Muckler v. Buchl

Decision Date12 May 1967
Docket NumberNo. 40267,40267
Citation276 Minn. 490,150 N.W.2d 689
PartiesPaul MUCKLER, Individually and as Trustee, Respondent, v. Joseph M. BUCHL, Appellant.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

1. Evidence held to support a jury finding that a fall which resulted in the death of plaintiff's decedent was caused by the negligence of defendant in failing properly to light a stairway in an apartment building where the fall occurred.

2. The issue of contributory negligence having been submitted to the jury, it was not error to refuse an instruction submitting the issue of assumption of risk in a case where the injured person fell on a stairway known to be dark and therefore hazardous, there being no evidence of a safer alternate route.

3. Although the applicable limit of recovery in an action for death by wrongful act is that in force at the time of injury and consequent death, there was no reversible error in instructions specifying a higher amount fixed by a statute in effect at the time of trial under the circumstances of this case where the trial court was required to resolve this doubtful question of law after an agreement by the attorneys for the parties that no maximum amount be mentioned was rescinded and where the verdict as returned was reasonable in light of the evidence.

4. Although a witness called to give expert testimony as to the reasonable value of household services had not been named as a prospective witness at a pretrial conference where there was disclosure of the identity of witnesses to be called at trial, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in permitting the testimony of the witness to be taken, and the opinion expressed by the witness was not improperly received.

5. In a case where the light measurement at the site of an accident was a critical issue, the trial judge did not err in refusing to accept testimony concerning light measurements at another place, even though a witness had testified that this place was comparable to the accident site with respect to darkness.

Nord & Webster, St. Paul, for appellant.

Maun, Hazel, Green, Hayes, Simon & Aretz, St. Paul, for respondent.

OPINION

SHERAN, Justice.

Appeal from a district court judgment.

About 8:30 p.m., on August 11, 1962, plaintiff's decedent, a 55-year-old woman, fell down a flight of stairs extending from The landing between the first and second floors down to the first floor of the Minneapolis apartment house in which she had been a tenant for 7 years. She broke her hip in the fall and was taken to a hospital where she died less than 4 months later.

On March 15, 1963, decedent's husband commenced an action for death by wrongful act against the apartment-house owner. At trial which commenced August 9, 1965, plaintiff claimed the accident was caused by defendant's negligence in having the stairs too dimly lit for safety contrary to a relevant ordinance and to his common-law duty. Pursuant to a verdict in favor of plaintiff, post-trial motions having been denied, judgment for $17,000 was entered on October 26, 1965, and defendant appealed therefrom on January 24, 1966.

The issues for decision are these:

(1) Does the evidence justify a finding that the fall which caused injuries resulting in the death of plaintiff's decedent was caused by the negligence of defendant in failing properly to light the stairway in the apartment building where the fall occurred?

(2) Did the trial court err by its failure to submit the defense of assumption of risk to the jury?

(3) Did prejudicial error result by reason of an instruction that the limit of recovery in an action for death by wrongful act was in the amount of $35,000 in this situation where the statutory limit of recovery at the time of the accident and death was $25,000?

(4) Did the trial court err in receiving the evidence of an expert witness who gave testimony as to the reasonable worth and value of household services of the kind performed by decedent before the accident?

(5) Was it error for the trial court to refuse to accept expert testimony showing the light measurement at a place observable by the jurors and used as a standard of comparison by one of defendant's witnesses in describing visibility at the accident site?

1. Were it not for our decision in Majerus v. Guelsow, 262 Minn. 1, 113 N.W.2d 450, we would be hesitant to affirm the jury's implicit finding that decedent was caused to fall because of the darkness of the stairway, there being no direct evidence on the issue.

Just before she fell, decedent was walking down the stairs directly behind a departing guest who had been visiting her in the second-floor apartment occupied by decedent and her husband. The guest gave the following description of the events occurring between the time she left decedent's apartment and the time the critical injury was sustained:

'Q. * * * As you went out into the hallway and as the door of the apartment was closed, how can you describe the condition of the light at that time?

'The Witness: It was dark. I could distinguish the hand rail and I hung onto that because I could not tell where the steps were.

'Q. I believe there is one flight of steps there from that second floor landing down about five or six steps to a landing between floors; is that your recollection?

'A. Yes, sir.

'Q. Right at that landing, between the floors * * * there are two little windows adjacent to the landing; is that right?

'A. I believe so.

'Mr. Green (plaintiff's attorney): Now, you got down to the first floor landing, or the landing between floors, without any particular incident?

'A. Yes.

'Q. Did you then make the turn to go down the second flight to the landing on the first floor?

'A. Yes, sir.

'Q. Tell us what happened as you went down that second flight of stairs?

'A. I was being very careful. I couldn't tell where the steps were so I had to feel my way down, and then I don't know how far I was from the bottom, probably three or four steps, and I heard something behind me and I imagined it was Mrs. Muckler tripping or falling--I couldn't tell then--so I instinctively put my hand out and there was nothing there, and I heard the scream and the thump and there she was.

'Q. At this point where you heard this noise, had Mrs. Muckler been behind you?

'A. Yes, she was behind me.

'Q. And the rest of the people you described were all on down ahead of you?

'A. Some place ahead.

'Q. Did you see her go past you when this occurred or feel her or anything? Were you aware of her going past?

'A. No.

'Q. Why was that?

'A. I don't know why it was. I suppose the excitement, it happened so fast, I can't really tell.

'Q. Where did Mrs. Muckler then finally wind up?

'A. I heard the thump and the scream almost simultaneously and then the doors from the first floor opened so then I could see her.

'Q. Where was she?

'A. Lying on the floor, on the landing.'

If decedent ever said what caused her to fall, the record does not disclose it.

An electrical engineer who measured the light at the place of the accident at a time when, according to the evidence, conditions were substantially the same as those prevailing at the time of the event gave testimony from which the jury could infer that the light at and near the place of the occurrence measured one-tenth of a foot-candle or less-significantly below the two foot-candles required by an ordinance of the city of Minneapolis. 1

At the time of the accident the stairway was not lighted by artificial illumination. Defendant's agent was in exclusive control of the switch to the lights which could have been used for this purpose.

Except for the inadequacy of the lighting, the evidence shows that there was no defect in the stairway to which the fall could be attributed. A handrail was in place.

Decedent, about 55 years of age, was in good health except for a diabetic condition which under the evidence the jury could have found to be controlled. Also there was evidence from which the jury could have found that decedent did not consume intoxicating liquors on the day of the accident or at any other time. There is no evidence indicating that decedent had fallen while descending the steps of the apartment building on any prior occasion during the 7 years she lived there as a tenant.

The evidence is consistent with the theory that decedent fell on the stairway because of the darkness. But it is also consistent with the possibility that the fall would have occurred no matter what the lighting condition might have been. We can eliminate the diabetic condition as a probable explanation of the occurrence in view of the testimony of competent witnesses that decedent was not suffering observable symptoms before and as she started down the stairway. The possibility that the fall was attributable to intoxication can be eliminated on the basis of testimony to the effect that decedent never used intoxicants. But experience tells us that people sometimes fall on stairways even though fully alert and in the best of health. We cannot say with certitude that this was not one of those instances.

Construing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, as we must, we are still working in the field of probability. And the degree of probability of a connection between an alleged cause and a given result needed to sustain an affirmative jury finding cannot be defined with mathematical certainty. The line separating fact situations where an inference of causation is permissible from those in which it is not must, of necessity, reflect the general practical experience of the court called upon to make the demarcation. So considered, it seems reasonable that one attempting to descend a stairway so dark that the steps are barely discernible would be likely to fall because of the darkness. And, the accident having happened, it seems to us more probable that the darkened state of the stairway was the precipitating factor for the accident than otherwise. The minimum...

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    ...the legislature intended retrospective application"). See also Fann v. McGuffy, 534 S.W.2d 770, 774, n. 19 (Ky. 1975); Muckler v. Buchl, 150 N.W.2d 689, 697 (Minn. 1967). 37. We have sometimes said that new "remedial" statutes, like new "procedural" ones, should presumptively apply to pendi......
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