Seals v. Hickey

CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
Citation441 A.2d 604,186 Conn. 337
PartiesHarold G. SEALS et al. v. Alan J. HICKEY et al.
Decision Date02 March 1982

Kevin T. Nixon, Naugatuck, with whom, on brief, was John E. Collela, Naugatuck, for appellants (named plaintiffs).

Joel T. Rottner, Hartford, with whom, on brief, was Joseph F. Skelley, Jr., Hartford, for appellee (defendant John Errichetti Co.).


ARTHUR H. HEALEY, Associate Justice.

This action was brought by the plaintiffs Harold Seals and his father, Lawrence Seals, for damages as a result of injuries received by Harold in an automobile accident on September 27, 1975, in Waterbury. 1 Harold was a passenger in an automobile, operated by the defendant Alan Hickey and owned by Alan's father, the defendant Donald Hickey, when it went out of control and struck a pole. The action was instituted against the defendants Hickey alleging negligent operation of the automobile, against the defendant state of Connecticut (through its commissioner of transportation) and the defendant city of Waterbury alleging a defective highway, against the defendant Armond Gentile d/b/a Gentile's Restaurant alleging violation of the Dram Shop Act and against the defendant John Errichetti Company (Errichetti) alleging negligence in allowing water to escape from its property thereby causing a dangerous condition on the highway. Prior to trial, the plaintiff Harold Seals settled with the defendants Alan Hickey, Donald Hickey, state of Connecticut and city of Waterbury, (hereinafter collectively referred to as the released defendants), for the total sum of $52,500. The action was withdrawn by both plaintiffs as to the released defendants.

The case went to trial before a jury as against the defendants Gentile and Errichetti. 2 The jury returned a verdict in favor of Harold Seals in the amount of $65,000 and a verdict in favor of Lawrence Seals in the amount of $20,000. The jury also returned a verdict in favor of the defendant Gentile.

After the verdict, Errichetti filed two motions: a motion for entry of judgment in accordance with its special defense referring to the payment of the $52,500 to the plaintiffs by the released defendants and a motion to set aside the verdict. 3 In the former motion, Errichetti moved "that the Court enter Judgment against said Defendant (Errichetti) in accordance with the jury verdict and in accordance with Connecticut General Statutes § 52-216(a) (sic); and that the Court reduce said verdict by the amount of fifty-two thousand five hundred dollars ($52,500) as already received by the Plaintiffs." As to the plaintiff Lawrence Seals, the court denied these motions "inasmuch as it was stipulated that none of the $52,500 paid by the released defendants was paid to him or for his benefit" 4 and it ordered judgment in his favor against Errichetti for the sum of $20,000. The court, however, granted the defendants' motion as to the plaintiff Harold Seals, ordering that "the verdict of $65,000 in his favor is hereby adjusted by deducting therefrom $52,500 and judgment may enter in his favor against the defendant Errichetti in the sum of $12,500 plus costs ...." It denied the motion to set aside the verdict stating that the deduction ($52,500) was properly considered under the motion for entry of judgment as well as for other reasons set out in its lengthy opinion on the post-trial motions. The plaintiff has appealed from the "entry of Judgment for the plaintiff Harold G. Seals on the defendant Errichetti's Motion to Enter Judgment according to its first Special Defense." 5

The plaintiff claims that the trial court erred: (1) in holding that General Statutes § 52-216a, 6 as interpreted by this court in Fritz v. Madow, 179 Conn. 269, 426 A.2d 268 (1979), is unconstitutional under the void for vagueness doctrine of the due process clause; and (2) in holding that the word "may," as it appears in § 52-216a, must be construed as meaning "shall" in order to uphold the constitutionality of § 52-216a. He also claims that § 52-216a as interpreted by Fritz v. Madow, supra, does not deny the defendant his right to a jury trial guaranteed by the Connecticut constitution.

We address first the claim of the plaintiff that § 52-216a as interpreted by Fritz is not unconstitutional under the void for vagueness doctrine thereby violating the due process clause. The trial court agreed with the defendant Errichetti that "any construction of § 52-216a which would grant a discretion to the trial judge to 'adjust' a jury verdict without standards would clearly render that portion of the statute unconstitutional under the void-for-vagueness doctrine." While recognizing that a judgment as to the vagueness of a state statute must be made in light of prior state court constructions of that statute; see e.g., Wainwright v. Stone, 414 U.S. 21, 22-23, 94 S.Ct. 190, 192, 38 L.Ed.2d 179 (1973); United States v. Vuitch, 402 U.S. 62, 71-72, 91 S.Ct. 1294, 1298-1299, 28 L.Ed.2d 601 (1971); Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Campbell, 463 Pa. 472, 483 n.7, 345 A.2d 616 (1975), cert. denied, 424 U.S. 926, 96 S.Ct. 1139, 47 L.Ed.2d 336 (1976); the trial court determined that Fritz gave "no such judicial gloss" to § 52-216a.

Courts have derived the void for vagueness doctrine from the constitutional guarantee of due process. See, e.g., Giaccio v. Pennsylvania, 382 U.S. 399, 402-403, 86 S.Ct. 518, 520-521, 15 L.Ed.2d 447 (1966); Lanzetta v. New Jersey, 306 U.S. 451, 59 S.Ct. 618, 83 L.Ed. 888 (1939). See generally "The Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine in the Supreme Court," 109 U.Pa.L.Rev. 67 (1960). It can fairly be stated that "(a) vagueness attack stems from 'the exaction of obedience to a rule or standard which (is) so vague and indefinite as really to be no rule or standard at all.' A. B. Small Co. v. American Sugar Refining Co., (267 U.S. 233, 239, 45 S.Ct. 295, 297, 69 L.Ed. 589 (1925) )." State v. Anonymous, 179 Conn. 155, 163-64, 425 A.2d 939 (1979). We have noted that "(s)ince the accepted analysis of the so-called vagueness doctrine is, in large part, based upon considerations of the traditional due process requirements of notice and nondiscretionary standards, those two constitutional claims are, in reality, founded upon the same common premise and thus may be treated as one." McKinney v. Coventry, 176 Conn. 613, 616, 410 A.2d 453 (1979). In Connally v. General Construction Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391, 46 S.Ct. 126, 127, 70 L.Ed. 322 (1926), a case involving a statute imposing criminal sanctions for its violation, the United States Supreme Court succinctly explained the notice doctrine upon which the vagueness doctrine rests, stating: "(A) statute which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application violates the first essential of due process of law." McKinney v. Coventry, supra, 167 Conn. at 617, 410 A.2d 453. In short, "(d)ue process requires that a statute afford a person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is permitted or prohibited." McKinney v. Coventry, supra, 618, 410 A.2d 453 and cases cited therein. Under the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment, the vagueness doctrine is applicable to the enactments of state legislatures. See, e.g., Edgar A. Levy Leasing Co. v. Siegel, 258 U.S. 242, 42 S.Ct. 289, 66 L.Ed. 595 (1922). 7 Application of the vagueness standard to the statute before us is complicated by the general understanding, which we share, that civil statutes are required to demonstrate a lesser degree of specificity than are criminal statutes. See, e.g., Papachristou v. Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 162, 92 S.Ct. 839, 843, 31 L.Ed.2d 110 (1972); Winters v. New York, 333 U.S. 507, 515, 68 S.Ct. 665, 92 L.Ed. 840 (1948); Shobe v. Borders, 539 S.W.2d 330, 332 (Mo.App.1976). This is so even though the common-meaning standard applies to both. See, e.g., Jordan v. DeGeorge, 341 U.S. 223, 230-32, 71 S.Ct. 703, 707-708, 95 L.Ed. 886 (1951).

"The initial danger in a vague statute is the absence of fair warning." State v. Anonymous, supra, 179 Conn. at 164, 425 A.2d 939. Persons who may be affected by § 52-216a should be able to determine what conduct or procedure on the part of the court that may affect them is permitted or required by reference to the wording of the statute together with whatever judicial gloss may be available to interpret its wording. See, e.g., State v. Pickering, 180 Conn. 54, 64, 428 A.2d 322 (1980). The statute together with that judicial gloss, if any, must be reasonably specific and direct enough so as to afford a person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is permitted by this civil statute. We have pointed out that in order to repel a vagueness challenge, "a statute must state its standard with adequate clarity and mark sufficiently distinct boundaries for the law to be fairly administered. Lack of precision, however, is not, in or of itself, offensive to the requirement of due process. Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, (491-92,) 77 S.Ct. 1304, (1312-1313) 1 L.Ed.2d 1498 (1957)." State v. Anonymous, supra.

Our examination of § 52-216a together with the judicial gloss put on it by Fritz shows that what it permits is sufficiently clear. It is apparent from the statute itself that the evil intended to be avoided by its passage was the jury's knowledge of the existence of any release of claim or agreement not to sue, because such knowledge might tend to be prejudicial to a party to the action. This is thoroughly practical; Fritz recognized that such disclosure to the jury "was often more prejudicial than probative." Fritz v. Madow, supra, 179 Conn. at 273, 426 A.2d 268. On the statute's keeping such matters from the jury, we have said that it "expresses the better policy, removing whatever...

To continue reading

Request your trial
100 cases
  • State v. Santiago
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • 25 Agosto 2015
    ...that the [s]tate's power to punish 'be exercised within the limits of civilized standards' "). 50. The state relies on Seals v. Hickey, 186 Conn. 337, 441 A.2d 604 (1982), and Beach v. Bradstreet, 85 Conn. 344, 82 A. 1030 (1912), in its argument that the unconstitutional portion of P.A. 12-......
  • State v. Anderson, AC 35432
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • 30 Junio 2015
    ...dispositive, the defendant also cites Ex Parte Peterson, 253 U.S. 300, 310, 40 S. Ct. 543, 64 L. Ed. 919 (1920), Seals v. Hickey, 186 Conn. 337, 351, 441 A.2d 604 (1982), State v. Alonzo, 131 Conn. App. 1, 6, 26 A.3d 109, cert. denied, 303 Conn. 912, 32 A.3d 965 (2011), and Practice Book § ......
  • Keogh v. City of Bridgeport
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • 4 Mayo 1982
    ...e.g., A. B. Small Co. v. American Sugar Refining Co., 267 U.S. 233, 239, 45 S.Ct. 295, 297, 69 L.Ed. 589 (1925); Seals v. Hickey, 186 Conn. 337, 343, 441 A.2d 604 (1982); State v. Anonymous, 179 Conn. 155, 163, 425 A.2d 939 (1979); McKinney v. Coventry, supra, 176 Conn. 619, 410 A.2d 453. "......
  • State v. Santiago, SC17413
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • 25 Agosto 2015
    ...considerations: the legislature must have intended separability and the statute itself must be capable of separability." Seals v. Hickey, 186 Conn. 337, 353, 441 A.2d 604 (1982). Because we simply cannot know in the present case which portion of the act the legislature would prefer to sever......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT