Matthiessen v. Vanech

Decision Date16 December 2003
Docket Number(SC 16845).
Citation836 A.2d 394,266 Conn. 822
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesKATHLEEN MATTHIESSEN ET AL. v. DORI VANECH ET AL.

Sullivan, C. J., and Borden, Katz, Palmer and Zarella, Js. Gregory P. Lynch, for the appellants (defendants).

Stephen A. Finn, with whom was Daniel M. Young, for the appellees (plaintiffs).

Jack G. Steigelfest filed a brief for the Connecticut Defense Lawyers Association as amicus curiae.

William F. Gallagher and Kathy A. Tenney filed a brief for the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association as amicus curiae.

Opinion

PALMER, J.

This appeal arises out of a negligence action brought by the named plaintiff, Kathleen Matthiessen,1 against the defendants, Dori Vanech and Nicholas Vanech, to recover damages for injuries sustained when the car the plaintiff was driving was struck by a vehicle operated by Dori Vanech and owned by her father, Nicholas Vanech. A jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff against both defendants and awarded her total damages in the amount of $493,000, $375,000 in compensatory damages and $118,000 in punitive damages. Thereafter, the trial court held a collateral source hearing and reduced the award of compensatory damages by $11,604.11. The defendants appeal2 from the judgment rendered by the trial court in accordance with the reduced jury verdict, claiming that the trial court improperly: (1) failed to instruct the jury on comparative negligence; (2) instructed the jury on recklessness and negligence; (3) rendered judgment against the defendants for punitive damages; (4) permitted the jury to begin its deliberations and to review the trial exhibits before the court had entertained the parties' exceptions to the jury charge and before all of the exhibits had been marshaled and reviewed by the parties' counsel; and (5) permitted the plaintiff to amend her complaint following the commencement of jury deliberations. We reverse the judgment of the trial court with respect to the award of punitive damages against Nicholas Vanech, and we affirm the judgment in all other respects.

The jury reasonably could have found the following facts. On the morning of October 13, 1994, the plaintiff was driving northbound on Lakeside Drive in Stamford at a rate of speed of approximately twenty miles per hour. Quarry Road intersects Lakeside Drive from the east but does not cross it, forming a "T" intersection. As the plaintiff approached the intersection of Lakeside Drive and Quarry Road, a vehicle operated by Karl Blume was stopped at the stop sign on Quarry Road. Blume was waiting for the plaintiff's car to pass through the intersection so that he could turn safely onto Lakeside Drive.3 At that same time, Dori Vanech was operating her vehicle immediately behind Blume on Quarry Road. Although she lived in the area and was very familiar with the intersection and its hazards,4 Vanech pulled around the right side of Blume's car and, without stopping at the stop sign, turned left in front of Blume's car onto Lakeside Drive. Vanech went through the stop sign at a rate of speed of approximately ten to fifteen miles per hour, striking the plaintiff's vehicle in the center of the intersection, directly in front of Blume's car. The plaintiff did not see Vanech's car until a split second before impact. As a result of the accident, the plaintiff suffered physical injuries and property damage.

At the conclusion of the trial, the court provided the jury with a special verdict form containing several interrogatories. In response to those interrogatories, the jury reported its finding that Dori Vanech's conduct was the proximate cause of the accident, and awarded the plaintiff $175,000 in economic damages and $200,000 in noneconomic damages. The jury also found that Dori Vanech's actions or omissions immediately before the accident were reckless, and awarded the plaintiff $118,000 in common-law punitive damages.5 The jury declined to award double or treble damages as permitted by General Statutes § 14-295.6 Additional facts will be provided as necessary.

I

The defendants first contend that the trial court improperly refused to charge the jury on comparative negligence. The defendants assert that there was sufficient evidence presented at trial to support a finding that the plaintiff could have prevented the collision but for her own negligence. In particular, the defendants claim that the plaintiff was negligent by failing to keep a proper lookout, by failing to keep her vehicle under reasonable and proper control, by failing to sound her horn, by failing to turn her vehicle to avoid colliding with the defendants' vehicle, and by failing to apply her brakes in time to avoid the collision. We conclude that the trial court properly determined that there was insufficient evidence to support a charge on comparative negligence. Moreover, we conclude that even if there had been enough evidence to warrant a charge on comparative negligence, the trial court's failure to give such a charge was harmless in this case.

The following additional facts and procedural history are necessary to our analysis of this claim. In their amended answer to the plaintiff's complaint,7 the defendants raised by way of special defense that the plaintiff's negligence had contributed to the accident. After the close of evidence, the defendants requested that the trial court charge the jury on the issue of comparative fault. The trial court refused to submit the requested charge to the jury. Thereafter, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The defendants then filed a motion to set aside the verdict, claiming, inter alia, that the trial court improperly had directed the jury not to consider the defendants' claim of comparative negligence. In denying the defendants' motion to set aside the verdict, the trial court explained that it had not instructed the jury on comparative negligence "because the evidence at trial was insufficient to support a finding that [the plaintiff] was negligent. . . . There was no foundation, weak, incredible or otherwise, in the evidence for a finding of negligence [on the part of] the plaintiff."

In determining whether the trial court improperly refused a request to charge, "[w]e . . . review the evidence presented at trial in the light most favorable to supporting the . . . proposed charge." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Godwin v. Danbury Eye Physicians & Surgeons, P.C., 254 Conn. 131, 139, 757 A.2d 516 (2000). "A request to charge which is relevant to the issues of [a] case and which is an accurate statement of the law must be given." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Bovat v. Waterbury, 258 Conn. 574, 592, 783 A.2d 1001 (2001). If, however, "the evidence would not reasonably support a finding of the particular issue, the trial court has a duty not to submit it to the jury." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Copas, 252 Conn. 318, 355, 746 A.2d 761 (2000). Thus, "a trial court should instruct the jury in accordance with a party's request to charge [only] if the proposed instructions are reasonably supported by the evidence." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Godwin v. Danbury Eye Physicians & Surgeons, P.C., supra, 139.

The only evidence relied on by the defendants to support their claim that the plaintiff was negligent is her testimony that she did not see the defendants' car until a split second before impact. Viewing this evidence in the light most favorable to supporting the requested charge, we do not agree that this testimony alone provided an adequate basis for a finding that the plaintiff had been contributorily negligent. Indeed, our review of the evidence, which included numerous photographic exhibits of the intersection from various distances and angles, indicates that the plaintiff's view of Quarry Road, as she approached it from the south, was obstructed by trees and a short embankment. The mere fact, therefore, that the plaintiff did not see the defendants' car until it was upon her is not evidence of the plaintiff's negligence; rather, it was the inevitable result of the manner in which Dori Vanech had entered the intersection coupled with the natural physical attributes of the accident scene.

Even if we were to assume, arguendo, that there had been evidence from which the jury reasonably could have found that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent, the trial court's failure to instruct the jury on comparative negligence was rendered harmless by the jury's finding that Dori Vanech's conduct was reckless. General Statutes § 52-572h (o) provides in relevant part: "Except as provided in subsection (b) of this section, there shall be no apportionment of liability or damages between parties liable for negligence and parties liable on any basis other than negligence including, but not limited to, intentional, wanton or reckless misconduct, strict liability or liability pursuant to any cause of action created by statute . . . ." Section 52-572h, as amended by No. 99-69, § 1, of the 1999 Public Acts, is the statutory embodiment of the common-law rule that contributory negligence is not a defense to recklessness.8 See, e.g., Beckwith v. Stratford, 129 Conn. 506, 511, 29 A.2d 775 (1942); Bordonaro v. Senk, 109 Conn. 428, 432-33, 147 A. 136 (1929). Accordingly, even if the jury reasonably could have found that the plaintiff's conduct was a contributory cause of the accident, an apportionment of liability and damages between the parties would not have been proper in light of the jury's determination that Dori Vanech's conduct was reckless.

II

The defendants next contend that the trial court improperly charged the jury on recklessness, and that the charge led the jury to an unwarranted award of punitive damages against the defendants.9 In particular, the defendants claim that the charge was insufficient to enable the jury to distinguish between recklessness and negligence. The...

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