SIMBLEST, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Joseph MAYNARD, Defendant-Appellee.
United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit.
Decided May 12, 1970.
Robert Grussing, III, Brattleboro, Vt., for plaintiff-appellant.
Robert H. Erdmann, Burlington, Vt. (Wick, Dinse & Allen, Burlington, Vt., on the brief), for defendant-appellee.
Before KAUFMAN and FEINBERG, Circuit Judges, and TIMBERS, District Judge.
TIMBERS, District Judge:
We have before us another instance of Vermont justice — this time at the hands of a federal trial judge who, correctly applying the law, set aside a $17,125 plaintiff's verdict and entered judgment n. o. v. for defendant, Rule 50(b), Fed.R. Civ.P., in a diversity negligence action arising out of an intersection collision between a passenger vehicle driven by plaintiff and a fire engine driven by defendant in Burlington, Vermont, during the electric power blackout which left most of New England in darkness on the night of November 9, 1965. We affirm.
Plaintiff, a citizen and resident of New Hampshire, was 66 years of age at the time of the accident. He was a distributor of reference books and had been in Burlington on business for three days prior to the accident. He was an experienced driver, having driven an average of some 54,000 miles per year since 1922. He was thoroughly familiar with the intersection in question. His eyesight was excellent and his hearing was very good.
Defendant, a citizen of Vermont, had resided in Burlington for 44 years. He had been a full time fireman with the Burlington Fire Department for 17 years. He was assigned to and regularly drove the 500 gallon pumper which he was driving at the time of the accident. He was thoroughly familiar with the intersection in question.
The accident occurred at the intersection of Main Street (U.S. Route 2), which runs generally east and west, and South Willard Street (U.S. Routes 2 and 7), which runs generally north and south. The neighorhood is partly business, partly residential. At approximately the center of the intersection there was an overhead electrical traffic control signal designed to exhibit the usual red and green lights.
At the time of the accident, approximately 5:27 P.M., it was dark, traffic was light and the weather was clear. Plaintiff was driving his 1964 Chrysler station wagon in a westerly direction on Main Street, approaching the intersection. Defendant was driving the fire engine, in response to a fire alarm, in a southerly direction on South Willard Street, also approaching the intersection.
Plaintiff testified that the traffic light was green in his favor as he approached and entered the intersection; but that when he had driven part way through the intersection the power failure extinguished all lights within his range of view, including the traffic
Plaintiff also testified that his speed was 12 to 15 miles per hour as he approached the intersection. He did not look to his right before he entered the intersection;
Plaintiff further testified that his view to the north (his right) as he entered the intersection was obstructed by various objects, including traffic signs, trees on Main Street and a Chamber of Commerce information booth on Main Street east of the intersection. All of the evidence, including the photographs of the intersection, demonstrates that, despite some obstruction of plaintiff's view to the north, he could have seen the approaching fire engine if he had looked between the obstructions and if he had looked to the north after he passed the information booth. One of plaintiff's own witnesses, Kathleen Burgess, testified that "maybe five to ten seconds previous to when he was struck he might have seen the fire truck," referring to the interval of time after plaintiff passed the information booth until the collision.
Defendant testified that, accompanied by Captain Fortin in the front seat, he drove the fire engine from the Mansfield Avenue Fire Station, seven and one-half blocks away from the scene of the accident, in the direction of the fire on Maple Street. While driving in a southerly direction on South Willard Street and approaching the intersection with Main Street, the following warning devices were in operation on the fire engine: the penetrator making a wailing sound; the usual fire siren; a flashing red light attached to the dome of the fire engine; two red lights on either side of the cab; and the usual headlights. Defendant saw plaintiff's car east of the information booth and next saw it as it entered the intersection. Defendant testified that he was traveling 20 to 25 miles per hour as he approached
The fire engine struck plaintiff's car on the right side, in the area of the fender and front door. Plaintiff's head struck the post on the left side of his car, causing him to lose consciousness for about a minute. He claims that this injury aggravated a chronic pre-existing degenerative arthritic condition of the spine.
Other witnesses who virtually bracketed the intersection from different vantage points were called. Frank Valz, called by plaintiff, was looking out a window in a building on the northeast corner of the intersection; he saw the fire engine when it was a block north of the intersection; he heard its siren and saw its flashing red lights. Kathleen Burgess, another of plaintiff's witnesses (referred to above), was driving in a northerly direction on South Willard Street, just south of the intersection; seeing the fire engine when it was a block north of the intersection, she pulled over to the curb and stopped; she saw its flashing lights, but did not hear its siren. Holland Smith and Irene Longe, both called by defendant, were in the building at the southwest corner of the intersection; as the fire engine approached the intersection, they each heard its warning signals and saw its flashing lights in operation.
Defendant's motions for a directed verdict at the close of plaintiff's case and at the close of all the evidence having been denied and the jury having returned a plaintiff's verdict, defendant moved to set aside the verdict and the judgment entered thereon and for entry of judgment n. o. v. in accordance with his motion for a directed verdict. Chief Judge Leddy filed a written opinion granting defendant's motion.
On appeal plaintiff urges that the district court erred in granting defendant's motion for judgment n. o. v. or, in the alternative, in declining to charge the jury on the doctrine of last clear chance. We affirm both rulings of the district court.
In determining whether the motion for judgment n. o. v. should have been granted, a threshold question is presented as to the correct standard to be applied. This standard has been expressed in various ways. Simply stated, it is whether the evidence is such that, without weighing the credibility of the witnesses or otherwise considering the weight of the evidence, there can be but one conclusion as to the verdict that reasonable men could have reached. See, e. g., Brady v. Southern Railway Company, 320 U.S. 476, 479-80 (1943); O'Connor v. Pennsylvania Railroad Company, 308 F.2d 911, 914-15 (2 Cir. 1962). See also 5 Moore's Federal Practice ¶ 50.02 , at 2320-23 (2d ed. 1968); Wright, Law of Federal Courts § 95, at 425 (2d ed. 1970). On a motion for judgment n. o. v., the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is made and he must be given the benefit of all reasonable inferences which may be drawn in his favor from that evidence. O'Connor v. Pennsylvania Railroad Company, supra, at 914-15; 5 Moore, supra, at 2325; Wright, supra, at 425.
We acknowledge that it has not been settled in a diversity action whether, in considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is made, the court may consider all the evidence or only the evidence favorable to such party and the uncontradicted, unimpeached evidence unfavorable to him. Under Vermont law,
The Supreme Court at least twice has declined to decide whether the state or federal standard as to the sufficiency of the evidence is controlling on such motions in diversity cases. Mercer v. Theriot, 377 U.S. 152, 156 (1964) (per curiam); Dick v. New York Life Insurance Company, 359 U.S. 437, 444-45 (1959). Our Court likewise has declined to decide this issue in recent cases. Mull v. Ford Motor Company, 368 F.2d 713, 716 n. 4 (2 Cir. 1966); Hooks v. New York Central Railroad Company, 327 F.2d 259, 261 n. 2 (2 Cir. 1964); Jacobs v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, 324 F.2d 50, 51 n. 1 (2 Cir. 1963); Evans v. S. J. Groves & Sons Company, 315 F.2d 335, 342 n. 2 (2 Cir. 1963). See 5 Moore, supra, at 2347-50.
Our careful review of the record in the instant case leaves us with the firm conviction that, under either the Vermont standard or the more restrictive federal standard, plaintiff was contributorily negligent as a matter of law; and that Chief Judge Leddy correctly set aside the verdict and entered judgment for defendant n. o. v. O'Connor v. Pennsylvania Railroad Company, supra, at 914; Presser Royalty Company v. Chase Manhattan Bank, 272 F.2d 838, 840 (2 Cir. 1959).
Under the Vermont standard which permits all the evidence to be considered, Kremer v. Fortin, supra, plaintiff was so clearly guilty of contributory negligence that no further dilation is required.
Under the more restrictive federal standard — i. e., considering only the evidence favorable to plaintiff and the uncontradicted, unimpeached evidence unfavorable to him — while a closer question is presented than under the Vermont standard, we nevertheless hold that plaintiff was guilty of contributory negligence as a matter of law.
In our view, applying the federal standard, the critical issue in the case is whether the fire engine was sounding a siren or displaying a red light as it approached the intersection immediately before the collision. Upon this critical issue, Chief Judge Leddy accurately and
The reason such evidence is critical is that under Vermont law, 23 V.S.A. § 1033, upon the approach of a fire department vehicle which is sounding a siren or displaying a red light, or both, all other vehicles are required to pull over to the right lane of traffic and come to a complete stop until the emergency vehicle has passed.
As stated above, plaintiff testified that he first saw the fire engine when he was one-half to three-quarters of the way through the intersection and when the fire engine was within 12 feet of his car. At the speed at which the fire engine was traveling, plaintiff had approximately one-third of a second
Plaintiff's testimony that he did not see the fire engine's flashing red light, in the teeth of the proven physical facts, we hold is tantamount to no proof at all on that issue. O'Connor v. Pennsylvania Railroad Company, supra, at 915. As one commentator has put it, ". . . the question of the total absence of proof quickly merges into the question whether the proof adduced is so insignificant as to be treated as the equivalent of the absence of proof." 5 Moore, supra, at 2320. If plaintiff had testified that he had not looked to his right at all, he of course would have been
Chief Judge Leddy concluded that plaintiff was guilty of contributory negligence as a matter of law; accordingly, he set aside the verdict and entered judgment n. o. v. for defendant. We agree.
Plaintiff urges in the alternative the claim that the district court erred in declining to charge the jury on the doctrine of last clear chance; of course this doctrine is relevant only if plaintiff was guilty of contributory negligence. Since we hold, as did Chief Judge Leddy, that plaintiff was contributorily negligent, his last clear chance claim is properly before us.
Moreover, we reject defendant's contentions that plaintiff failed properly to plead the doctrine of last clear chance (the complaint was amended to reflect such claim); and that plaintiff's requests to charge on the doctrine consisted of mere abstract propositions of law (the trial judge denied plaintiff's request to charge on last clear chance on the ground that "I do not think there is any evidence to support it").
We turn directly to whether there was evidence sufficient to warrant charging the jury on the issue of last clear chance. In addition to the usual essential elements of last clear chance, Vermont law requires the existence of a period of time during which plaintiff, in the exercise of due care, could not have avoided the accident and during which defendant, in the exercise of due care, could have avoided the accident. Spencer v. Fondry, 122 Vt. 149, 152, 167 A.2d 372 (1960).
Plaintiff's claim regarding last clear chance is pegged entirely on the theory that, there being no traffic behind his car, defendant should have seen such absence of traffic and should have had sufficient time to turn the fire engine to his left, rather than to his right, and thus to maneuver it into the space to the rear of plaintiff's car.
We agree with Chief Judge Leddy's ruling, directed precisely to plaintiff's claim in this respect, in refusing to charge on the doctrine of last clear chance:
We hold, assuming arguendo there was an interval of time during which plaintiff in the exercise of due care could not have avoided the accident, that — based on the proven physical facts regarding the speed of the fire engine and the proximity of the two vehicles referred to above — the overwhelming, uncontroverted evidence demonstrates that defendant in the exercise of due care simply could not have avoided the accident. Spencer v. Fondry, supra, at 152.
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