This personal injury case arises out of a rear-end collision involving two automobiles. The front vehicle was operated by plaintiff Kevin C. Best, an officer of the Metropolitan Police Department. Best's passengers and co-plaintiffs were his mother, Louberta R. Best, and his then-fiancee, Sherry A. Stinson. The rear car was operated by defendant Laura Ann Fisher and registered in the name of Ms. Fisher's father and co-defendant, Ronald K. Fisher.
The controversy went to trial twice. At the conclusion of the first trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Fishers. The plaintiffs filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, for a new trial. The judge granted the motion for a new trial. At the second trial, a jury found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded Ms. Stinson $40,000, Officer Best $10,000, and Mrs. Best $10,000. On appeal, Ms. Fisher's sole contention is that the trial judge abused his discretion in granting the motion for a new trial. We disagree and affirm.
The accident to which this litigation relates took place on June 10, 1989 in the 2800 block of Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., near the entrance to the Rock Creek Parkway. It is undisputed that Officer Best suddenly stopped or slowed down in order to avoid a collision with a vehicle in front of him and that Ms. Fisher struck him in the rear, "totalling" the Fisher car and causing heavy damage to the Best vehicle.
The three plaintiffs provided consistent testimony. None of them was aware of Ms. Fisher's vehicle prior to the collision. Officer Best testified that he had come to rest some three feet behind the car in front of him and that Ms. Fisher's automobile struck him hard in the rear some fifteen to twenty seconds later.
There was substantial testimony, not contradicted during the defense case, to the effect that Ms. Fisher admitted fault on the scene. When the principals got out of their respective vehicles, Ms. Fisher said "don't hit me" to Officer Best; Mrs. Best reassured her that her son was a police officer and would not harm her. According to Mrs. Best, Ms. Fisher stated that "she was looking in the mirror and when she got up she was too close that she couldn't stop." Ms. Stinson testified that Ms. Fisher said that
At the hospital to which all four principals were taken, a police officer who investigated the accident gave Ms. Fisher a ticket for "following too close." Ms. Fisher signed the ticket and paid the $25 fine.
Ms. Fisher was called as an adverse witness by the plaintiffs, and she also testified as the sole witness for the defense. The gravamen of her testimony was as follows:
Although, during two stints on the witness stand, Ms. Fisher could have contested the plaintiffs' allegation that she had admitted taking her eyes off the road and conceded fault, she never did so. Ms. Fisher testified during the case for the plaintiffs that she did not take her eyes off the road, but the following colloquy ensued:
If the record on this point merited clarification, none was provided during the defense case, and the testimony as to Ms. Fisher's admission of fault was never really denied.
The jury, as we have noted, returned a verdict at the first trial in favor of Ms. Fisher and against all three plaintiffs. The plaintiffs filed post-trial motions and, on November 15, 1991, the judge issued a comprehensive oral opinion from the bench and ordered a new trial. The judge noted that in some sixty trials on his civil calendar over a period of approximately two years, he had not set aside a single jury verdict. He recognized that such an action should be taken "very very sparingly," but he explained that the court had the authority to set aside a verdict which was against the great weight of the evidence. The judge observed that Mrs. Best and Ms. Stinson were passengers who "were not guilty [sic] of any contributory negligence," and that therefore the only possible basis for the verdict was a finding that Ms. Fisher was not negligent. Such a finding, according to the judge, was "against the great weight of the evidence," because Ms. Fisher had presented no testimony tending to show that she had exercised due care. The judge stated, in pertinent part, as follows:
The defendant filed a premature notice of appeal from the order granting a new trial, but that appeal was dismissed by stipulation.
Rule 59(a)(1) of the Superior Court's Civil Rules provides that the court may grant a new trial "for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States or of the District of Columbia." Trial judges have traditionally had "the power and duty to grant a new trial if the verdicts were against the clear weight of the evidence, or if for any reason or combination of reasons justice would miscarry if they were allowed to stand." Eastern Air Lines, Inc. v. Union Trust Co., 99 U.S.App.D.C. 205, 210, 239 F.2d 25, 30 (1956) (emphasis added), cert. denied, 353 U.S. 942, 77 S.Ct. 816, 1 L.Ed.2d 760 (1957). Accordingly, "[t]he trial court must exercise its discretion in ruling on a motion for [a] new trial when it is claimed that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence." Johnson v. Bernard, 388 A.2d 490, 491 (D.C.1978).
The trial court's discretion in ruling on a motion for a new trial is broad. Mozie v. Sears Roebuck and Co., 623 A.2d 607, 614 (D.C.1993). An order granting such a motion is reviewable only for abuse. Desmond, supra note 3, 211 A.2d at 776. The trial judge's latitude in passing upon a motion for a new trial is greater than that accorded to an appellate court. Tihay v. Aurora City Lines, 79 Ill.App.2d 107, 223 N.E.2d 171, 174 (1967); see 66 C.J.S. New Trial § 201, at 497 & n. 71 (1950 & Supp.1994).
As the judge explicitly noted in delivering his oral decision, a trial court should exercise great restraint in setting aside the verdict of a jury. It is important to recognize, however, that ordering a new trial is quite different from entering judgment notwithstanding the verdict. In Etheredge v. District of Columbia, 635 A.2d 908 (D.C. 1993), we recently explained that the judge may not inject his own views of the credibility of witnesses in acting on a motion for judgment n.o.v., but that
Id. at 917 n. 11. Further,
Eastern Air Lines, supra, 99 U.S.App.D.C. at 209, 239 F.2d at 29 (quoting Aetna Casualty & Sur. Co. v. Yeatts, 122 F.2d 350, 352-53 (4th Cir.1941)); see also Rich, supra note 4, 410 A.2d at 534; Weeda v. District of Columbia, 521 A.2d 1156, 1160 (D.C.1987).
Applying these principles to the facts at hand, it is undisputed that this accident was the result of a rear-end collision in which Ms. Fisher was the operator of the rear vehicle. "[T]he primary duty to avoid collision as between [the] motorist ahead and the motorist following lies with the motorist behind...." Pazmino v. WMATA, 638 A.2d 677, 679 (D.C.1994) (quoting Price v. Derrickson, 89 A.2d 231, 232 (D.C.1952)); accord, Akers v. Tomlinson, 222 A.2d 644, 645 n. 2 (D.C.1966) (citations omitted); see also Felder v. City of Tacoma, 68 Wn.2d 726, 415 P.2d 496, 497 (1966). A collision does not necessarily imply negligence on the rear driver's part, Cellini v. Moss, 98 U.S.App. D.C. 114, 115, 232 F.2d 371, 372 (1956); Akers,
Where a lawfully stopped vehicle is struck by another car from the rear, there is a rebuttable presumption that the approaching vehicle was negligently operated. Dornton v. Darby, 373 F.2d 619, 621 (5th Cir. 1967). Moreover, where (as here) the collision caused substantial damage to both vehicles, one may reasonably infer that the rear car was being operated at a higher rate of speed than the exercise of ordinary care would permit under the circumstances. Taylor v. Fitzpatrick, 235 Ind. 238, 132 N.E.2d 919, 922 (1956). In light of these principles, directed verdicts against the rear driver have been sustained under circumstances no more favorable to the plaintiffs than the situation presented here. See, e.g., Wright v. Rickenbacher Transp., Inc., 138 F.2d 414 (6th Cir. 1943) (per curiam); Aemisegger v. Herman, 215 Mont. 347, 697 P.2d 925, 926-27 (1985).
Moreover, there was testimony by two of the plaintiffs, uncontested by the defense, that Ms. Fisher admitted at the scene of the accident that she had taken her eyes off the road and that she therefore could not stop in time. Given her effective admission of fault, and the inference logically arising from the nature of the collision, the judge did not abuse his discretion when he concluded that a judgment in her favor, which would leave the three plaintiffs (including two who were faultless passengers) without recourse against her, constituted a miscarriage of justice warranting intervention on his part.
Our dissenting colleague suggests that the judge's conclusion that Ms. Fisher was "following too closely" is not supported by the record. He points to the testimony of Officer Best and his mother that the collision occurred fifteen to twenty seconds after Best came to a stop. It is true that if the collision occurred so long a period after Best stopped his car, Ms. Fisher must initially have been a considerable distance behind him. The judge could reasonably conclude, however, that this estimate was far too high (in the context of Ms. Fisher's testimony and all parties' description of the traffic situation) and that Ms. Fisher was too close to the Best car considering the speed at which she was travelling and the surrounding circumstances. See 18 DCMR § 2201.4 (1987) (unlawful to follow another vehicle "more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of the vehicle being followed, the traffic upon the highway, and the condition of the highway"); Pazmino, supra, 638 A.2d at 679.
In any event, "[m]otorists have a duty both to maintain control of their vehicles and to maintain a proper lookout." Motton v. Travelers Ins. Co., 484 So.2d 816, 822 (La.Ct.App. 1986). If the plaintiffs' uncontradicted testimony regarding Ms. Fisher's admissions is credited—and the judge had a right to credit it, see Etheredge, supra, 635 A.2d at 917 n. 11—then Ms. Fisher did neither. If the collision in fact occurred fifteen seconds after Officer Best stopped his car, we discern no explanation in the record as to how Ms. Fisher, who admitted fault, could have been
The Fishers rely heavily on Akers v. Tomlinson, supra, but that decision does not support their position. In Akers, this court held that the trial judge had not erred by finding that the driver of the rear car in a rear-end collision case was not negligent. The court reasoned that "[s]ince we cannot say that the facts in the instant case inescapably lead to but one reasonable conclusion, the decision of the trial court must be upheld." 222 A.2d at 646. No question of the trial court's authority to order a new trial was presented, however, and the scope of this court's review of the judge's factual determinations was necessarily deferential. See Super.Ct.Civ.R. 52(a). Moreover, Akers differs from this case in the critical respect that there was evidence here that the driver of the rear car admitted that she was at fault.
For the foregoing reasons, we hold that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in ordering a new trial. Accordingly, the judgment appealed from is hereby
KERN, Senior Judge, dissenting:
I am unable to agree to affirm the trial court's order overturning the jury's verdict in favor of appellant/defendant and granting a new trial which resulted in a new verdict in favor of appellee/plaintiff. In my view, the record reveals that the conscientious trial judge "misremembered" the evidence and instructions presented to the jury at the September trial—which found for the appellant/defendant—when he ruled in November, without a transcript, that the jury's verdict was "against the great weight of the evidence," (Supp.R. # 1, at 5) and ordered a new trial. In addition, I note certain factors which went into the trial court's determination that I deem inappropriate. Accordingly, I conclude the trial court abused its discretion in overturning the jury's verdict and ordering a new trial. Desmond v. Robertson, 211 A.2d 775, 776 (D.C.1965); Rich v. District of Columbia, 410 A.2d 528, 535-36 (D.C. 1979).
The record reflects that the theory of the trial court in overturning the jury's verdict in favor of the defendant was "that the great weight of the evidence supports the conclusion that this driver, Ms. Fisher [the defendant], was simply following too closely, which was negligent, and that her negligence was a proximate cause of this collision." (Supp.R. # 1, at 8)
The trial court went on to state (Supp.R. # 1, at 9):
The transcript of the trial which this court has before it and which the trial court did not have the advantage of reviewing before ruling reflects quite the opposite.
Thus, plaintiff testified (Tr. 46-47):
He went on to testify (Tr. 47):
The plaintiff's mother who was a front-seat passenger in plaintiff's auto also testified (Tr. 74):
This witness asserted in her testimony (Tr. 76) that the defendant told her after the accident that "she [the defendant] was looking in the mirror and when she got up she was too close that she couldn't stop."
The plaintiff's fiance who was riding in the back seat of his car at the time of the accident testified (Tr. 95-96) that after the accident the defendant "said she was on her way to work and that she was running a little late and that she had took her eyes off the road and was looking somewhere and she looked back and it was too late for her to stop." This witness on cross-examination denied (Tr. 106) that the plaintiff had stopped quickly.
A fair reading of the transcript (and certainly a reasonable hearing of the testimony by the jurors at trial) was that the plaintiff's case rested upon the theory that the defendant had been inattentive to her driving and such inattention caused the accident. Indeed, the plaintiff's attorney called the defendant as an adverse witness and questioned her as follows (Tr. 122):
The defendant responded:
Whereupon plaintiff's counsel asked:
The defendant answered (Tr. 123):
It is interesting to note the trial court's instruction to the jury (Tr. 170):
The court instructed the jury (Tr. 173):
The record simply does not support the trial court's determination that "the great weight of the evidence" was that the defendant was following too closely. In addition, the trial court referred to certain other factors that caused it to overturn the jury's verdict and order a new trial. Thus, the court stated (Supp.R. # 1, at 17):
Interestingly, the trial court in making its ruling (1) declined the offer of defendant's counsel to allow him to order a copy of the transcript so as to "be precise as to what was said about following distance and speed ..." (Supp.R. # 1, at 15), and (2) factored into its determination to grant a new trial certain
The court went on to state (Supp.R. # 1, at 10):
It is troublesome that (a) the effectiveness of the respective trial attorneys, (b) the appealing presence of one of the parties, and (c) the length of the trial appear to have played some part in the court's determination to overrule the jury's verdict and require the parties to go to trial again.
In sum, justice was best served in my view by having a jury composed of a cross-section of the community spend a day and a half focusing on the particular facts and circumstances here, viewing the witnesses and weighing their testimony, and then and there engaging in deliberation before rendering a collective judgment on the cause of the rearend collision, as opposed to having a busy trial judge, who admittedly was "pressed for time" (Supp.R. # 1, at 2), render his verdict based upon recollection, not record, some two months after the trial.
At trial, Ms. Fisher also acknowledged her deposition testimony to the effect that, after the accident, her reason for asking Officer Best not to hit her was her belief that he would be upset. She entertained that belief "[b]ecause I'd be angry if somebody hit me." Ms. Fisher further testified that she paid the fine on the ticket "because the officer told me it was my fault and I didn't know otherwise. And rather [than] waiting for trial and fighting it, I thought a $25 ticket— just paying it would have been the much easier thing to do." (Emphasis added).
Defendant at trial explained (Tr. 129) that she was given a traffic ticket by the plaintiff's fellow police officer for following too closely, which she testified she signed "when he told me to sign it."
Defendant further explained (Tr. 148-49) that the officer who knew the plaintiff and responded to the scene of the accident "told me that he found me at fault for the accident and gave me a ticket for following too closely and told me to sign it." She testified (Tr. 149) that she was on a stretcher at the scene of the accident "upside down" when signing it. She testified (Tr. 149-50):