Coleman v. Rhodes

CourtSuperior Court of Delaware
Writing for the CourtPENNEWILL, C. J.
Citation159 A. 649,35 Del. 120
PartiesCHARLES W. COLEMAN, widower of Sarah A. Coleman, v. MARY S. RHODES
Decision Date11 April 1932

159 A. 649

35 Del. 120

CHARLES W. COLEMAN, widower of Sarah A. Coleman,
v.

MARY S. RHODES

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle County

April 11, 1932


Superior Court for New Castle County, Summons Case, No. 269, September Term, 1931.

Defendant's demurrer sustained.

W. Thomas Knowles for plaintiff.

Clarence A. Southerland (of Ward and Gray) for defendant.

PENNEWLL, C. J., HARRINGTON and RICHARDS, J. J., sitting.

OPINION

[35 Del. 121] PENNEWILL, C. J.

The plaintiff's declaration consists of four counts, the first three charging the defendant with the negligent operation of a motor vehicle, which resulted in the death of said Sarah A. Coleman while riding as a nonpaying passenger in the automobile owned by the defendant.

The fourth count differs from the first three in this: that it charges wilful and intentional negligence on the part of the defendant.

The defendant has pleaded to this count, and demurred to the others on the ground that they are not good in law to sustain the plaintiff's right of action because of a statute of this state, Volume 36, Delaware Laws, Chapter 270, § 1, which provides:

"That the operator or owner of a motor vehicle shall be relieved from any liability whatsoever for injuries suffered or sustained by any person while riding with said operator or in said owner's car free of charge."

The sole question to be determined in this case is whether the statute referred to is constitutional. Was it a valid exercise of legislative power?

The case was argued by both sides on the assumption that the Legislature had the power to relieve the operator or owner of a motor vehicle from any liability for injuries to a non-paying passenger caused by ordinary negligence. But it is claimed by the plaintiff, and not denied by the defendant, that the Legislature was without power to relieve such operator or owner from all liability for injuries to a non-paying passenger. The plaintiff contends, that while the operator or owner of a motor vehicle may be relieved by legislative act from liability for injuries to a non-paying passenger caused by ordinary negligence, he cannot be relieved from liability for injuries caused by wilful or gross negligence.

This distinction is recognized in a Connecticut statute which is similar to ours except that it preserves liability [35 Del. 122] where the accident was intentional on the part of the owner or operator, or caused by his heedlessness, or his reckless disregard of the rights of others.

The Connecticut statute was held to be constitutional by the Supreme Court of that state in the case of Silver v. Silver, 108 Conn. 371, 143 A. 240, 242, 65 A. L. R. 943. It was held that it did not deny to guests in motor vehicles the equal protection of the laws or violate any constitutional guarantee, but was proper legislation under the police power of the state. [159 A. 650]

The Court said:

"Legislation under the police power of the state is not confined to public health, safety, or morality, but may extend to matters in the interest of the public welfare or convenience. * * * A large discretion is necessarily vested in the Legislature to determine, not only what the interests of public convenience and welfare require, but what measures are necessary to secure such interests. * * * The legislative department is the judge, within reasonable limits, to determine what public convenience and public welfare require, and the wisdom of its legislation is not the concern of the courts. It is our duty to sustain an act unless its invalidity is in our judgment beyond a reasonable doubt. * * * That the state may under the police power regulate travel upon the public highways cannot be doubted. * * * This includes the power to regulate the use of motor vehicles. * * * 'That the regulation of motor vehicles and motor vehicle traffic is a proper subject for legislative action under the police power is not questioned.' * * * Ever since motor vehicles have come into general use they have been classified separately from horse-drawn vehicles and the power of the Legislature to impose upon their owners and operators duties not placed upon others has been generally upheld."

On appeal to the United States Supreme Court, 280 U.S. 117, 50 S.Ct. 57, 59, 74 L.Ed. 221, the decision of the Connecticut Court was sustained in an opinion which said in part:

"Granted that the liability to be imposed upon those who operate any kind of vehicle for the benefit of a mere guest or licensee is an appropriate subject of legislative restriction, there is no constitutional requirement that a regulation, in other respects permissible, must reach every class to which it might be applied--that the Legislature must be held rigidly to the choice of regulating all or none. * * * In this day of almost universal highway transportation by motorcar, we cannot say that abuses originating in the multiplicity of suits growing out of the gratuitous carriage of passengers in automobiles [35 Del. 123] do not present so conspicuous an example of what the Legislature may regard as an evil, as to justify legislation aimed at it, even though some abuses may not be hit. * * * It is enough that the present statute strikes at the evil where it is felt and reaches the class of cases where it most frequently occurs."

The Silver Case has been followed in other Connecticut cases.

As before stated, this case has been argued on the assumption that the Legislature had the right to relieve the owner or operator of a motor vehicle from any liability for injuries to a non-paying passenger caused by ordinary negligence, but not for wilful or gross negligence. For the purposes of this case the defendant concedes the soundness of the proposition, that while the Legislature may restrict or modify the liability, it cannot extinguish the right entirely. It cannot relieve the owner or operator from the consequences of negligence that is intentional or wilful or that is so gross as to amount to a reckless disregard of the rights of others.

In the case of Stewart v. Houk, et al., 127 Ore. 589, 271 P. 998, 272 P. 893, 61 A. L. R. 1236, the Supreme Court of Oregon held a statute similar to ours unconstitutional because it was violative of constitutional guarantees. The Court based its decision upon the statute as a whole. This is apparent from the Court's opinion delivered after an application for a rehearing of the case. The Court differentiated its case from the Connecticut case of Silver v. Silver, saying:

"In that case a statute, which released a voluntary host from liability for the injury of a guest, was assailed as invalid, on the ground that it was in conflict with the constitutional provision, which guarantees equal protection of the laws. It preserved liability in those instances where the 'accident shall have been intentional on the part of said owner or operator or caused by his heedlessness or his reckless disregard of the rights of others.' * * * The court interpreted the act as freeing the host from liability to a non-paying guest for injury caused by ordinary negligence only. Disposing of the specific attack made upon the act, the court held that it was proper for the Legislature to segregate into one class the guest in an automobile as distinguished from all other guests. Since the act preserved liability in instances where the injury was inflicted intentionally, [35 Del. 124] heedlessly, or through reckless disregard for the rights of others, and withheld liability only to a nonpaying guest for ordinary negligence, the court reasoned that the purpose of the act was to fix the measure of care a host owed to his guest. After observing that the police power of the state is broad enough to include the regulation of automobiles driven upon the public highways, it sustained the validity of the act as a proper exercise of the state's police power. * * * No contention, apparently, was advanced in the Connecticut court that the act violated this constitutional guaranty, and the decision makes no mention of that clause. The reason for this silence, no doubt, lies in the fact that, since the Connecticut act prescribes a degree of care which was deemed reasonable, and thus accomplishes an objective, within the police power of the state, Article 1, § 12,--was inapplicable. * * * In our case, the act does not endeavor to readjust the duty, but attempts to abolish the remedy; in the Connecticut case, the act revised the duty, and afforded redress to all injured through a breach thereof. [159 A. 651]

"We find no conflict between the Connecticut decision and the one we previously announced."

The defendant relies very largely on two well settled rules of law:

1. That the statute must be held valid if it is possible for the Court to do so; that every presumption must be resolved in favor of its validity, and it should not be declared unconstitutional unless the Court is convinced of that fact beyond a reasonable doubt.

2. That the intention of the Legislature must control, if it can be ascertained from the language of the act unless it is obnoxious to some constitutional provision. With the wisdom of the object the Legislature seeks to accomplish the Court should not be concerned.

There is no doubt about the general principles that apply when the validity of a statute is involved, but there is great difficulty in the application of such principles in some cases.

Another principle of law well settled in statutory construction is this--that where the act attempts to accomplish two objects, apparent on its face, one of which the Legislature had the power to accomplish and the other not, the act will be held constitutional as to that part which the [35 Del. 125] Legislature had the power to enact, unless it appears that the Legislature did not intend that it should be operative in part only.

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25 practice notes
  • Magierowski v. Buckley, No. A--63
    • United States
    • New Jersey Superior Court – Appellate Division
    • March 23, 1956
    ...New Jersey from other states whose constitutions prevent change of the common law. Plaintiff cites Coleman v. Rhodes, 5 W.W.Harr. 120, 35 Del. 120, 159 A. 649 (Super.Ct.1932), in support of his contention that a legislature may not by statute deprive a person of a remedy for the invasion or......
  • Sidle v. Majors, Nos. 475S96
    • United States
    • Indiana Supreme Court of Indiana
    • February 16, 1976
    ...it denied a right of action to a guest in an automobile under all circumstances. Coleman v. Rhodes, (1932), Del.Super., 5 W.W.Harr. 120, 159 A. 649. The following quotations from the Gallegher case are expressive of our viewpoint of the restraints imposed by our constitutional Article 1, § ......
  • Vogts v. Guerrette, No. 18834
    • United States
    • Colorado Supreme Court of Colorado
    • May 2, 1960
    ...controlling in the matter of water rights. * * *' (Emphasis supplied.) Again, in the Delaware case of Coleman v. Rhodes, 5 W.W.Harr. 120, 35 Del. 120, 159 A. 649 the Supreme Court of Delaware declared unconstitutional a statute of that state relieving the owner or operator of a motor vehicl......
  • Justice v. Gatchell
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Delaware
    • August 13, 1974
    ...2 It replaced 36 Del.L. Ch. 270, enacted in 1929, which was declared unconstitutional in Coleman v. Rhodes, Del.Super., 5 W.W.Harr. 120, 159 A. 649 3 But not in our neighboring States of Maryland, Pennsylvania, or New Jersey. 4 Commentators have suggested that the chief argument for the cre......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
25 cases
  • Magierowski v. Buckley, No. A--63
    • United States
    • New Jersey Superior Court – Appellate Division
    • March 23, 1956
    ...New Jersey from other states whose constitutions prevent change of the common law. Plaintiff cites Coleman v. Rhodes, 5 W.W.Harr. 120, 35 Del. 120, 159 A. 649 (Super.Ct.1932), in support of his contention that a legislature may not by statute deprive a person of a remedy for the invasion or......
  • Sidle v. Majors, Nos. 475S96
    • United States
    • Indiana Supreme Court of Indiana
    • February 16, 1976
    ...it denied a right of action to a guest in an automobile under all circumstances. Coleman v. Rhodes, (1932), Del.Super., 5 W.W.Harr. 120, 159 A. 649. The following quotations from the Gallegher case are expressive of our viewpoint of the restraints imposed by our constitutional Article 1, § ......
  • Vogts v. Guerrette, No. 18834
    • United States
    • Colorado Supreme Court of Colorado
    • May 2, 1960
    ...controlling in the matter of water rights. * * *' (Emphasis supplied.) Again, in the Delaware case of Coleman v. Rhodes, 5 W.W.Harr. 120, 35 Del. 120, 159 A. 649 the Supreme Court of Delaware declared unconstitutional a statute of that state relieving the owner or operator of a motor vehicl......
  • Justice v. Gatchell
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Delaware
    • August 13, 1974
    ...2 It replaced 36 Del.L. Ch. 270, enacted in 1929, which was declared unconstitutional in Coleman v. Rhodes, Del.Super., 5 W.W.Harr. 120, 159 A. 649 3 But not in our neighboring States of Maryland, Pennsylvania, or New Jersey. 4 Commentators have suggested that the chief argument for the cre......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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