Siegler v. Kuhlman, 41696

Decision Date15 November 1972
Docket NumberNo. 41696,41696
CourtWashington Supreme Court
PartiesMrs. Jacob SIEGLER, individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Carol J. House, Deceased, Petitioner, v. Aaron L. KUHLMAN et al., Respondents.

Fristoe, Taylor & Schultz, Ltd., P.S., Don W. Taylor, Olympia, for petitioner.

Davies, Pearson, Anderson & Gadbow, Alvin A. Anderson, Tacoma, for respondents.

HALE, Associate Justice.

Seventeen-year-old Carol J. House died in the flames of a gasoline explosion when her car encountered a pool of thousands of gallons of spilled gasoline. She was driving home from her after-school job in the early evening of November 22, 1967, along Capitol Lake Drive in Olympia; it was dark but dry; her car's headlamps were burning. There was a slight impact with some object, a muffled explosion, and then searing flames from gasoline pouring out of an overturned trailer tank engulfed her car. The result of the explosion is clear, but the real causes of what happened will remain something of an eternal mystery.

Aaron L. Kuhlman had been a truck driver for nearly 11 years after he completed the tenth grade in high school and after he had worked at other jobs for a few years. He had been driving for Pacific Intermountain Express for about 4 months, usually the night shift out of the Texaco bulk plant in Tumwater. That evening of November 22nd, he was scheduled to drive a gasoline truck and trailer unit, fully loaded with gasoline, from Tumwater to Port Angeles. Before leaving the Texaco plant, he inspected the trailer, checking the lights, hitch, air hoses and tires. Finding nothing wrong, he then set out, driving the fully loaded truck tank and trailer tank, stopping briefly at the Trail's End Cafe for a cup of coffee. It was just a few minutes after 6 p.m., and dark, but the roads were dry when he started the drive to deliver his cargo--3,800 gallons of gasoline in the truck tank and 4,800 gallons of gasoline in the trailer tank. With all vehicle and trailer running lights on, he drove the truck and trailer onto Interstate Highway 5, proceeded north on that freeway at about 50 miles per hour, he said, and took the offramp about 1 mile later to enter Highway 101 at the Capitol Lake interchange. Running downgrade on the offramp, he felt a jerk, looked into his left-hand mirror and then his right-hand mirror to see that the trailer lights were not in place. The trailer was still moving but leaning over hard, he observed, onto its right side. The trailer then came loose. Realizing that the tank trailer had disengaged from his tank truck, he stopped the truck without skidding its tires. He got out and ran back to see that the tank trailer had crashed through a chain-link highway fence and had come to rest upside down on Capitol Lake Drive below. He heard a sound, the said, 'like somebody kicking an empty fifty-gallon drum and that is when the fire started.' The fire spread, he throught, about 100 feet down the road.

The trailer was owned by defendant Pacific Intermountain Express. It had traveled about 329,000 miles prior to November 22, 1967, and had been driven by Mr. Kuhlman without incident down the particular underpass above Capitol Lake Drive about 50 times. When the trailer landed upside down on Capitol Lake Drive, its lights were out, and it was unilluminated when Carol House's car in one way or another ignited the spilled gasoline.

Carol House was burned to death in the flames. There was no evidence of impact on the vehicle she had drive Kuhlman said, except that the left front headlight was broken.

Why the tank trailer disengaged and catapulted off the freeway down through a chain-link fence to land upside down on Capitol Lake Drive below remains a mystery. What caused it to separate from the truck towing it, despite many theories offered in explanation, is still an enigma. Various theories as to the facts and cause were advanced in the trial. Plaintiff sought to prove both negligence on the part of the driver and owner of the vehicle and to bring the proven circumstances within the res ipsa loquitur doctrine. Defendants sought to obviate all inferences of negligence and the circumstances leading to the application of res ipsa loquitur by showing due care in inspection, maintenance and operation. Plaintiff argued negligence per se and requested a directed verdict on liability. On appeal, plaintiff relied in part on RCW 46.44.070 and RCW 46.61.655, 1 relating to the drawbar connecting trailer to truck, and provisions prohibiting a load from dropping, shifting, leaking or escaping from the vehicle.

The jury apparently found that defendants had met and overcome the charges of negligence. Defendants presented proof that both the truck, manufactured by Peterbilt, a division of Pacific Car and Foundry Company, and the tank and trailer, built by Fruehauf Company, had been constructed by experienced companies, and that the fifth wheel, connecting the two units and built by Silver Eagle Company, was the type of connecting unit used by 95 percent of the truck-trailer units. Defendants presented evidence that a most careful inspection would not have revealed the defects or fatigue in the metal connections between truck and trailer; that the trailer would not collapse unless both main springs failed; there was evidence that, when fully loaded, the tank could not touch the wheels of the tank trailer without breaking the springs because the maximum flexion of the springs was less than 1 inch. Defendants presented evidence that the drawbar was secure and firmly attached; that the tanks were built of aluminum to prevent sparks; and that, when fully loaded with 4,800 gallons of cargo, there would be 2 or 3 inches of space between the cargo and top of the tank; that two safety cables connected the two units; that the truck and trailer were regularly serviced and repaired, and records of this preserved and put in evidence; that the unit had been subject to Interstate Commerce Commission spot checks and conformed to ICC standards; and that, at the time of the accident, the unit had traveled less than one-third of the average service life of that kind of unit. There was evidence obtained at the site of the fire that both of the mainsprings above the tank trailer's front wheels had broken as a result of stress, not fatigue--from a kind of stress that could not be predicated by inspection--and finally that there was no negligence on the driver's part.

Defendants also presented some evidence of contributory negligence on the basis that Carol House, driving on a 35-mile-per-hour road, passed another vehicle at about 45 miles per hour and although she slacked speed somewhat before the explosion, she was traveling at the time of the impact in excess of the 35-mile-per-hour limit. The trial court submitted both contributory negligence and negligence to the jury, declared the maximum speed limit on Capitol Lake Drive to be 35 miles per hour, and told the jury that, although violation of a positive statute is negligence as a matter of law, it would not engender liability unless the violation proximately contributed to the injury. From a judgment entered upon a verdict for defendants, plaintiff appealed to the Court of Appeals which affirmed. 3 Wash.App. 231, 473 P.2d 445 (1970). We granted review (78 Wash.2d 991 (1970)), and reverse.

In the Court of Appeals, the principal claim of error was directed to the trial court's refusal to give an instruction on res ipsa loquitur, and we think that claim of error well taken. Our reasons for ruling that an instruction on res ipsa loquitur should have been given and that an inference of negligence could have been drawn from the event are found, we believe, in our statement on the subject: ZeBarth v. Swedish Hosp. Medical Center, 81 Wash.2d 12, 499 P.2d 1 (1972); Miles v. St. Regis Paper Co., 77 Wash.2d 828, 467 P.2d 307 (1970); Douglas v. Bussabarger, 73 Wash.2d 476, 438 P.2d 829 (1968); Pederson v. Dumouchel, 72 Wash.2d 73, 431 P.2d 973 (1967). We think, therefore, that plaintiff was entitled to an instruction permitting the jury to infer negligence from the occurrence.

But there exists here an even more impelling basis for liability in this case than its derivation by allowable inference of fact under the res ipsa loquitur doctrine, and that is the proposition of strict liability arising as a matter of law from all of the circumstances of the event.

Strict liablity is not a novel concept; it is at least as old as Fletcher v. Rylands, L.R. 1 Ex. 265, 278 (1866), affirmed, House of Lords, 3 H.L. 330 (1868). In that famous case, where water impounded in a reservoir on defendant's property escaped and damaged neighboring coal mines, the landowner who had impounded the water was held liable without proof of fault or negligence. Acknowledging a distinction between the natural and nonnatural use of land, and holding the maintenance of a reservoir to be a nonnatural use, the Court of Exchequer Chamber imposed a rule of strict liability on the landowner. The ratio decidendi included adoption of what is now called Strict liability, and at page 278 announced, we think, principles which should be applied in the instant case (T)he person who for his own purposes brings on his lands and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in at his peril, and, if he does not do so, is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape.

All of the Justices in Fletcher v. Rylands, Supra, did not draw a distinction between the natural and nonnatural use of land, but such a distinction would, we think, be irrelevant to the transportation of gasoline. The basic principles supporting the Fletcher doctrine, we think, control the transportation of gasoline as freight along the public highways the same as it does the impounding of waters and for largely the same...

To continue reading

Request your trial
61 cases
  • Schuck v. Beck
    • United States
    • Washington Court of Appeals
    • October 19, 2021
    ...four reasons. First, the defendant's activity destroyed evidence such that the plaintiff cannot prove negligence. Siegler v. Kuhlman , 81 Wash.2d 448, 502 P.2d 1181 (1972). Second, the law wishes to promote safer methods of engaging in the activity or to switch the location of the activity ......
  • Alverado v. Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS)
    • United States
    • Washington Supreme Court
    • July 15, 1988
    ...has inherent authority to consider issues not raised by the parties if necessary to reach a proper decision. See Siegler v. Kuhlman, 81 Wash.2d 448, 502 P.2d 1181 (1972), cert. denied, 411 U.S. 983, 93 S.Ct. 2275, 36 L.Ed.2d 959 (1973); RAP 12.1(b). It is proper to do so when there is no di......
  • City of Tacoma v. Luvene
    • United States
    • Washington Supreme Court
    • April 16, 1992
    ...issue. While we ordinarily only consider issues that have been raised by the parties, there are exceptions. Siegler v. Kuhlman, 81 Wash.2d 448, 502 P.2d 1181 (1972), cert. denied, 411 U.S. 983, 93 S.Ct. 2275, 36 L.Ed.2d 959 (1973). It is proper to do so when there is no dispute about the la......
  • Filo Foods, LLC v. City of Seatac
    • United States
    • Washington Supreme Court
    • August 20, 2015
    ...a proper decision.” Alverado v. Wash. Pub. Power Supply Sys., 111 Wash.2d 424, 429, 759 P.2d 427 (1988) (citing Siegler v. Kuhlman, 81 Wash.2d 448, 502 P.2d 1181 (1972) ). This is especially true in a case such as this where we are tasked with interpreting a statute. We read statutes togeth......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
10 books & journal articles
  • Table of authorities
    • United States
    • Introduction to environmental law: cases and materials on water pollution control - 2d Edition
    • July 23, 2017
    ...631 Siegler v. Kuhlman, 81 Wash. 2d 448, 502 P.2d 1181 (Wash. 1972) ........................... 18 State v. Hazelwood, 866 P.2d 827 (D. Alaska 1993) ................................................ 1030 Student Pub. Interest Research Group of N.J., Inc. v. Monsanto Co., No. 1988 WL 156691 (......
  • The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act: the correct paradigm of strict liability and the problem of individual causation.
    • United States
    • UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy Vol. 18 No. 2, December 2000
    • December 22, 2000
    ...319 N.W.2d 269, 270 (Iowa), opinion following certification, 693 F.2d 817 (8th Cir. 1982); Siegler v. Kuhlman, 81 Wash.2d 448, 456 502 P.2d 1181, 1185-86 (1972); New Meadows Holding Co. by Raugust v. Wash. Water Power Co., 102 Wash.2d 495, 502, 687 P.2d 212, 217 (Wash. 1984); see also Edwar......
  • Table of Cases
    • United States
    • Washington State Bar Association Washington Appellate Practice Deskbook (WSBA) Table of Cases
    • Invalid date
    ...P.3d 867 (2004): 12.7(15) Shumway v. Payne, 136 Wn.2d 383, 964 P.2d 349 (1998): 18.2(1), 20.9(2), 21.5, 24.7(12)(c) Siegler v. Kuhlman, 81 Wn.2d 448, 502 P.2d 1181 (1972), cert. denied, 411 U.S. 983 (1973): 11.4(3), 11.4(4), 16.2(2) Silva, In re, 166 Wn.2d 133, 206 P.3d 1240 (2009): 4.3(1)(......
  • § 11.4 Case Law Exceptions to The General Rule
    • United States
    • Washington State Bar Association Washington Appellate Practice Deskbook (WSBA) Chapter 11 Scope of Review and Preservation of Error in the Trial Court
    • Invalid date
    ...had been assigned, to determine whether the father had been deprived of all parental rights with respect to a child). Siegler v. Kuhlman, 81 Wn.2d 448, 502 P.2d 1181 (1972), cert. denied, 411 U.S. 983 (1973), was a personal injury case involving a minor plaintiff. The Supreme Court decided ......
  • 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