Rosenblum v. Griffin

Decision Date01 March 1938
Citation197 A. 701
PartiesROSENBLUM et al. v. GRIFFIN, Com'r of Motor Vehicles. GOREY v. SAME.
CourtNew Hampshire Supreme Court

Mandamus proceedings by Morris Rosenblum and another to require John F. Griffin, Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, to reissue a registration license of a motortruck and its driver's operating license, and by Alfred J. Gorey to require defendant to issue a registration license of a motortruck.

Petition of Rosenblum and another dismissed, and petition of Gorey granted.

Petitions, for mandamus, to require the defendant in the Rosenblum case to reissue a registration license of a motortruck and its driver's operating license, and in the Gorey case to issue a registration license of a motortruck.

The Rosenblum truck while in use on a highway in Manchester was damaged by collision with another truck, through the fault of the latter's driver. No fault of the driver of the Rosenblum truck is charged. On report of the collision the defendant suspended the registration license for the truck and its driver's license to operate. Passengers were on the truck at the time of the collision. Its owners carried no liability insurance for its operation.

The defendant has refused to reissue the registration and driving licenses, until releases from liability from the passengers are produced or the security furnished for which Laws 1937, c. 161, provides. Neither the releases nor the security could be obtained.

In the Gorey case the plaintiff has a truck on which a conditional sale lien for part of the purchase price is in force. He carries no liability insurance of the character provided by Laws 1937, c. 161. The defendant has refused to issue a registration license for the truck until the plaintiff complies with Laws 1937, c. 208.

The constitutional issue involved was transferred by Burque, C. J., without ruling.

Sullivan & Sullivan, of Manchester (John L. Sullivan, of Manchester, orally), for plaintiffs. Thomas P. Cheney, Atty. Gen., Frank R. Kenison, Asst. Atty. Gen., and J. Blanche Newhall, of Concord (Mr. Kenison orally), for defendant.

ALLEN, Chief Justice.

The attacked act, Laws 1937, c. 161, is designed to induce operators of motor vehicles to establish financial responsibility to meet their possible liability for damages arising from accidents met with by their vehicles while being operated. The inducement is the alternative of suspension, and denial of renewal, of registration and operating licenses until proof of such responsibility is furnished not only to meet liability arising from an accident occurred but also to meet liability for all operation thenceforth.

The test of an accident without regard to fault or a charge of fault as the occasion for giving the law operative effect is in some aspects an arbitrary one. It discriminates among innocent persons between those escaping and those not escaping accident. A car owner or operator fortunate enough not to be struck by a negligent driver need not, while one who in spite of all possible care does not escape must, furnish security. Proper operation is immaterial and innocent misfortune is penalized. To use an appropriate expression, insult is added to injury.

But the act is not fairly susceptible of a more equitable construction. The important section (6) reads as follows "Upon receipt by him of the report of an accident which has resulted in bodily injury or death, or in damage to property in excess of twenty-five dollars, the commissioner shall forthwith suspend the license of any person operating, and the registration certificates and registration plates of any person owning, a motor vehicle, * * * in any manner involved in such accident unless and until such operator or owner or both shall have previously furnished or immediately furnishes sufficient security to satisfy any * * * judgments for damages resulting from such accident as may be recovered against such owner or operator by or on behalf of the aggrieved person or his legal representative, and unless and until such owner or operator or both shall immediately give and thereafter maintain proof of financial responsibility in the future."

The commissioner is to issue the orders of suspension "forthwith" upon receipt of the report. The report may contain no statement indicating fault of the owner or operator whose licenses are to be suspended and may even exonerate the operator from fault. The duty of the commissioner to suspend only upon a provisional judicial finding of negligence (Laws 1927, c. 54, § 3), or upon his own investigation leading to such a finding (Laws 1929, c. 189, § § 1, 2), no longer exists; a section (28) of the act repealing those laws. The descriptive phrase of a motor vehicle "involved in such accident" might by itself imply a charge of liability, and thus cover more than fortuitous circumstances. But reference to other sections shows that no such meaning inheres in the phrase. The same phrase is employed in other sections of the act, in which the expression clearly excludes the need of fault. By one section (5) reports are to be furnished by any operator of a car thus involved, and the requirement of reports under previous legislation (P.L. c. 102, § 17; Laws 1931, c. 84, § 1) has always been understood to apply to operators meeting with accident, regardless of their fault. By another section (10), even if no claim or suit is brought against the owner or operator of a car thus involved, no suspension of a license shall be discharged nor shall it be renewed until proof of financial responsibility shall be given and thereafter maintained. While in the considered section there is reference to "the aggrieved" person, and while such a person is one claiming legal liability for damages he sustains, yet it is not a condition of the act that some person sustaining damages in an accident shall be aggrieved. If the commissioner were not to suspend licenses until he had notice of a claim of liability, in many cases he could not suspend forthwith upon receiving report of an accident.

From a practical standpoint, if there is fault for an accident, it is reasonable that suspension should follow, and immediately. But provisional finding of fault is indecisive and much less is a charge or claim of fault. Unless in a case where the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur might be invoked, an accident of itself is no evidence of liability for it, and a charge of liability has no tendency to prove it. The determination of a contested claim of fault is usually after a substantial length of time subsequent to the accident. The development of the legislation in meeting the problem of prospective liability, either probable or possible, for an accident, has led to the final policy of ignoring it as a test of suspension.

It may with reason be thought unjust that unless an operator is actually at fault for an accident, either he or the owner, if not the operator, should lose his license. However, there is equality between them and all others meeting with accident for which they are not liable. The inequality is with those fortunate to escape accident. But though the act thus produces hardship, it establishes conditions which are definite and conclusive in meeting the need of prompt action. In some measure the suspensions are in analogy with mesne attachments, arrests on mesne process, and recognizances to keep the peace.

Considering the constitutionality of the act as thus construed, in Re Opinion of the Justices, 81 N.H. 566, 129 A. 117, 39 A. L.R. 1023, the view was taken that highway use of a motor vehicle may not be permitted until the owner's financial ability by insurance protection or otherwise, to meet liability arising out of its operation is established. As therein stated, 81 N.H. 566, at page 568, 129 A. 117, 119, 39 A.L.R. 1023: "A general requirement that a motor vehicle may be operated upon the public highways only when adequate provision has been made for compensation to persons injured because of fault in such operation is a valid law."

Two reasons were thought to avail for sustaining such a law. One was its character as a regulation of the use of public highways, and the other was its capacity to secure public safety in dangerous agencies and operations. This latter reason has slight if any evidence for its factual support. Certainly, in the absence of known experience and statistics, it is doubtful whether the insured owner's car, driven either by himself or another, may be considered to be operated more carefully than one whose owner is uninsured. But protection in securing redress for injured highway travelers is a proper subject of police regulation, as well as protection from being injured. It is a reasonable incident of the general welfare that financially irresponsible persons be denied the use of the highway with their cars, regardless of the competency of themselves or others as the drivers.

With this qualification of the reasons for its validity, the advice to the Senate in that opinion that such legislation as was therein considered is in its general scheme constitutional has persuasive force (In re Opinion of the Justices, 84 N.H. 559, 582, 149 A. 321) to authorize its adoption as declaratory of the law.

Since legislation requiring insurance or other security as a condition of the right to operate a motor vehicle on the highways is valid, the compulsion may be limited to depend upon contingencies.

If from the standpoint of discrimination the distinction as harsh, casual, and unfair were admitted, there is error of reasoning in assuming the case to be one of classification. The law from the constitutional viewpoint is not a regulation of a guaranteed right, but a definement of the terms of a grant. In State v. Sterrin, 78 N. H. 220, 98 A. 482, it was held that the act requiring information to be furnished by an operator of a motor vehicle when injury...

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