Silver v. Silver

CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
Citation143 A. 240,108 Conn. 371
Decision Date28 September 1928

143 A. 240

108 Conn. 371


Supreme Court of Errors of Connecticut.

September 28, 1928

Appeal from Superior Court, New Haven County; Earnest C. Simpson, Judge.

Action by Mae Silver against Benjamin Silver, to recover damages for personal injuries alleged to have been caused by defendant's negligence, tried to the jury. The court directed a verdict for defendant. From the judgment rendered thereon, plaintiff appeals. No error.

Wheeler, C.J., and Haines, J., dissenting. [143 A. 241]

[108 Conn. 373] David M. Reilly and Herman Levine, both of New Haven, for appellant.

William L. Hadden, Ellsworth B. Foote, and David E. FitzGerald, all of New Haven, for appellee.

Argued before WHEELER, C.J., and MALTBIE, HAINES, HINMAN, and BANKS, JJ.


The jury could reasonably have found the following facts: The plaintiff is the wife of the defendant and upon his invitation was a passenger in an automobile operated by him. There was considerable traffic upon the road in both directions and the defendant was driving in the line of traffic behind a number of other cars at a speed of between 15 and 20 miles an hour. His son was in the rear seat of the car and called out, " Oh, daddy, look at the horses," at the same time pointing to some horses that were being ridden in a vacant lot upon the right side of the road. The defendant turned and looked to the right and immediately crashed into a car which had been proceeding about 15 feet in front of him, as a result of which the plaintiff received the injuries for which she seeks to recover. The defendant was called as a witness by the plaintiff and testified on her behalf. There was no conflict between the evidence of the plaintiff and that of the defendant as to how the accident happened and their evidence was the only evidence in the case as to the conduct of the defendant. [108 Conn. 374] At the close of the plaintiff's case the court directed a verdict in favor of the defendant upon two grounds: (1) that the plaintiff had failed to prove that the act of the defendant in inadvertently looking to the right was the proximate cause of her injuries; and (2) that the collision was not caused by the defendant's " heedlessness or his reckless disregard of the rights of others." The only evidence as to the operation of the cars in front of defendant's car was that of the occupant of the third car ahead of his car that the traffic had stopped and her car was standing still when it was struck from the rear. Upon the evidence before it we think the jury might reasonably have reached the conclusion that the act of the defendant in looking to the right was the proximate cause of the collision and that the court was not justified in directing a verdict for the defendant upon the first ground stated. Its direction of a verdict for the defendant upon the second ground stated was based upon the court's construction, and application to the facts of this case, of the provisions of chapter 308 of the Public Acts of 1927, which is entitled:

" An act releasing owners of motor vehicles from responsibility for injuries to passengers therein."

Section 1 of the act read as follows:

" No person transported by the owner or operator of a motor vehicle as his guest without payment for such transportation shall have a cause of action for damages against such owner or operator for injury, death or loss, in case of accident, unless such accident shall have been intentional on the part of said owner or operator or caused by his heedlessness or his reckless disregard of the rights of others."

That a wife riding in her husband's car at his invitation is a guest within the meaning of the statute is not questioned by the defendant. We had held, in line with the weight of authority elsewhere, that the owner of an automobile who invites a [108 Conn. 375] guest to ride with him is bound to exercise ordinary or reasonable care in the operation of the vehicle and is liable to the guest who is injured as a result of his failure in this duty. Dickerson v. Connecticut Co., 98 Conn. 87, 118 A. 518. The statute which we have quoted relieves the owner or operator of such vehicle from any liability to a guest for damages resulting from its operation, unless the accident causing them was " intentional on the part of said owner or operator or caused by his heedlessness or his reckless disregard of the rights of others." It is the contention of the plaintiff that the statute effects no change in the liability of the owner or operator to his guest, and that the former is still liable if the accident is caused by his " heedlessness" which the plaintiff claims is the equivalent in meaning of carelessness or negligence. She further [143 A. 242] claims that, if the statute should be construed as exempting from liability for ordinary negligence, it would then be unconstitutional, because it is an unjust discrimination between persons of the same class. The word " heedlessness" signifies a failure to take heed and is a synonym of carelessness. Standing by itself it connotes a lack of care substantially identical with that indicated by the word " negligence."

The question for our consideration, however, is not the meaning of a single word in an abstract sense, but its meaning with due regard to its context and the meaning of the entire phrase or sentence in which it appears. We must assume that the Legislature was familiar with the decisions of this court permitting a recovery by a guest in an automobile for injuries resulting from the negligence of the owner or operator, and that, when it undertook to legislate upon that subject, it was with the purpose of making some change in the existing law. Stamford v. Stamford, 107 Conn. 596, 141 A. 895. Such purpose is pretty clearly [108 Conn. 376] indicated in the title of the act and in the first clause of the first section, which provides that no guest shall have a cause of action against the owner or operator of the car in case of accident. Then follows a statement of the exceptions to the general rule:

" Unless such accident shall have been intentional on the part of said owner or operator or caused by his heedlessness or his reckless disregard of the rights of others."

If the phrase " or caused by his heedlessness" is to be taken as strictly disjunctive as by itself constituting an exception to the general rule of nonliability, and " heedlessness" is held to be synonymous with " negligence," the entire statute is nugatory and effects no change whatever in the law as it existed before its enactment. We do not think that is a sensible construction of the statute. It would utterly fail to effectuate the obvious purpose of the Legislature in some way to limit the liability of the owner or operator of a motor vehicle to one who was riding in it as his guest. The language of the statute indicates an intention to limit such liability to two classes of cases: First, when the accident was caused by intentional misconduct; and, second, when it was caused by heedless or reckless disregard of the rights of others, meaning thereby something more than the mere failure to exercise the care of a reasonably prudent man which is the familiar definition of negligence.

The plaintiff contends that the statute, if thus construed, denies to guests in motor vehicles the equal protection of the laws, and therefore violates constitutional guaranties. Legislation under the police power of the state is not confined to public health, safety, or morality, but may extend to matters in the interest of the public welfare or convenience. State v. Bassett, 100 Conn. 430, 123 A. 842, 37 A.L.R. 131. " A large discretion is necessarily vested in the Legislature to determine, not only what the interests of public convenience and [108 Conn. 377] welfare require, but what measures are necessary to secure such interests. Cotter v. Stoeckel, 97 Conn. 239, 244, 116 A. 248; Young v. Lemieux, 79 Conn. 434, 440, 65 A. 436, 600 [20 L.R.A. (N. S.) 160, 129 Am.St.Rep. 193, 8 Ann.Cas. 452]. The legislative department is the judge, within reasonable limits, to determine what public convenience and public welfare require, and the wisdom of its legislation is not the concern of the courts. It is our duty to sustain an act unless its invalidity is in our judgment beyond a reasonable doubt. Beach v. Bradstreet, 85 Conn. 344, 82 A. 1030 [Ann. Cas. 1913B, 146]; State v. Lay, 86 Conn. 141, 145, 84 A. 522; Cooper v. Telfair, 4 U.S. (4 Dall.) 14, 19 [1 L.Ed. 721]." State v. Bassett, supra, p. 432 of 100 Conn., 123 A. 843. That the state may under the police power regulate travel upon the public highways cannot be doubted. Jones v. Brim, 165 U.S. 180, 182, 17 S.Ct. 282, 41 L.Ed. 677. This includes the power to regulate the use of motor vehicles. Commonwealth v. Boyd, 188 Mass. 79, 74 N.E. 255, 108 Am.St.Rep. 464. " That the regulation of motor vehicles and motor vehicle traffic is a proper subject for legislative action under the police power is not questioned." Cotter v. Stoeckel, 97 Conn. 239, 244, 116 A. 248, 250. Ever since motor vehicles have come into general use they have been classified separately from horse-drawn vehicles and the power of the Legislature to impose upon their owners and operators duties not placed upon others has been generally upheld. Westfalls, etc.,...

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