Roberts v. State, No. 83-170

Docket NºNo. 83-170
Citation147 Vt. 160, 514 A.2d 694
Case DateJune 20, 1986
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

Page 694

514 A.2d 694
147 Vt. 160
Gary and Sunee ROBERTS
v.
STATE of Vermont.
No. 83-170.
Supreme Court of Vermont.
June 20, 1986.

[147 Vt. 161] Cheney & Brock, Montpelier, for plaintiffs-appellees.

Dinse, Allen & Erdmann, Burlington, for defendant-appellant.

Before [147 Vt. 160] BILLINGS, C.J., and HILL, UNDERWOOD, PECK and GIBSON, JJ.

[147 Vt. 161] GIBSON, Justice.

This appeal, after trial by jury in Washington Superior Court, arises from an automobile accident at an intersection normally controlled by a traffic light installed and maintained by defendant State of Vermont. Plaintiffs Sunee and Gary Roberts sought damages for injuries they alleged were proximately caused by defendant's negligent failure to maintain the traffic light in an operable condition or to adequately warn motorists of the inoperation of the light. Defendant raised the affirmative defense of contributory negligence, alleging that Mrs. Roberts, the driver, was negligent in failing to exercise the proper degree of care in entering the intersection. The jury, finding Sunee Roberts to be 25% negligent and defendant 75% negligent, awarded $48,750.00 to plaintiff Sunee Roberts and $20,562.50 to plaintiff Gary Roberts. Judgment was entered on the verdict.

Defendant on appeal claims that the trial court erred: (1) in denying defendant's motion

Page 695

for a directed verdict; (2) in failing to properly instruct the jury on the duties of plaintiff-driver Sunee Roberts; (3) in instructing the jury regarding the State's duty of [147 Vt. 162] care; and (4) in charging the jury that the plaintiffs could assume that defendant's employees would exercise due care. Defendant also claims that the award to plaintiff Gary Roberts was excessive. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

On February 8, 1981, at approximately 1:00 a.m., plaintiff's car collided with a car driven by Denise St. Pierre at the intersection of State Aid Highway 62 and Berlin Street in Berlin, Vermont. Plaintiffs' car entered the intersection from the north and Mrs. St. Pierre's vehicle entered the intersection from the east. Traffic at this intersection was normally controlled by a traffic light suspended above the intersection that would exhibit red, yellow, and green signals. A malfunction was discovered during the afternoon of February 7, 1981. At that time, defendant put the light in a flashing mode so that it showed yellow in all directions. Later that evening, the light became totally inoperative so that no light showed in any direction. Defendant, unable to fix the light, placed four sawhorse warning devices, one at each corner, to mark the intersection. Each device consisted of two diagonally striped wooden panels on a sawhorse surmounted by a flashing yellow light. This was the state of the intersection at the time of the accident.

The plaintiffs were returning home at about 1:00 a.m. from a visit with Mr. Roberts' mother in Marshfield. Mrs. Roberts was driving and Mr. Roberts was asleep on the seat beside her. Mrs. Roberts was familiar with the intersection because the plaintiffs' home was located about one-fourth of a mile away, and she drove through the intersection each day going to and from work. Mrs. Roberts testified that she was driving at "about 25 or 30 miles an hour" and prepared to slow down as she approached the intersection. She looked at the traffic signal, but no lights were exhibited. She then looked to see if any traffic was approaching from the east. Seeing nothing, she entered the intersection where she was struck by the other vehicle. Mrs. Roberts testified that she did not see any warning device nor the other vehicle's headlights before the collision. Mrs. St. Pierre was unfamiliar with the intersection. Like Mrs. Roberts, Mrs. St. Pierre stated that she saw no lights from the other car nor any warning device with flashing lights.

[147 Vt. 163] I.

In the trial below, defendant moved for a directed verdict claiming that the plaintiffs failed to prove that defendant's acts or omissions were the proximate cause of their injuries. The motion was denied and defendant here claims that this was error.

In denying defendant's motion for a directed verdict, the trial court determined that there was sufficient evidence reasonably tending to support the plaintiffs' claim, and that the matter was proper for resolution by a jury. See Macey v. James, 139 Vt. 270, 271, 427 A.2d 803, 804 (1981). Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, Vermont National Bank v. Dowrick, 144 Vt. 504, 509, 481 A.2d 396, 399 (1984), we agree.

"The law of proximate cause calls for a causal connection between the act for which the defendant is claimed to be responsible and which is alleged to be negligent and the resulting flow of injurious consequences." Rivers v. State, 133 Vt. 11, 14, 328 A.2d 398, 400 (1974). Without the limitations of proximate cause, the scope of liability for a defendant's negligence may be extended almost infinitely by ever-expanding causal links; proximate cause is the law's method of limiting such liability. The rule in Vermont defining that limit is set forth in Woodcock's Admr. v. Hallock, 98 Vt. 284, 290, 127 A. 380, 382 (1925):

One shown to have been negligent is liable for all the injurious consequences that flow from his negligence until diverted

Page 696

by the intervention of some efficient cause that makes the injury its own, or until the force set in motion by the negligent act has so far spent itself as to be too small for the law's notice.

This Court also observed that:

In the practical application of this rule, however, delicate and difficult distinctions necessarily arise.... The determination of what is ... proximate and what [is] remote ... is more a matter of analysis and synthesis than of definition.

Id.

Proximate cause is ordinarily an issue to be resolved by the jury "unless the proof is so clear that reasonable minds cannot draw different conclusions or where all reasonable minds would construe the facts and circumstances one way." Schaefer v. [147 Vt. 164] Elswood Trailer Sales, 95 Idaho 654, 656, 516 P.2d 1168, 1170 (1973). See also Wells v. Village of Orleans, Inc., 132 Vt. 216, 222, 315 A.2d 463, 467 (1974) ("in contributory negligence, ... proximate cause is a question of fact for the finder of fact to determine."); Nyman v. Cedar City, 12 Utah 2d 45, 49-50, 361 P.2d 1114, 1117 (1961) ("When the evidence is such that there is doubt about whether one of two causes is a proximate cause of an injury so that the question could reasonably be found either one way or the other, the question is one of fact for the court or jury."). Moreover, "[t]here may be more than one proximate cause concurring to produce an injury." Choiniere v. Sulikowski, 126 Vt. 274, 278, 229 A.2d 305, 308 (1967).

We are unable to say as a matter of law that all reasonable minds would conclude that the plaintiffs' actions constituted the sole proximate cause of the accident. The record establishes that it was dark and that both drivers did not see the warning devices or each other's headlights. Other than this testimony, the evidence and exhibits presented at trial addressed daytime visibility. There was the distinct possibility that drivers unfamiliar with the intersection would pass through it at a high rate of speed. Mrs. St. Pierre was not familiar with the intersection, nor was she aware that it was normally controlled by a traffic signal. Defendant's witness conceded that sawhorse warning devices are generally used to mark potholes or hazards in the road rather than to draw attention to malfunctioning traffic signals.

Although the jury could reasonably have decided that the sole proximate cause of the accident was the plaintiffs' failure to be more observant in proceeding through the intersection, we conclude that reasonable minds could determine also that defendant's actions were a proximate cause of this accident. Thus, this matter was properly within the province of the jury to decide, and we find no error in the trial court's refusal to direct a verdict for the defendant.

We cannot agree with the assertion in Chief Justice Billings' dissent that the State owed no duty to the plaintiffs in this case. 1 The dissent maintains that an intersection with a traffic light that is emitting no signals is indistinguishable from an unregulated intersection[147 Vt. 165] and that the State therefore had no legal duty to regulate the flow of traffic through this intersection.

The only authority cited for this proposition is a New Jersey case, Hoy v. Capelli, 48 N.J. 81, 222 A.2d 649 (1966), where a traffic signal had been completely removed nearly two months prior to the accident under litigation. In that case, the court's decision "provided immunity for the discretionary municipal action of determining whether or not to place ordinary traffic control devices at a particular intersection." Shuttleworth v. Conti Construction Co., 193 N.J.Super. 469, 472, 475 A.2d 48, 50 (1984).

We agree that the State may have had no legal duty to suspend a traffic control light

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above the intersection of Berlin Street and State Aid Highway 62 in order to regulate the flow of vehicular traffic. Once the State, however, in the exercise of its discretion, decided that there was a need to control traffic at the intersection by means of a traffic light, it had a duty to erect and maintain this mechanical device in a manner that would reasonably provide for the protection of the public. 2 See Smith v. City of Preston, 97 Idaho 295, 298, 543 P.2d 848, 851 (1975); Baran v. City of Chicago Heights, 43 Ill.2d 177, 180, 251 N.E.2d 227, 229 (1969); Firkus v. Rombalski, 25 Wis.2d 352, 358, 130 N.W.2d 835, 838 (1964).

When the signal malfunctioned and the State put up its emergency traffic control devices, it had a duty to do so in a careful and prudent manner, so as not to create an unreasonable risk of harm to motorists approaching...

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26 practice notes
  • Goldberg v. Quiros, Case No. 2:17-cv-00061
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. District of Vermont
    • 10 Febrero 2020
    ...cannot draw different conclusions or where all reasonable minds would construe the facts and circumstances one way." Roberts v. State, 514 A.2d 694, 696 (Vt. 1986) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Bacon v. United States, 104 F. App'x 208, 209 (2d Cir. 2004) (summary order) ("Typ......
  • Goldberg v. Dufour, Case No. 2:17-cv-00061
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. District of Vermont
    • 23 Enero 2020
    ...cannot draw different conclusions or where all reasonable minds would construe the facts and circumstances one way." Roberts v. State, 514 A.2d 694, 696 (Vt. 1986) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Bacon v. United States, 104 F. App'x 208, 209 (2d Cir. 2004) (summary order) ("Typ......
  • Leavitt v. Ethicon, Inc., Case No. 2:20-cv-00176
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. District of Vermont
    • 9 Marzo 2021
    ...draw different conclusions or where all reasonable minds would construe the facts and circumstances one way") (quoting Roberts v. State , 147 Vt. 160, 514 A.2d 694, 696 (1986) ) (internal quotation marks omitted). Defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ failure to war......
  • Stocker v. State, 20-081
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • 3 Septiembre 2021
    ...cannot draw different conclusions or where all reasonable minds would construe the facts and circumstances one way." Roberts v. State, 147 Vt. 160, 163, 514 A.2d 694, 696 (1986) (quotation omitted). This Court has recognized that a jury can permissibly infer that DCF's failure to act on rep......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
26 cases
  • Goldberg v. Quiros, Case No. 2:17-cv-00061
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. District of Vermont
    • 10 Febrero 2020
    ...cannot draw different conclusions or where all reasonable minds would construe the facts and circumstances one way." Roberts v. State, 514 A.2d 694, 696 (Vt. 1986) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Bacon v. United States, 104 F. App'x 208, 209 (2d Cir. 2004) (summary order) ("Typ......
  • Goldberg v. Dufour, Case No. 2:17-cv-00061
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. District of Vermont
    • 23 Enero 2020
    ...cannot draw different conclusions or where all reasonable minds would construe the facts and circumstances one way." Roberts v. State, 514 A.2d 694, 696 (Vt. 1986) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Bacon v. United States, 104 F. App'x 208, 209 (2d Cir. 2004) (summary order) ("Typ......
  • Leavitt v. Ethicon, Inc., Case No. 2:20-cv-00176
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. District of Vermont
    • 9 Marzo 2021
    ...draw different conclusions or where all reasonable minds would construe the facts and circumstances one way") (quoting Roberts v. State , 147 Vt. 160, 514 A.2d 694, 696 (1986) ) (internal quotation marks omitted). Defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ failure to war......
  • Stocker v. State, 20-081
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • 3 Septiembre 2021
    ...cannot draw different conclusions or where all reasonable minds would construe the facts and circumstances one way." Roberts v. State, 147 Vt. 160, 163, 514 A.2d 694, 696 (1986) (quotation omitted). This Court has recognized that a jury can permissibly infer that DCF's failure to act on rep......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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