357 F.2d 581 (D.C. Cir. 1965), 18648, Williams v. Rawlings Truck Line, Inc.

Docket Nº18648.
Citation357 F.2d 581
Party NameDavid M. WILLIAMS, Appellant, v. RAWLINGS TRUCK LINE, INC., et al., Appellees.
Case DateDecember 30, 1965
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

Page 581

357 F.2d 581 (D.C. Cir. 1965)

David M. WILLIAMS, Appellant,


RAWLINGS TRUCK LINE, INC., et al., Appellees.

No. 18648.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.

December 30, 1965

Argued Jan. 27, 1965.

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Mr. Joseph Zitomer, Silver Spring, Md., for appellant.

Mr. William E. Stewart, Jr., Washington, D.C., with whom Messrs. Richard W. Galiher, William H. Clarke and John H. Verchot, Washington, D.C., were on the brief, for appellees Rawlings Truck Line, Inc., and John E. Willis.

Mr. John L. Schroeder, Washington, D.C., for appellee Goldberger.

Before BAZELON, Chief Judge, WASHINGTON, Senior Circuit Judge, [a1] and DANAHER, Circuit Judge.


On the night of June 1, 1958, appellant Williams was a passenger in a car being operated in a westerly direction on New York Avenue in the District of Columbia. The driver, one Rivera, now missing, undertook to make a lefthand turn into the driveway of a gas station on the south side of the street. Claiming to have been injured when the car was thereupon in collision with a truck bound in an easterly direction, Williams brought this suit against Rawlings Truck Line, the driver of its truck, one Willis, and one Harry Goldberger whose New York registration tags were on the passenger car. The trial judge directed a verdict in favor of the appellee Goldberger, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the appellees Rawlings Truck Line and Willis.


The appellant here contends that the net effect of certain rulings by the trial judge was to preclude the jury from considering one of his two theories of negligence-- that since the truck driver had 'qualified' his technical right of way by flashing his right-turn directional signal, Willis should have anticipated that others might or would rely upon that signal, and should have given warning or so controlled his vehicle as to avert the collision. We do not agree.

The trial judge excluded certain traffic regulations 1 which were, at most, only remotely related to the appellant's theory of the case or were not warranted by the evidence. The exclusion of an extra-judicial statement by the missing Rivera concerning the truck's signal was harmless for even had Rivera's statement been received, it would have been merely cumulative to detailed testimony already before the jury. The instructions of the trial judge were adapted to the issues as presented and argued and adequate for the jury's guidance. Certainly the trial judge was not bound to charge 2 in the exact language tendered by Williams.

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We have carefully considered the appellant's claims in light of the record and of the instructions as a whole. We are satisfied that the jury had not been foreclosed from considering the appellant's theory of negligence based on the effect to be given to the use of the directional signal by the truck driver. Certainly, substantial rights have not been shown to have been adversely affected within the purview of Fed.R.Civ.P. 61. 3 The verdicts in favor of the appellees Rawlings Truck Line and Willis are affirmed.


A more substantial issue is raised by the directed verdict in favor of appellee Goldberger because of the facts 4 concerning Goldberger's involvement in the case. On May 3, 1958, Goldberger, a resident of New York, sold a car registered in his name to Rivera, also a New York resident. On the day of sale Goldberger endorsed the back of the registration card, but allowed Rivera to take the car while it still bore the New York license plates issued in Goldberger's name. Rivera did not surrender the license plates to Goldberger until after the accident which is the subject of this suit, and these license plates were on the car at the time of the accident.

Appellant asserts that Goldberger's liability for the alleged negligence of Rivera is to be determined solely by New York law. A New York statute requires that upon transfer of a vehicle registered in New York the license plates must be removed from the car. N.Y. VEHICLE AND TRAFFIC LAW § 420. 5 Another section provides that:

'Every owner of a vehicle * * * shall be liable and responsible for death or injuries to person or property resulting from negligence in the use or operation of such vehicle * * * by any person using or operating the same with permission, express or implied, of such owner.' Id. § 388. 6

Were New York statutory law to be applied, an important issue would be whether Goldberger 'owned' the car within the meaning of section 388. The New York courts have developed the common law

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doctrine that the former owner of a car who fails to comply with the statutes governing transfer of title, is estopped from denying his ownership in order to avoid liability. E.g., Phoenix Insurance Co. v. Guthiel, 2 N.Y.2d 584, 161 N.Y.S.2d 874, 141 L.Ed.2d 909 (1957); Switzer v. Aldrich, 307 N.Y. 56, 120 N.E.2d 159 (1954); Reese v. Reamore, 292 N.Y. 292, 55 N.E.2d 35 (1944); Shuba v. Greendonner, 271 N.Y. 189, 2 N.E.2d 536 (1936). Thus, as Goldberger himself recognizes, if New York law in its entirety were applied, he would experience difficulty in avoiding liability for any negligent act committed by Rivera while driving the car. 7

Appellee Goldberger counters that the law of the District of Columbia should be applied. Our Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Act declares in language similar to that of New York that, 'Whenever any motor vehicle * * * shall be operated (within the District) * * * by any person other than the owner, with the consent of the owner, express or implied, the operator thereof shall in case of accident, be deemed to be the agent of the owner * * *.' D.C.Code § 40-424 (1961). We have read the statute as creating a new rule of liability in which agency is based upon consent. Forrester v. Jerman, 67 App.D.C. 167, 90 F.2d 412 (1937). However, the District's decisional law recognizes that the registered owner is free to prove passage of equitable title and that such proof will relieve the former owner of liability under section 40-424. Burt v. Cordover, 117 A.2d 116 (D.C.Mun.Ct. App.1955); Gasque v. Saidman, 44 A.2d 537 (D.C.Mun.Ct.App.1945); Mason v. Automobile Finance Co., 73 App.D.C. 284, 121 F.2d 32 (1941). Cf. Rosenberg v. Murray, 73 App.D.C. 67, 68, 116 F.2d 552, 553 (1940).

We are thus confronted with what appears to be a classic conflict of law problem. As we stated in the recent case of Tramontana v. S. A. Empresa de Viacao Aerea Rio Grandense, 121 U.S.App.D.C. 338...

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