121 F.2d 32 (D.C. Cir. 1941), 7567, Mason v. Automobile Finance Co.

Docket Nº:7567.
Citation:121 F.2d 32
Case Date:March 17, 1941
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

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121 F.2d 32 (D.C. Cir. 1941)




No. 7567.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia.

March 17, 1941

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Joseph C. Turco and Irving B. Yochelson, both of Washington, D.C., for appellant.

Norman B. Frost and Frank H. Myers, both of Washington, D.C., for appellee.

Before GRONER, Chief Justice, and VINSON and RUTLEDGE, Associate Justices.

RUTLEDGE, Associate Justice.

The appeal is from a judgment for defendant entered upon a directed verdict. The suit was for damages for personal injuries resulting from an automobile collision. The only error assigned is the court's direction of the verdict. The only issue here is whether the evidence was sufficient to require submission to the jury on the question whether the car which caused plaintiff's injuries was owned or controlled by defendant when the collision occurred on August 4, 1937. The facts are not substantially in dispute. But the parties differ concerning the inferences which may be made from them.

Clarence Worthy originally owned the car. He obtained a loan upon it from defendant, secured by a chattel mortgage. He also deposited with defendant the unassigned certificate of title issued in his name. His instalment payments became several months in arrears. He allowed the license registration to lapse. He permitted the mechanical condition of the car to become such that it could not pass inspection. In these circumstances he stored the car in Walker's Garage. For several months at least it was not in use, the payments were delinquent, and until shortly before the collision defendant was not able to find either Worthy or the car, although it made efforts to locate both.

The driver of the car at the time of the collision was Clinton Whitley. About a month before the accident he went to defendant's office 'to see about taking over the notes on this car. ' The record does not show whether this visit or the negotiations which followed it were instigated originally by Worthy or by the defendant. Apparently they were not at Worthy's instance, because Whitley testified that he returned to defendant's office two or three times a week expecting 'to meet this Clarence there, but he never did show up any time I went there to talk over this car. ' However, defendant's manager, Olmer, testified that he had a conversation with Worthy about his payments three weeks or a month before the accident, that Whitley came in later and 'then they came in again later on,' apparently together on the last occasion. Olmer testified that on Whitley's first visit he 'wanted to take over that automobile, provided that it could be inspected, that is, placed in shape to be inspected and secure a certificate of title. In other words, it would have to pass inspection. He was going to take over and assume Worth's obligation. ' He also testified that when Worthy and Whitley came in together 'the arrangement was made between the three, that that was to be done. ' This testimony is substantially in accord with Whitley's statement that he finally met up with Worthy and took him to defendant's office, where they agreed to the arrangement set forth in Olmer's testimony. As to the nature of that arrangement, Whitley testified: 'I had arranged to take the car over and put it in running condition, and would pay the notes. If he would put it in running condition, I would pay for it * * * I was not buying it. I was going to take over the notes he owed on the car. ' He also stated that in one of the conversations with an official of defendant, apparently Olmer, the latter said, "You have to get Worthy up here with you * * * so that you can come to some agreement,' because (I) was going to take the car if Worthy did not pay his notes.'

Pursuant to the oral understanding, Whitley paid $130 for a new motor, the application for which apparently was made in Worthy's name. Whitley also purchased a new battery. Other parts were needed, and on the day of the collision Whitley went to defendant's office, where it was arranged that Melancz, described as defendant's 'outside contact man,' should accompany him to Walker's Garage and assist in getting the car ready for inspection. Melancz suggested to Whitley that he follow him to a junk yard where he could purchase the additional parts needed more cheaply than elsewhere. He also supplied dealer's license plates, which were held by defendant, and were attached to the car at the garage by Melancz and Whitley. Then, Melancz, driving his own car, with Whitley following in the car in question, led the way toward the junk yard. It was while they were driving to the yard that the collision took place. It was understood that, after the inspection was completed, Melancz and Whitley would return to defendant's office, where Worthy was to assign the title formally to Whitley and the latter was to assume

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responsibility for the payments in arrears. Because of the collision, this part of the plan never was carried out.

Immediately after the accident Melancz gave Whitley the registration card with the statement, 'You have it when the officers come. ' When the officers arrived they took Whitley to the precinct station and placed charges of reckless driving against him. Melancz accompanied him to the station and told him 'it would be all right, that his company would get a lawyer and get me out. ' The inspection never was had and the defendant removed the damaged car to the parking lot where it regularly stored cars in its possession. The towing was done at Melancz' instruction and with a machine owned by defendant. Defendant paid for the storage after the accident in accordance with its working agreement with the owner of the garage. Later defendant gave Worthy 'a regular 10 days notice' and sold the car 'about a month or so' after the accident. Although defendant raises some question concerning Melancz' authority in relation to some of the acts done by him, Olmer testified that Melancz collected all accounts and made adjustments, and that he instructed Melancz 'to go ahead and take the car and handle that account.'

Plaintiff advances various contentions, including the so-called Massachusetts doctrine that one who permits another to use on an unregistered vehicle license plates issued to him becomes liable for injuries which result from its operation on the highways. 1 Her principal insistence, however, is that the jury should have been allowed to consider the evidence and determine whether defendant had become the owner of the car by repossessing it prior to the collision so as to impose upon it liability for its negligent operation by another with its consent. 2 She also says that irrespective of ownership defendant then was in control of the car and using it about its own business. on the other hand, defendant says that the evidence established only that it was rendering assistance to Worthy and Whitley in consummating their agreement and that it was not sufficient to show or permit the inference that defendant had repossessed the car or otherwise acquired ownership or control of it prior to the collision.

We think the evidence should have been submitted to the jury. In our judgment it was sufficient to permit conflicting inferences to be drawn 3 concerning whether repossession had occurred and defendant had become the owner of the car prior to the collision for purposes of liability under the Automobile Financial Responsibility Act. (D.C. Code, 1929 (Supp. V) Tit. 6, Sec. 255b.) The statute provides: 'Whenever any motor vehicle * * * shall be operated upon the public highways of the District of Columbia by any person other than...

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