Ames v. Maas

Decision Date15 January 1993
Docket NumberNo. 910701-CA,910701-CA
Citation846 P.2d 468
PartiesClifford AMES, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Shauna B. MAAS, Defendant and Appellee.
CourtUtah Court of Appeals

Mark H. Gould, Ogden, for plaintiff and appellant.

Tim Dalton Dunn and Glen Hale, Salt Lake City, for defendant and appellee.



ORME, Judge.

Plaintiff, Clifford Ames, appeals from a jury's verdict in favor of defendant, Shauna Maas, claiming the trial court committed prejudicial error by giving the jury an instruction on "unavoidable accident," denying plaintiff's motions with respect to liability, and awarding certain costs to defendant. We affirm.


On the morning of Saturday, January 16, 1986, between 8:00 and 9:30 a.m., plaintiff and his wife left their Layton home to go skiing. On that morning, the streets in plaintiff's neighborhood were quite slick. After having traveled only a few blocks in their automobile, plaintiff discovered he and his wife had left their ski pass vouchers behind. Plaintiff turned his vehicle around and proceeded home the same way he had come.

At the time plaintiff was driving back toward his home, defendant, a neighbor of plaintiff, had left her home to go to work. Defendant was driving a pick-up truck with four-wheel drive capability. Defendant noted that the street was snowpacked and icy. As plaintiff proceeded northbound toward his home, defendant reached a curve in the road while traveling approximately 20-25 miles per hour. The posted speed limit in the area was 25 miles per hour.

As she rounded the curve, defendant did not see anything unusual on the road. 1 Defendant suddenly lost control of her vehicle. Her truck slid across the center of the road and struck plaintiff's automobile. Defendant did not have her truck in four-wheel drive at the time of the collision. 2

At the scene of the accident, defendant witnessed the unsuccessful attempts of other drivers to stop at a nearby stop sign. After the police officer investigating the collision finished his report, defendant observed him attempt to stop at the same stop sign. The officer slid past it. 3

Plaintiff brought a personal injury action against defendant Maas 4 seeking damages for injuries sustained by plaintiff as a result of the January 16 collision. The case was ultimately tried to a jury. At the close of evidence, plaintiff moved for a directed verdict on the issue of liability, which was denied. At defendant's request, and over plaintiff's objection, the jury was given an "unavoidable accident" instruction. 5 Special interrogatories were submitted to the jury, the first of which asked whether defendant was negligent at the time and place of the accident. The jury responded "No." Plaintiff filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or in the alternative, for a new trial, both of which were denied. The trial court awarded defendant her costs. This appeal ensued.

Plaintiff argues on appeal that the trial court erred in (1) giving the jury the "unavoidable accident" instruction; (2) denying plaintiff's motion for directed verdict and post-trial motions; and (3) its award of costs to defendant.

A. Standard of Review

Plaintiff argues that the trial court committed prejudicial error in giving the jury an instruction on "unavoidable accidents." Determining the propriety of the instructions submitted to the jury presents a question of law, and we therefore review the trial court's instructions under a correction of error standard. State v. Ontiveros, 835 P.2d 201, 205 (Utah App.1992); State v. Brooks, 833 P.2d 362, 363-64 (Utah App.1992); Davidson v. Prince, 813 P.2d 1225, 1227 (Utah App.), cert. denied, 826 P.2d 651 (Utah 1991). This court reviews "jury instructions in their entirety and will affirm when the jury instructions taken as a whole fairly instruct the jury on the law applicable to the case." Ontiveros, 835 P.2d at 205. See State v. Haston, 811 P.2d 929, 931 (Utah App.1991), cert. granted, 836 P.2d 1383 (Utah 1992). We note that "[a] trial court has a duty to instruct the jury on the law applicable to the facts of the case," and "[t]he defendant has a right 'to have his or her theory of the case presented to the jury in a clear and understandable way.' " State v. Hamilton, 827 P.2d 232, 238 (Utah 1992) (quoting State v. Potter, 627 P.2d 75, 78 (Utah 1981)). Nonetheless, not every error in instructing a jury will result in reversal. We reverse a trial court's decision on the basis of an instruction improperly submitted to the jury only where the party challenging the propriety of the instruction "demonstrates prejudice stemming from the instructions viewed in the aggregate." Haston, 811 P.2d at 931.

B. Propriety of "Unavoidable Accident" Instruction in General

The parties have called our attention to several Utah cases addressing the propriety of the "unavoidable accident" instruction. In several of those cases, the Utah Supreme Court approved the submission of such an instruction under limited circumstances. In Porter v. Price, 11 Utah 2d 80, 355 P.2d 66 (1960), the Utah Supreme Court observed that "in most cases the usual instructions on negligence and proximate cause make it sufficiently clear that the plaintiff must sustain his burden of proof on these issues in order to recover, and that in such instances an instruction on unavoidable accidents serves no useful purpose." Id. 355 P.2d at 68. The court noted, however, that in some situations, "where the evidence is susceptible of being so interpreted that an accident occurred without negligence on the part of anyone, and if it is reasonably susceptible of such interpretation, and a party requests it, the trial court commits no error in so advising the jury" on unavoidability. Id.

In Woodhouse v. Johnson, 20 Utah 2d 210, 436 P.2d 442 (1968), as well as in several other cases, the Utah Supreme Court has recognized that

the more basic reason for criticizing such an instruction is that it is a duplication. Inasmuch as the jury is elsewhere advised that the defendant's negligence must be proved, and that in the absence of such proof of negligence he is not liable, it is unnecessary to state again that if the accident was unavoidable because not caused by negligence, he is not liable.

Id. 436 P.2d at 445. See Anderton v. Montgomery, 607 P.2d 828, 834 (Utah 1980) ("It is true that [an unavoidable accident] instruction amounts, in essence, to a reemphasis of principles already implicit in other instructions."); Wellman v. Noble, 12 Utah 2d 350, 366 P.2d 701, 702 (1961) (an unavoidable accident instruction "in most cases is superfluous in view of the other instructions which are given covering the basic issues in accident cases").

Our Supreme Court has also cautioned that an unavoidable accident instruction should not be used in every negligence case. "Such an instruction should be given with caution and only where the evidence would justify it." Woodhouse, 436 P.2d at 445 (emphasis in original). 6 In several more recent cases, the Utah Supreme Court has determined when an unavoidable instruction is proper and when its submission to the jury constitutes error.

In Stringham v. Broderick, 529 P.2d 425 (Utah 1974), the defendant rear-ended the plaintiff's vehicle on a public highway in a dust storm. On appeal, the defendant claimed the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on unavoidable accidents. In affirming the trial court's refusal to submit the instruction, the Utah Supreme Court stated:

It is only in a rare case that an instruction on unavoidable accident is applicable. If either party can avoid an accident by the exercise of proper care, it cannot be said to be unavoidable. The issue of unavoidable accident arises only where the evidence shows that the accident happened from an unknown or unforeseen cause or in an unexplainable manner which circumstances rebut the defendant's alleged negligence.

Id. at 426. The Stringham court found the unavoidable accident theory inapplicable where "the negligence of a party puts him in such a position that a collision is inevitable." Id. In such a case, it is error to submit an unavoidable accident instruction. See id.

The Utah Supreme Court approved the unavoidable accident instruction in two cases cited by plaintiff. In Anderton v. Montgomery, 607 P.2d 828 (Utah 1980), the plaintiff unsuccessfully brought an action against a sheet metal vendor after a display device holding sheet metal samples collapsed and injured him. In upholding the trial court's submission of an unavoidable accident instruction, the Utah Supreme Court held that the submission of such an instruction is not error "[w]here the injury arises from a set of circumstances which do not reflect a lack of due care on anyone's part." Id. at 834. The Court further held that "an unavoidable accident instruction is not error if it clearly and concisely states the principle involved, and does not create an imbalance in the jury instructions." Id. at 835.

In Anderson v. Toone, 671 P.2d 170 (Utah 1983), a passenger brought an action against the driver for injuries incurred in an accident while riding in a dune buggy. On appeal, the plaintiff assigned error to the trial court's instructing the jury on unavoidable accident. The Court quoted with approval the language in Stringham observing that an unavoidable accident instruction is proper only in rare cases. Id. at 174. However, the Court noted that the defendant's evidence--flat light made it impossible for the driver of the dune buggy to discern the contours and breaks in the dune formations by creating an optical illusion that two ends of a ridge were connected to form an uninterrupted whole--could justify the jury's viewing it as one of the rare cases noted by the Stringham court. Accordingly, the Anderson Court refused to hold that the instruction was improper. 7

We discern from these cases no intention on the part of the Utah...

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