Hancock-Underwood v. Knight

Decision Date16 January 2009
Docket NumberRecord No. 080425.
Citation670 S.E.2d 720,277 Va. 127
PartiesRhonda HANCOCK-UNDERWOOD, Administrator of the Estate of Melvin Ray Hancock, Deceased v. Richard I. KNIGHT.
CourtVirginia Supreme Court

Wade T. Anderson (Sean C. Workowski; Frith Anderson & Peake, on briefs), Roanoke, for appellant.

Thomas L. Phillips, Jr., Rustburg (Eric S. Johnson; Phillips, Morrison, Johnson, and Ferrell, on brief), for appellee.

Present: All the Justices.

OPINION BY Justice DONALD W. LEMONS.

In this appeal, we consider whether the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on "unavoidable accident" and "sudden emergency." For the reasons stated below, we will affirm the judgment of the trial court.

I. Facts and Proceedings Below

On May 21, 2005, an automobile accident occurred on Route 130 in Amherst County involving vehicles driven by Richard I. Knight ("Knight") and Melvin Ray Hancock ("Hancock"). Hancock was driving with his wife, Rhonda Hancock ("Rhonda" or "Administrator"), and his son, Charles Hancock ("Charles"), traveling west on Route 130 between 10:00 and 11:00 o'clock at night when his van crossed the centerline and struck Knight's truck, which was traveling east on Route 130. Before the collision, Knight saw Hancock's van coming toward him and moved his truck, which had a trailer in tow, over to the right-hand side of the road as far as possible. Nonetheless, Hancock's van collided with Knight's truck. While Knight was severely injured from the collision, he survived, but Hancock did not.

Knight filed a complaint against Hancock's estate in the Circuit Court of Amherst County seeking $500,000 in damages. At trial, Rhonda and Charles both testified that Hancock complained of a severe headache "a minute[,] minute and-a-half" before "he ... slumped over the wheel" and that he had not been "sleepy" or "tired" prior to his complaint. After the accident, Hancock was conscious and able to talk to Charles and Rhonda for a few minutes, however his speech became "slurred," and "almost baby like," and "then he just stopped speaking."

A neurological expert, Dr. John Gordon Burch, testified that Hancock "suffered an acute medical crisis" as he operated his vehicle. Specifically, Dr. Burch testified that Hancock suffered "an acute intracranial event. And most likely an intracranial hemorrhage." Further, Dr. Burch testified that it was "extremely unlikely" that Hancock fell asleep and that Hancock did not have "a migraine headache."

At the conclusion of the presentation of evidence in a one-day jury trial, the Administrator sought jury instructions on both the "unavoidable accident" and "sudden emergency" doctrines. The trial court refused to give either instruction. The jury returned a verdict for Knight in the amount of $490,000. The trial court entered judgment on the verdict. We awarded the Administrator an appeal upon two assignments of error:

1. The trial court erred in refusing to give the defendant's "sudden emergency" instruction where substantial evidence demonstrated that the defendant suffered from a medical emergency at the time of the accident.

2. The trial court erred in refusing to give the defendant's "unavoidable accident" instruction where substantial evidence demonstrated that the defendant suffered from a medical emergency at the time of the accident.

II. Analysis
A. Standard of Review

When we review a trial court's decision to refuse jury instructions, the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the proponent of the instruction. Rose v. Jaques, 268 Va. 137, 150, 597 S.E.2d 64, 71 (2004). Furthermore,

[a]s we have made clear in the past, "[a] litigant is entitled to jury instructions supporting his or her theory of the case if sufficient evidence is introduced to support that theory and if the instructions correctly state the law." Schlimmer v. Poverty Hunt Club, 268 Va. 74, 78, 597 S.E.2d 43, 45 (2004); accord Honsinger v. Egan, 266 Va. 269, 274, 585 S.E.2d 597, 600 (2003). The evidence introduced in support of a requested instruction "must amount to more than a scintilla." Schlimmer, 268 Va. at 78, 597 S.E.2d at 45 (citing Justus v. Commonwealth, 222 Va. 667, 678, 283 S.E.2d 905, 911 (1981)). "If a proffered instruction finds any support in credible evidence, its refusal is reversible error." McClung v. Commonwealth, 215 Va. 654, 657, 212 S.E.2d 290, 293 (1975).

Holmes v. Levine, 273 Va. 150, 159, 639 S.E.2d 235, 239 (2007).

When we review the content of jury instructions, our "`sole responsibility ... is to see that the law has been clearly stated and that the instructions cover all issues which the evidence fairly raises.'" Molina v. Commonwealth, 272 Va. 666, 671, 636 S.E.2d 470, 473 (2006) (quoting Swisher v. Swisher, 223 Va. 499, 503, 290 S.E.2d 856, 858 (1982)). Whether the content of the instruction is an accurate statement of the relevant legal principles is a question of law that, like all questions of law, we review de novo. Alcoy v. Valley Nursing Homes, Inc., 272 Va. 37, 41, 630 S.E.2d 301, 303 (2006).

B. Unavoidable Accident

Previously, we have defined an "unavoidable accident" as an accident "which ordinary care and diligence could not have prevented, or, expressed another way, is one occurring in the absence of negligence upon the part of all the parties charged therewith." Holbert v. Evans, 209 Va. 210, 215, 163 S.E.2d 187, 191 (1968) (internal quotation marks omitted). The unavoidable accident instruction proffered by the Administrator reads as follows:

An unavoidable accident is one which ordinary care and diligence could not have prevented or one which occurred in the absence of negligence by any party to this action.

The various states are split on the propriety of giving an unavoidable accident instruction. Upon review of the decisions of the highest courts of the various states, it appears that twenty states and the District of Columbia do not permit such an instruction under any circumstance;1 fifteen states have strongly criticized the instruction but allow it in rare circumstances;2 nine states appear to allow the instruction;3 and the highest courts of five states have not addressed the issue.4 The analytical basis used by those states that do not permit the use of the "unavoidable accident" instruction is easily summarized. These states disapprove unavoidable-accident instructions, because such an instruction merely restates the law of negligence, serves no useful purpose, overemphasizes the defendant's case, and is apt to confuse and mislead the jury.

Of the states that do permit an "unavoidable accident" instruction, many have narrowly circumscribed its use, recognizing that it is only helpful to the jury in a very small number of factual instances. The limitation adopted by the Supreme Court of South Dakota is typical:

In the ordinary negligence action the jury is adequately instructed on the ultimate issues by instructions on negligence, contributory negligence, burden of proof, and proximate cause. Further instruction on unavoidable accident usually is unnecessary. Such an instruction may properly be given in those cases where there is evidence of something other than the negligence of one of the parties [having] caused the mishap. It is particularly apt where the further element of "surprise" is present such as the sudden and unexpected presence of ice, the blow-out of a tire, the malfunction of brakes, or other mechanical failure.

Cordell v. Scott, 79 S.D. 316, 111 N.W.2d 594, 598 (1961).

To date, we have permitted an "unavoidable accident" instruction in certain narrow circumstances. We have held:

Although we apparently have not directly approved the granting of an unavoidable accident instruction, it is clear that our prior decisions on the subject have recognized that such an instruction does have a proper place in a negligence case and have indicated that it is not error to grant it if the evidence warrants. While few automobile accidents occur without fault and the occasion for the use of an unavoidable accident instruction might be rare, that does not mean that the instruction should not be given in the proper case.

What is a proper case is, of course, the problem. We have made it plain that where the only evidence of the cause of an injury is that it resulted from human fault, an instruction on unavoidable accident is improper. At the other end of the spectrum, is the case where the only evidence of the cause of an injury is that it occurred without human fault. In the latter instance, the question of an unavoidable accident instruction would be moot, since the matter would have to be decided by the court, as a matter of law.

In between the two extremes lies the area where the instruction may be warranted. If, in a case otherwise proper for jury decision, there is a reasonable theory of the evidence under which the parties involved may be held to have exercised due care notwithstanding that the accident occurred, the question of whether injury was the result of negligence or unavoidable accident should be covered by appropriate instructions and submitted to the jury.

Holbert, 209 Va. at 215, 163 S.E.2d at 191-192.

We have cautioned trial courts to "use particular care when determining whether to grant" instructions on unavoidable accident because they have "the tendency to afford a jury an easy way of avoiding instead of deciding the issue made by the evidence in the case." Herr v. Wheeler, 272 Va. 310, 315, 634 S.E.2d 317, 320 (2006); see also Holbert, 209 Va. at 215, 163 S.E.2d at 191 (stating that because few accidents happen without fault the occasions warranting an instruction on unavoidable accident might be rare). While in the past we have permitted under rare and specific circumstances an instruction on unavoidable accident, today we join the clear trend in the states favoring exclusion of its use altogether.

The reason we do so is amply demonstrated by this case. The Administrator's request for an...

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