VERHEL v. INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DIST. NO. 709 Nos. C7-82-1246, C3-82-1261.
359 N.W.2d 579 (1984)
Robin VERHEL, a Minor, by Albert VERHEL, her Father and Natural Guardian, and Albert Verhel, individually, Respondents, v. INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 709, a Public Corporation, Appellant (C7-82-1246), Diane Williams, Respondent, John Estes House, Respondent (C7-82-1246), Appellant (C3-82-1261), Karen Ann Pitoscia and Frank R. Pitoscia, Respondents.
Supreme Court of Minnesota.
December 21, 1984.
Terry C. Hallenbeck, Duluth, for Estes House.
Heard, considered and decided by the court en banc.
Twelve cheerleaders from Denfeld High School (Denfeld), Duluth, Minnesota, riding in a van, were involved in an automobile collision at 5 a.m., August 30, 1980, while they were "bannering" the homes of the school's football players in anticipation of the season's first game later that day. Robin Verhel (Verhel), one of the cheerleaders injured in the collision, and her father, Albert Verhel, brought suit against the drivers, cheerleader Karen Pitoscia (Pitoscia) and John House (House), for negligent operation of their vehicles, and against the school district and the cheerleaders' faculty advisor for negligent supervision of an authorized activity. The jury found for Verhel in the amount of $200,200 and for her father in the amount of $14,000. The jury in the special interrogatories indicated that each defendant was negligent and that the negligence of each was a direct cause of Verhel's injuries. It apportioned the percentages of comparative fault as follows: School District No. 709, 35%; House, 26%; the advisor, Diane Williams, 0%; and Pitoscia, 39%. The trial court issued its order for judgment based on the jury's verdict and subsequently denied all post trial motions. We affirm.
Cheerleading is a sanctioned extra-curricular activity at Denfeld High School. The school district regularly assigned and paid a faculty member to direct and sponsor the cheerleading organization. Diane Williams (Williams), the faculty sponsor in this case, had become a teacher at Denfeld the previous year upon her graduation from college. During that year she had been assigned to direct and sponsor the cheerleading squad. Other than that she had no prior supervisory experience. The Denfeld cheerleading squad for the 1980-81 schoolyear was chosen on April 1, 1980. Thereafter, its members met with Williams and drafted the cheerleading constitution.
The opening game of the football season, against Grand Rapids, was to be held Saturday night, August 30. Earlier that day there was to be a school-wide pep rally. Although the official football season was beginning, classes did not start until the following week. Sometime in August the cheerleaders began to discuss "bannering," decorating with posters the homes of the football players for the opening game. On the morning of Monday, August 25, the cheerleaders met as usual for practice and following practice held their regular weekly meeting. Williams was in attendance. Members of the squad testified that they discussed their bannering plans at this meeting while Williams was present. They testified that they ascertained who was available to drive, obtained the names and addresses of the football players from the football coach, divided the names among themselves so that the parents of the players could be advised in advance of the bannering, and planned how and when to make the banners. According to the girls, Williams made no comment with respect to any of the arrangements discussed, but announced that she would be gone for the rest of the week.
Williams denies this discussion took place and testified that the most she heard was an offhand remark by one squad member to another after the meeting had concluded, which consisted of, "Hey, maybe we should go decorate some houses." She made no inquiry.
On Friday, August 29, the squad worked inside the high school, making between 30 and 60 banners. The squad captains had purchased supplies for the posters after getting a purchase order signed by Williams against the cheerleading fund before she left on Monday. They borrowed tape and scissors from the principal's office. At approximately 10 p.m. that Friday, Pitoscia was asked if she could get her parents' van to drive the squad around as they bannered the football players' homes. Pitoscia obtained permission from her father to use the van and began picking up members of the squad between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. on Saturday. Pitoscia testified that at the time of the accident she was 17 years old, had been licensed to drive for 13 months, was very familiar with driving the van, and that the van was in good operating condition.
John House, the other driver in the collision, worked from 11 p.m. Thursday to 7 a.m. on the Friday preceding the accident. He then went home, slept until 2 p.m., had a salad to eat, and worked on his boat for several hours. At approximately 6 p.m., he and a friend took the boat out on the St. Louis River. Before leaving the river at 10 p.m., he consumed three beers. He then proceeded to Bucko's Bar, where he had two whiskey sours. After returning home briefly at approximately 12 o'clock midnight, he proceeded to the Palace Bar in Oliver, Wisconsin, where he consumed two more whiskey sours. He left the Palace Bar at approximately 2 a.m. and at approximately 3 a.m. had breakfast at a Perkins Restaurant. According to House, while he had felt somewhat the effects of the alcohol upon his arrival at the restaurant, he no longer felt those effects upon leaving at approximately 4 a.m. After giving a friend a ride home, House arrived at his home between 4:30 and 5 a.m. Because House was still hungry, he left again, this time going to a Taco John's.
The collision between Pitoscia's van and House's jeep occurred at approximately 5 a.m. in West Duluth at the corner of 59th Avenue West and Grand Avenue. The van, carrying 12 cheerleaders and one other student, was heading in a northerly direction on 59th Avenue West. House, who was returning from Taco John's, was driving his jeep westward on Grand Avenue. Because these streets do not intersect at right angles, the view to Pitoscia's right was partially blocked by a building which abuts the sidewalk. This intersection was familiar
House described the jeep's location as 30-40 feet, or two car-lengths, from the intersection when he first saw the van. He was driving 32-33 m.p.h. in what was a 30 m.p.h. zone. He had no time to honk the horn or to attempt to avoid the van. Upon impact, House was thrown from the jeep. He testified that he was "fuzzy" and that upon getting up he fell back down, but then climbed into his jeep.
Verhel was taken to the emergency room of St. Luke's Hospital. She was subsequently diagnosed as having a fractured right femur, numerous fractures of the pelvic area, and a partially collapsed lung. She underwent surgery and was placed in traction at the hospital. In order that the bones heal properly, Verhel was allowed only to walk or lie down. After her release from the hospital on October 8, she continued traction at home for 10 more days. She returned to school on November 17. The cast was removed on December 3 or 4.
The case was tried before a six-member jury which found that each defendant was negligent, and that each defendant's negligence was a direct cause of Verhel's injury. The jurors apportioned the causal negligence as follows:
Defendant School District No. 709 35% Defendant Diane Williams 0 Defendant John Estes House 26% Defendant Karen Ann Pitoscia 39% Plaintiff Robin Verhel 0 Plaintiff Albert Verhel 0 ____ 100%
The jurors found the damages to be $200,200 to Robin Verhel and $14,000 to Albert Verhel. The trial court ordered judgment for plaintiffs against the school district, House, and the Pitoscias, jointly and severally, in those amounts. The trial court subsequently denied motions by the school district for JNOV or a new trial, by plaintiffs for an order making Williams jointly and severally liable for the judgment, by the Pitoscias to amend the order, and by House for a new trial.
The school district argues on appeal that it had no legal duty to supervise the cheer-leaders with respect to the bannering activity; that the trial court erred in its instructions to the jury; that the damages found were excessive and unreasonable; and that the verdict was irreconcilably inconsistent.
Respondent Pitoscia cross-appeals, arguing that the damages were excessive and not justified by the evidence; that the trial court erred in allowing introduction of certain evidence regarding Pitoscia's driving behavior prior to the accident; and that the jury's special verdict was irreconcilable.
House, a respondent in the school district appeal, appealing in his own right, challenges the damages as excessive, the verdict
I. We address first the primary issue raised by the school district: whether the school district had a duty to supervise the cheerleaders with respect to the bannering activity under the facts and circumstances of this case. If the school district had no such duty, its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict must be granted. Where a school district has such a duty, that duty is to
Sheehan v. St. Peter's Catholic School, 291 Minn. 1, 3,
A school district is not relieved of liability because there was no prior notice of danger. Raleigh v. Independent School District No. 625,
The Verhels, the school district, and Williams submitted requested instructions as to the school district's duty of care. The relevant instructions given by the trial court were:
The school district and Williams assert that this instruction was erroneous because it did not specify the limits on the school district's duty to supervise. The school district argues that, as a matter of law, it had no duty to supervise the bannering cheerleaders because the activity was not specifically approved or sponsored by the school district and took place off school premises, during summer vacation, on a weekend, in the early morning hours. If it were held liable under such circumstances, the school district says, it would be held liable for the safety of all students while in transit to or from a school activity. This is a misapprehension of the issue. The issue is not whether the school district is liable for the safety of all students while in transit to or from a school activity; clearly a school district is not so liable. A school district may be held liable, however, where it had undertaken to provide supervision. See Law v. Newark Board of Education,
The issue is whether the school district had assumed control and supervision over cheerleading at Denfeld High School so as to have a duty to provide regulations and supervision for squad members while engaged in cheerleading activities and whether, on the facts of this case, bannering was such an activity.
The school district does not contend that the cheerleading squad was not a school-approved organization. It is clear from the record that the school district had assumed control and supervision over the cheerleading squad and its activities, including its transportation arrangements. The squad had a constitution which was approved by the school. The cheerleaders were governed by the constitution and by the Minnesota High School League rules which were administered by the school district. Squad members were "officially greeted" by the principal of Denfeld High School, Dr. Wayne Samskar, who told them of their importance to the school, its students, and its sports program. Samskar testified that cheerleading was a sanctioned activity of the school, one which he considered to be a co-curricular activity.
There was also sufficient evidence on the record to find that the school district's responsibility continued during the summer months. The cheerleaders had established a summer schedule which required practice three mornings a week in June and July and five mornings a week in August. They drafted a constitution which required attendance at both practices and at other events. Samskar read and approved the constitution. The cheerleaders held fundraisers in the summer. They attended cheerleading camp. Williams kept in contact with the squad through the team captains. She visited some of the practice sessions and attended some of the weekly meetings. She signed purchase orders. The first football game of the season was scheduled for Saturday night, August 30, even though the regular school year would not begin until the following week. The bannering was done the morning of the day that both a schoolwide pep rally and the game were scheduled. Several cheerleaders testified that they considered their participation in the bannering mandatory. The cheerleaders made the posters inside the school building itself, using some school supplies and obtaining other supplies using the school's purchase order system. Under these circumstances, it is not unreasonable to hold that the school district's responsibility continued in the summer.
The questions of whether bannering was a recognized cheerleading activity and of whether Williams knew of the bannering plans were explored at length during the trial. There was evidence on the record from which the jury could have found that the practice of bannering the homes of student athletes before the first game of a season was a traditional, recognized activity of the cheerleading squad. There was also evidence that Williams knew bannering was a school tradition and that she had been involved the previous year in approving transportation arrangements when the hockey cheerleaders requested permission to banner the hockey players' homes. As to whether she knew of the football bannering plans, the following exchange occurred upon cross-examination of Williams:
It is clear from the record that the school district had assumed supervision and control
The school district also had a duty to instruct properly and adequately the supervisor it assigned to the cheerleading squad. The instructions given were general and nonspecific. Williams was relatively young and inexperienced. She had no knowledge that the bannering activity was anything other than a traditional, school-approved activity nor did she have authority to alter school district policy permitting unsupervised driving by students with respect to intra-city extracurricular activities. She had also been given the message, by way of her contract, that supervision of the cheerleading squad during the summer months, while a good thing to do on her own time, was not considered by the school district to be required.
The school district could have exercised reasonable care in a variety of ways. It could have arranged for definite accountable supervision of the cheerleading squad during the summer months as it did for the football squad. It could have properly, adequately, and specifically instructed the assigned supervisor so that plans for the bannering and its attendant transportation would have been approved by the supervisor or principal or prohibited.
The school district contends that even if there was a duty to supervise, there was no breach of that duty as a matter of law because the accident as it occurred was not reasonably foreseeable or proximately caused by its negligent supervision. We have addressed in other cases the question of whether a risk of harm to students was foreseeable and avoidable by a school or its agents. In Sheehan v. St. Peter's Catholic School, 291 Minn. 1,
Id. at 576.
Here, as in Raleigh, there was a "lack of supervision and organization of the students" when the school district, through its agent, was aware of the risk of harm. The driving behavior of Pitoscia was foreseeable. Moreover, as in Sheehan, Pitoscia's misconduct would have been prevented had the school district's duty been discharged. Evidence was introduced that Pitoscia had been "driving kind of fast" and that she had driven over the curb shortly before the accident. Pitoscia herself admitted that she rolled through the stop sign. She also testified that she had played volleyball that day, worked at Hardy's that evening, was feeling tired at the time of the accident, and knew the cheerleaders still had half the houses to banner before 6 a.m. when they had planned to have breakfast. Had a supervisor or other approved adult been present, he or she would have intervened if Pitoscia were too tired or too pressured to drive safely. The district's argument that the conduct of Karen Pitoscia in failing to obey a stop sign and proceeding into an intersection without stopping was a superseding cause which precluded a finding of proximate cause is without merit. Such behavior, or misbehavior, by unsupervised students is to be expected and is precisely the harm to be guarded against by the exercise of the school district's supervision. We cannot hold, as a matter of law, that the conduct of these unsupervised students or the accident as it occurred was not reasonably foreseeable nor that the school district's negligent failure to supervise was not the proximate cause of Verhel's injury. We conclude, as did the Rupp court, that, at best, these issues are for the finder of fact. We affirm the jury's finding that the school district was negligent and that that negligence was a direct cause of Robin Verhel's injury.
2. John House urges on appeal that, in view of the recognized prejudice held by the public against intoxicated drivers, it was error for the trial court to permit introduction of alcohol consumption without corresponding evidence of impairment or without instructing the jury to disregard the testimony. Where the evidence does not demonstrate that an automobile driver was intoxicated at the time of an accident, the decision as to whether an instruction to disregard testimony concerning alcohol consumption is given to the jury is within the sound discretion of the trial court. This court will not disturb the trial court's refusal to give such an instruction absent a showing of prejudice. See Thole v. Noorlun, 287 Minn. 52, 57,
House also argues that he should have been allowed (a) to introduce emergency hospital records which contained a statement by the examining physician that House "appeared alert and oriented" and (b) to testify that he was not given a blood alcohol test. The trial court refused to allow the examining doctor's comments on the question of whether House was impaired at the time of the accident because of his alcohol consumption. The trial court's apparent concern was that the
3. In pretrial conference, Pitoscia brought a motion in limine that any testimony regarding her driving not be allowed. Several attorneys opposed the motion, arguing that evidence of erratic driving was relevant as to the school district's duty to inquire about transportation arrangements. They also argued that it had bearing on the question of each girl's comparative negligence; for example, in not protesting about Pitoscia's driving or in not getting out of the van. The trial court allowed this testimony but gave the following instruction: "I instruct you that any evidence of Karen Pitoscia's driving remote in time from the accident should not be considered in determining her fault, if any." He continued, "A passenger has a duty to take active measures to protect itself from danger only when it is apparent to them that they can no longer rely on the driver for their protection * * *." We find no error.
4. The school district, Pitoscia and House claim that the award of $200,200 to Robin Verhel and of $14,000 to her father was excessive and unreasonable in light of the injuries and damages suffered. The test for setting aside a verdict as excessive is whether it shocks the conscience. DeWitt v. Schuhbauer, 287 Minn. 279, 286,
In Schindele v. Ulrich,
Id. at 552. In view of Verhel's young age and active life-style, the recurring pain in her leg, her reduced ability to stand for long periods of time or to engage in active physical efforts, and the disruption of her education, we do not find the amounts awarded excessive as a matter of law.
5. Lastly we address the issue of whether the jury's verdict is irreconcilable. The jury found that all of the defendants were negligent and that the negligence of each was a direct cause of Robin Verhel's injuries but apportioned no percentage of causal negligence to Diane Williams. The Verhels urge this court to hold Williams jointly and severally liable for 35% of the award along with the school district. The school district, the Pitoscias and House request a new trial. Williams argues that to do either would be to ignore both the jury's stated intent that only the school district was liable and the trial court's stated determination that the judgment reflected the jury's intent. This court has long held that a verdict is to be liberally construed to give effect to the intention of the jury and to harmonize answers to interrogatories if it is possible to do so. The test is whether the answers can be reconciled in any reasonable manner consistent with the evidence, and its fair inferences. Bellon v. Klawitter,
SIMONETT, Justice (dissenting in part).
I would grant a new trial on liability only because of the perverse verdict and, therefore, to this extent, I respectfully dissent from the majority opinion.
The 12 girls in the cheerleading squad decided on their own initiative to banner. Karen Pitoscia, 17, the driver, first knew she was to drive at 10 p.m. Friday night, August 29. She borrowed her parents' van with permission. The record does not disclose what she told her parents. Karen began picking up the other girls between 1 and 2 a.m. Robin Verhel, the plaintiff, age 16, was picked up at her home at 2 a.m. Robin said her mother did not like her going, "but I told her I had to go because all the other cheerleaders were going." She also told her mother that Karen Pitoscia might be driving, but she was not sure. The girls intended to stay out all night, driving to some 60 homes in the City of Duluth, concluding with a 6 a.m. breakfast. As they went on their way, the group of girls in the van were singing and, as Robin put it, "just goofing off." The accident happened at 5 a.m. This is the kind of activity that one might reasonably foresee could lead to an auto accident.
I would phrase the main issue: Did the school district assume control and supervision over the bannering activities of the cheerleaders during their all-night excursion of August 29-30, 1980? There are two subissues: To what extent, if any, was bannering a part of the cheerleading program? And did the school district know the girls were planning to banner on the night in question?
While plaintiffs referred to bannering as a "tradition" at Denfeld High, the trial record suggests it was at best a sporadic, but acceptable, activity. Clearly, however, bannering, unlike a scheduled football game, was an optional activity, not required as part of the cheerleading program but something the girls — who had a great deal of discretion — might, impromptu, on their own initiative, decide to do. If the girls decided to banner, the squad captains were expected to discuss the proposed activity with their advisor. In this kind of situation, the school district's duty to supervise the bannering would not arise until it knew or should have known that the bannering was going to take place. Ordinarily, a school district's duty to supervise is based on the fact that parents have relinquished custody of their children to the school for school activities and, consequently, the school is charged with the duty of protecting the children while in its charge. See Pratt v. Robinson,
Consequently, the nature and extent of Diane Williams' knowledge was critical, and the evidence on this issue was sharply contested. The jury found Williams negligent and her negligence a direct cause of plaintiff's injuries. Presumably, the jury found that Diane Williams knew about the bannering and failed to do anything about it. Indeed, the jury foreman said as much to the clerk in a colloquy when the verdict was submitted. But then, in apportioning the causal negligence of the parties, the jury found just the opposite. It found no negligence on the part of Williams contributed to cause the accident. If this means, as it might, that Williams did not know about the bannering, then to the extent that Williams and the school district were found negligent for failure to supervise the activities on the Friday night involved, the verdict was perverse. Plaintiffs suggest the jury may have felt that Williams knew about the bannering plans but excused her because she had not been properly instructed by the school district. This, however, overlooks the fact that Williams testified she would have acted, even without further school district instructions, if she had known of the bannering.
The jury may have been misled by another aspect of this case. It is always a problem how to submit the comparative fault question to the jury when a corporation and its employee are both defendants and both are claimed to be negligent in their own right and the corporation is acting, at least in part, through the defendant employee. Here the school district could have been negligent, independent of any conduct of Williams, as for example, by failing to promulgate appropriate cheerleading regulations or by failing to instruct adequately its employee Williams on her cheerleading duties. At the same time, Williams could be negligent, if on notice, in failing to supervise the bannering that occurred, and, since her conduct is the conduct of the school district, the school district would also be negligent for failing to supervise the specific bannering activity. The jury might have felt that the 35% causal negligence it put on the school district included Williams' negligence and, therefore, that assigning any more negligence to Williams would be superfluous. Apparently it is on this theory that plaintiffs ask that we change the jury's verdict to hold Williams and the school district jointly liable for 35% causal negligence, although this assumes that the jury found no negligence on the part of the school district independent of Williams' own negligence — a point on which Williams might disagree.
In any event, it seems to me that to reconcile the perverse verdict on this record would be an exercise in guesswork, and that the proper solution must be a new trial on liability only for all parties.
It can be argued — and, indeed, was argued unsuccessfully to the jury — that supervisory responsibility rested not with the school district but with the parents. There was, however, little testimony on this issue. No parent testified that their child was allowed to go bannering after midnight in reliance on any representation that the child was at a supervised school activity. Nevertheless, the issue here is not only a
PETERSON, Justice (dissenting).
I join in the dissent of Justice Simonett.
KELLEY, Justice (dissenting).
I join in the dissent of Justice Simonett.
COYNE, Justice (dissenting).
I join in the dissent of Justice Simonett.
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