Griffith v. Schmidt, 15617

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Idaho
Citation110 Idaho 235,715 P.2d 905
Docket NumberNo. 15617,15617
PartiesLinda S. GRIFFITH, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. William SCHMIDT and Jill Schmidt, husband and wife; Frank Schmidt and Jane Doe Schmidt, husband and wife, Defendants-Appellants.
Decision Date18 June 1985

[110 Idaho 236] Alan C. Stephens, of St. Clair, Hiller, Wood & McGrath, Chartered, Idaho Falls, for defendants-appellants.

Jon J. Shindurling, of May, May, Sudweeks, Shindurling & Stubbs, Twin Falls, for plaintiff-respondent.

BAKES, Justice.

A jury found plaintiff 80% contributorily negligent in a collision between her car and defendants' horses which were loose on the highway at night. The trial court granted a new trial to plaintiff, which ruling the defendants have appealed. Defendants also appealed the giving of certain jury instructions in the event that the grant of the new trial is affirmed.

On the evening May 3, 1979, plaintiff, then eighteen years old, helped to organize a Saturday night party at a sportsmen's access to the Big Lost River off U.S. Highway 93, approximately 3 miles north of Mackay, Idaho. Plaintiff was among the first to arrive around 10:30 p.m. After a while plaintiff, who was driving her own automobile, returned to town with her brother and a girlfriend. They picked up a guitar, a beer for the brother, and two mixed drinks ("screwdrivers") for the girlfriend. Having obtained these items, plaintiff and her passengers "cruised" the town and stopped to talk to two male friends who were in a pickup. Plaintiff informed the friends of the party at the sportsmen's access. Both vehicles left town at approximately the same time traveling north on

[110 Idaho 237] the highway toward the sportsmen's access

Plaintiff testified that she had just passed her friends in the pickup and had been looking back at the pickup when she turned her head forward just prior to colliding with two of defendants' horses which were running loose on the highway. The car left the highway and traveled through a fence and field before coming to rest in a ditch. Plaintiff was rendered unconscious and was seriously injured with lacerations to the head and neck. The brother and girlfriend were in shock, but not seriously injured. The friends in the pickup removed the injured from the car and transported them to town where an ambulance with emergency personnel took them to hospitals in Arco and then to Idaho Falls. A deputy sheriff arrived at the scene after the injured were taken away. After he realized that the damaged car belonged to his stepdaughter, he left for the hospital without completing an investigation. The scene was then investigated the next afternoon by an Idaho state patrolman.

Plaintiff sued the owners of the horses, alleging that the horses were "unlawfully" on the highway due to defendants' negligence. At trial plaintiff's position was that defendants were strictly liable, barring contributory negligence as a defense. Defendants' position was that all reasonable care was exercised in enclosing the horses and that plaintiff was contributorily negligent based on allegations of exceeding the speed limit, driving inattentively, driving under the influence of alcohol, racing and failing to maintain brakes. Prior to submitting the case to the jury, the trial court ruled that defendants were negligent as a matter of law regardless of reasonable care exercised with the horses, but that this ruling did not bar contributory negligence as a defense. The trial court further ruled that substantial evidence existed to support jury instructions on all of defendants' theories of contributory negligence. The jury found plaintiff to be 80% negligent and defendants only 20% negligent, and fixed defendants' damages on their crossclaim at $1,250 for the loss of the horses. Judgment was entered on the defendants' crossclaim.

In a subsequent order granting plaintiff's motion for a new trial, the trial court held that no substantial evidence existed to support the contributory negligence instructions based on driving under the influence, racing or failing to maintain brakes. The court reasoned that these instructions "likely caused the jury to accumulate speculated negligence on the part of plaintiff" so that the jury verdict of 80% negligence "was not justified and that a fair and impartial trial was not had." The defendant animal owners have appealed.

I. New Trial

We first address the defendants' assignment of error that the grant of a new trial was improper. The trial court has broad discretion under I.R.C.P. 59(a) when determining whether to grant or deny a motion for new trial. As stated in Dinneen v. Finch, 100 Idaho 620, 626, 603 P.2d 575, 581 (1979):

"This Court is firmly committed to the rule that a trial court possesses a discretion to be wisely exercised in granting or refusing to grant a new trial and that such discretion will not be disturbed on appeal unless it clearly appears to have been exercised unwisely and to have been manifestly abused."

Defendants argue that each of the several contributory negligence instructions were supported by substantial competent evidence, and therefore the trial court's contrary conclusion as a basis for a new trial was reversible error. There is no need for this Court to independently review each of the several contributory negligence issues and conclude whether or not substantial competent evidence existed to support an instruction on that particular issue. At best, each presents an extremely close question and we need not take a position on each issue to affirm the grant of a new trial. It is sufficient to say that the trial court's conclusion that the cumulative effect of the instructions "likely caused the jury to accumulate speculated [contributory]

[110 Idaho 238] negligence on the part of the plaintiff ... [and] eighty percent [contributory] negligent as a proximate cause was not justified and a fair and impartial trial was not had," does not clearly appear to be an unwise or manifest abuse of discretion

" '[T]he trial court may set aside a verdict and grant a new trial whenever it appears to the trial court that the verdict is contrary to the law or evidence or that the verdict fails to render substantial justice. ...


" '[T]he trial judge was in a position to see and hear the witnesses speak. He could observe their demeanor on the witness stand, and consequently was in a better position to judge their credibility and to weigh their testimony than is this court...." Dinneen v. Finch, 100 Idaho 620, 625, 603 P.2d 575, 580 (1979), quoting Rosenberg v. Toetly, 93 Idaho 135, 138-139, 456 P.2d 779, 782-783 (1969).

Therefore, we affirm the trial court's grant of a new trial.

II. Animal Owner Liability

Defendants have raised additional issues on appeal in the event that the grant of the new trial is affirmed. The trial court ruled and accordingly instructed the jury that defendants' conduct was a proximate cause of the accident and was negligence as a matter of law in view of the fact that defendants' horses were running at large on the highway at night. Therefore, the jury was foreclosed from considering whether defendants properly cared for and enclosed their horses and whether the horses were on the highway as a result of defendants' negligence or another cause beyond their control.

A nighttime collision between a domestic animal and a vehicle is not uncommon in Idaho. Our research finds six such cases authored by this Court dealing with rights and liabilities between the animal and vehicle owners. The first such case, Shepard v. Smith, 74 Idaho 459, 263 P.2d 985 (1953), analyzed the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, and then ruled that res ipsa loquitur "should be applied at least to the extent of requiring the owner of animals unattended upon a heavily traveled highway ... to satisfactorily explain their presence in order to avoid an otherwise justifiable inference of negligence." Id. at 464-465, 263 P.2d 985. In Shepard, the animal owner presented evidence attempting to show that he was diligently searching for the animals just prior to the accident. The Court apparently considered this evidence as an attempt to explain or rebut the inference of negligence. The Court stated:

"From such a state of facts the jury may have concluded the search was cursory and that in discontinuing further effort to find the animals or to keep them off the highway, and retiring for the night, under the circumstances, the owners were negligent. At least the question for the jury was presented." 74 Idaho at 465, 263 P.2d at 988.

The second animal-vehicle collision case, O'Connor v. Black, 80 Idaho 96, 326 P.2d 376 (1958), interpreted Shepard as follows:

"We interpret the announcements of the Shepard v. Smith case to be that the presence of livestock unattended upon a heavily traveled highway in the nighttime raises an inference of negligence on the part of the owner. In the absence of any satisfactory explanation by the owner of the presence of the animals thus on the highway at night unattended, a jury would be justified in finding that the presence of such animals on the highway was the result of negligence on the part of the owner.

"If a jury should find from the preponderance of the evidence that the animals were upon such highway at night unattended then the jury should further determine whether their presence on the highway has been satisfactorily explained by the owner; and from all the facts and circumstances in evidence, determine whether the owner was negligent, and if so, whether such negligence on his part was the proximate cause of the collision and damage which the motorist

[110 Idaho 239] sustained." 80 Idaho at 104, 326 P.2d at 380

In the O'Connor opinion, the Court quoted with approval the res ipsa loquitur doctrine from Shepard and supported the doctrine with similar quotes from other jurisdictions. 80 Idaho at 101-102, 326 P.2d at 378-79....

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4 cases
  • Anderson v. City of Pocatello, 15703
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Idaho
    • July 29, 1986 excess of the posted speed limit; yet this does not make his subsequent auto accident an intentional tort. See Griffith v. Schmidt, 110 Idaho 235, 715 P.2d 905 (1986) (violation of posted speed limit constitutes negligence per se ). Though negligence often arises as the result of heedles......
  • Ahles v. Tabor, 26136.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Idaho
    • October 24, 2001
    ...ordinary negligence. We have generally held the violation of motor vehicle safety statutes to be negligence per se. Griffith v. Schmidt, 110 Idaho 235, 715 P.2d 905 (1985) (law fixing speed limit); Bradbury v. Voge, 93 Idaho 360, 461 P.2d 255 (1969) (law requiring operation of vehicle on le......
  • Wise v. Fiberglass Systems, Inc., 15618
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Idaho
    • April 10, 1986 instructing the jury on negligence per se, based on evidence that Wise was traveling in excess of 55 m.p.h. In Griffith v. Schmidt, 110 Idaho 235, 715 P.2d 905 (1985), we "We are persuaded that ... I.C. § 49-681 which states, '[N]o person shall drive a vehicle at a speed in excess of suc......
  • Adamson v. Blanchard, 24974.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Idaho
    • December 9, 1999
    ...animals are involved in a highway accident at night. Both parties have referred to this Court's decision in Griffith v. Schmidt, 110 Idaho 235, 715 P.2d 905 (1986), where the Court referred to I.C. §§ 25-2118 and -2119 and stated that these statutes granted "immunity from liability and negl......

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