Jones v. Schabron

Decision Date08 June 2005
Docket NumberNo. 04-103,04-103
Citation2005 WY 65,113 P.3d 34
PartiesDOUG JONES and DAVID DUNBAR, Co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Joshua Douglas Jones, Appellants (Plaintiffs), v. JOHN SCHABRON, Personal Representative of the Estate of Nicholas James Schabron, Appellee (Defendant).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Representing Appellants: C. M. Aron of Aron and Hennig, LLP, Laramie, Wyoming.

Representing Appellee: John A. Sundahl and Isaac N. Sutphin of Sundahl, Powers, Kapp & Martin, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Sundahl.

Before HILL, C.J., and GOLDEN, KITE, and VOIGT, JJ., and KAUTZ, D.J.

KAUTZ, District Judge.

[¶1] Appellants, Doug Jones and David Dunbar (collectively Jones), are the personal representatives of the estate of Joshua Jones. Joshua Jones was killed in a tragic accident south of Laramie during the late night hours of September 16, 2001, when a vehicle driven by Nicholas Schabron was hit head-on by an intoxicated Clinton Haskins (Haskins). Joshua Jones, Nicholas Schabron, and six other members of the University of Wyoming track team were killed in the accident. Haskins was the only survivor. The estate of Nicholas Schabron is represented by its personal representative, John Schabron (Schabron).

[¶2] Jones filed a wrongful death claim against Schabron, contending that Nicholas Schabron was negligent in causing the death of Joshua Jones. The theory of his case was essentially this: There were eight persons riding in the vehicle driven by Nicholas Schabron; Nicholas Schabron should have been able to perceive that Haskins was driving in his lane of travel some 2.5 seconds before the collision, and that Nicholas Schabron's reaction time to these circumstances was excessively slow (i.e., had he taken evasive action one-half second earlier, the collision could have been avoided); that Nicholas Schabron did not apply the brakes before the accident; and that, if either vehicle had been two feet further to the left, then the accident would not have occurred.

[¶3] The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Schabron. Jones appeals from that order, contending that it was error for the district court to grant summary judgment where the precise facts of this case are not known. We will affirm.

ISSUE

[¶4] Jones states the following issue:

Whether it is error to grant summary judgment in a head-on-collision vehicular accident where the precise facts are not known.

Schabron rephrases the issue as:

Whether speculation or possibility is sufficient to avoid summary judgment in a negligence action.
FACTS

[¶5] In the early morning hours of September 16, 2001, Clinton Haskins was driving southbound from Laramie on U.S. Highway 287 in his 1995 Chevrolet 3500 crew cab dual wheel pickup. Nicholas Schabron was driving northbound in a 1990 Jeep Wagoneer on that same highway. Joshua Jones, Shane Shatto, Kyle Johnson, Cody Brown, Morgan McLeland, Justin Lambert Belanger, and Kevin Salverson rode with Nicholas Schabron. Haskins crossed over the centerline of the highway and hit Schabron's vehicle head-on, killing all eight occupants.

[¶6] Before the collision, Haskins rounded a left-hand curve. At an unknown point, he crossed into the northbound lane. Nicholas Schabron was just entering the curve in the northbound lane. He attempted to avoid Haskins by steering sharply to the left, leaving approximately 77 feet of yaw marks. There is no evidence that Haskins made any attempt to avoid the collision. The vehicles hit passenger front corner to passenger front corner, overlapping approximately 18 inches. At the point of collision, Haskins' vehicle was headed straight south down the northbound lane, while Nicholas Schabron's vehicle was angled to the left. The accident occurred entirely in Nicholas Schabron's lane of travel. At impact, Haskins' pickup was traveling approximately 76 miles per hour and Nicholas Schabron's Jeep was traveling approximately 62 miles per hour. The posted speed limit where the accident occurred is 65 miles per hour. Both vehicles suffered extensive damage to the front and down the right side. The heavier pickup ripped off the entire right side of the Jeep, tore off the top and rear tailgate, and ripped through the passenger seats. Joshua Jones and the other six passengers were torn from the interior of the Jeep and thrown to their final resting positions along the roadside. Nicholas Schabron was found dead in the Jeep, in his seat, with his seatbelt on. Haskins was the only survivor. Nicholas Schabron did not have any alcohol in his system. Haskins' blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.16.

[¶7] On February 7, 2002, Haskins pleaded guilty to eight counts of aggravated vehicular homicide. He was sentenced to serve eight concurrent terms of 14 to 20 years. See State v. Haskins, Albany County Criminal Action No. 6738. Jones claimed that Nicholas Schabron was negligent because:

1. He should have acted and reacted differently to the imminent threat of a collision with Haskins.
2. He violated a heightened duty of care applicable to designated drivers.
3. He should not have had seven passengers in a vehicle designed for five passengers.
4. He did not have enough seatbelts for the number of passengers.
5. He did not require his passengers to wear seatbelts.
6. Failure to comply with W.S. § 31-5-202 which requires drivers to pass oncoming traffic on the right.
7. Failure to comply with W.S. § 31-5-301 which requires drivers to limit their speed to what is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard to the actual and potential hazards then existing.1

[¶8] The district court granted Schabron's Motion for Summary Judgment. It held that Schabron did not have a duty to require adult passengers to wear seatbelts. It did not address whether Schabron had a heightened duty as a designated driver or if Schabron had a duty to only carry the number of passengers the vehicle design intended because Jones did not provide any authority to support these claims. The district court determined that the remaining claims were related to duties to use ordinary care and to maintain a proper lookout. It then determined that no genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether Schabron breached those duties.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶9] When we review a summary judgment, we have before us the same materials as did the district court, and we follow the same standards which applied to the proceedings below. The propriety of granting a motion for summary judgment depends upon the correctness of the dual findings that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the prevailing party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A genuine issue of material fact exists when a disputed fact, if proven, would have the effect of establishing or refuting an essential element of an asserted cause of action or defense. We, of course, examine the record from a vantage point most favorable to that party who opposed the motion, affording to that party the benefit of all favorable inferences that fairly may be drawn from the record. If the evidence leads to conflicting interpretations or if reasonable minds might differ, summary judgment is improper. That standard of review is refined somewhat when applied to a negligence action. Summary judgment is not favored in a negligence action and is, therefore, subject to more exacting scrutiny. Woodward v. Cook Ford Sales, Inc., 927 P.2d 1168, 1169 (Wyo. 1996). We have, however, affirmed summary judgment in negligence cases where the record failed to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Krier v. Safeway Stores 46, Inc., 943 P.2d 405 (Wyo. 1997) (failure to establish duty); Popejoy v. Steinle, 820 P.2d 545 (Wyo. 1991) (failure of proof of underlying claim of a joint venture); MacKrell v. Bell H2S Safety, 795 P.2d 776 (Wyo. 1990) (failure of proof of defendant's duty); DeWald v. State, 719 P.2d 643 (Wyo. 1986) (cause element was pure speculation); and Fiedler v. Steger, 713 P.2d 773 (Wyo. 1986) (failure to establish cause in a medical malpractice action). See McMackin v. Johnson County Healthcare Center, 2003 WY 91, ¶¶ 8-9, 73 P.3d 1094, ¶¶ 8-9 (Wyo. 2003).

Abraham v. Great Western Energy, LLC, 2004 WY 145, ¶ 12, 101 P.3d 446, ¶ 12 (Wyo. 2004).

[¶10] After a movant has adequately supported the motion for summary judgment, the opposing party must come forward with competent evidence admissible at trial showing there are genuine issues of material fact. Wyo.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Hyatt v. Big Horn Sch. Dist. No. 4, 636 P.2d 525, 528 (Wyo. 1981). The opposing party must affirmatively set forth material, specific facts in opposition to a motion for summary judgment, and cannot rely only upon allegations and pleadings. . ., and conclusory statements or mere opinions are insufficient to satisfy the opposing party's burden.

Downen v. Sinclair Oil Corporation, 887 P.2d 515, 519 (Wyo. 1994) (some citations omitted).

[¶11] The evidence opposing a prima facie case on a motion for summary judgment "must be competent and admissible, lest the rule permitting summary judgments be entirely eviscerated by plaintiffs proceeding to trial on the basis of mere conjecture or wishful speculation." Campbell v. Studer, Inc., 970 P.2d 389, 392 (Wyo. 1998) (quoting Estate of Coleman v. Casper Concrete Company, 939 P.2d 233, 236 (Wyo. 1997)). Speculation, conjecture, the suggestion of a possibility, guesses, or even probability are insufficient to establish an issue of material fact. Connely v. McColloch, 2004 WY 5, ¶ 37, 83 P.3d 457, ¶ 37 (Wyo. 2004); O'Brien v. Hunt, 464 P.2d 306 (Wyo. 1970); Tower v. Horn, 400 P.2d 146 (Wyo. 1965).

DISCUSSION

[¶12] The only issue argued in Jones' brief is whether they presented evidence from which a jury could conclude that Nicholas Schabron failed to maintain a proper lookout or act reasonably to avoid Haskins. Jones did not present any argument or authority on his claims that Nicholas Schabron had a...

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