State v. Guinn, 2451

Citation555 P.2d 530
Decision Date15 September 1976
Docket NumberNo. 2451,2451
PartiesSTATE of Alaska, Appellant, v. Mary GUINN, Administratrix of the Estate of Robert Eric Guinn, Appellee.
CourtSupreme Court of Alaska (US)



Chena Hot Springs Road is a two-lane public highway northeast of the city of Fairbanks running in an east-west direction. Due to climatic conditions, during the winter of 1969-70 a number of vehicles were parked on the shoulders of this road. To avoid these and other obstacles, drivers customarily left their lane of travel and traveled down the middle of the road. Those familiar with the conditions on the road that winter became accustomed to the hazards along it and anticipated them in their actions. One resident described the condition of Chena Hot Springs Road that winter as 'personalized.'

A regular traveler of the road that winter was the decedent in this case, Robert Guinn. Guinn resided at 18-mile Chena Hot Springs Road, and his occupation as an airlines operations agent in Fairbanks required him to drive the highway twice a day, seven days a week. Customarily Guinn would work an eight-hour shift from the early afternoon until 11:00 or 11:30 in the evening, after which he usually remained in town to pay a social visit on friends or pursue his hobby as a musician. The decedent would retrace his route along the Chena Hot Springs Road to his home at two or three o'clock each morning.

The congestion caused by the parked vehicles and snow accumulation along the road prompted a number of complaints to the State Troopers. In response to one such complaint, Trooper David Kaiser was dispatched to the Chena Hot Springs Road on December 9, 1970. He inventoried the first 13 miles of the highway and found a total of seven vehicles parked along it. Among them was a Ford flatbed truck on the north side of the road in the westbound lane. This truck extended eight feet into the traveled portion of the road, and the state had plowed snow around the vehicle, creating an additional two-foot berm. The truck was virtually covered with snow and quite difficult to see at night. It had been at that location for at least three weeks prior to the trooper's inventory.

Trooper Kaiser contacted Sam McGee, who claimed responsibility for the truck (although it was actually owned by his son) and stated that he was in the process of removing it from the road. The trooper advised McGee that unless it was removed the vehicle would be impounded, but he took no further action. Later that day McGee was incarcerated in Fairbanks on a misdemeanor charge and was unable to effectuate the removal of the flatbed truck.

Early on the morning of December 11, 1970, Robert Guinn was found dead in the wreckage of his automobile at approximately Mile 10 1/2 of Chena Hot Springs Road. Guinn's auto had collided with the McGee truck as he was driving east from Fairbanks toward his home. A reconstruction of the accident revealed that at the time of impact Guinn's vehicle had left the eastbound lane and had been traveling in the middle of the road, with three-fourths of the vehicle located to the left of the centerline. Expert testimony presented at trial conflicted, placing the speed of the Guinn vehicle at the moment of impact somewhere in the range of 36 to 75 miles per hour. An autopsy disclosed alcohol levels in the blood and urine which would normally have required the consumption of three bottles of beer or three standard alcoholic drinks. Guinn had also eaten not long before the accident.

An action was commenced by appellee Mary Guinn, administratrix of the decedent's estate, alleging that the death of Robert Guinn was proximately caused by the negligence of Mack McGee, the owner of the truck, and the negligence of the State of Alaska. McGee was asserted to have been negligent in parking his vehicle where he did and leaving it at that location. The State was allegedly negligent in and for maintaining the highway in a negligent manner. The administratrix sought damages for herself as the surviving widow and on behalf of Celeste Guinn as a surviving daughter, for those items compensable under the terms of the Alaska Wrongful Death Statute, AS 09.55.580. McGee and the State denied that they were negligent and asserted that the decedent's death was proximately caused by his own contributory negligence.

A non-jury trial was had in the superior court. In a memorandum decision the superior court found that the negligence of each defendant had been a proximate cause of the death of Robert Guinn and that Guinn had not been contributorily negligent. The superior court awarded damages jointly and severally against McGee and the State in the amount of $898,623, of which $654,398.58 was attributed to the surviving spouse and $244,224.42 was attributed to the surviving daughter.

The State of Alaska now pursues this appeal, raising numerous specifications of error. McGee has not appealed.

The Finding of Breach of Duty by the State.

The superior court found that the State had a duty to exercise reasonable care in maintaining the Chena Hot Springs Road and that it had breached that duty at the time of the accident. Appellant challenges the finding that it had breached the duty of due care, contending that the evidence established that the road was reasonably safe for drivers exercising ordinary care.

The question whether the duty of due care has been breached is ordinarily a question for the finder of fact. 1 The finding of breach by the judge in a trial without jury will not be disturbed by this court unless it is 'clearly erroneous.' 2 It is well established that a finding is clearly erroneous only when, although there may be evidence to support it, the court is left with the definite and firm conviction on the entire record that a mistake has been committed. 3

In State v. Abbott, 498 P.2d 712, 724-26 (Alaska 1972), this court announced that the State of Alaska has a duty to exercise reasonable care to maintain Alaska's roads in a safe condition. 4 This duty of care to users of the highway is defined by ordinary negligence principles. 5 In Abbott we approvied the description of that duty set forth in the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 349, comment b (1965):

The duty of maintaining a highway in a condition safe for travel . . . includes not only a duty to maintain the surface of the highway in a condition reasonably safe for travel, but also a duty of warning the traveling public of any other condition which endangers travel, whether caused by a force of nature, such as snow and ice, or by the act of third persons, such as a ditch dug in the sidewalk or roadway or an obstruction placed upon it. (emphasis added)

The duty would also encompass the obligation to repair or remove such obstructions where failure to do so would expose travelers to an unreasonable risk of harm.

The Abbott opinion also set forth the proof necessary to establish that the State's conduct fell below the duty of due care:

In order for a plaintiff to show that the state exposed him to an unreasonable risk of harm he would have to demonstrate that the likelihood and gravity of the harm threatened outweighed the utility of the state's conduct and the burden on the state for removing the danger. 6

It is our conclusion that there was ample evidence to support the superior court's determination that the State had been negligent.

The likelihood of the physical injury to a motorist attributable to the encroaching McGee truck was not insubstantial. Appellant concedes that the truck occupied at least one-half of the westbound lane, and evidence adduced by appellee supports the trial judge's conclusion that the truck intruded eight feet into the 11-foot wide lane. Testimony further showed that the State's road plowing operation augmented the existing hazard by compacting an additional two-foot berm of snow around the truck. Several witnesses testified that the truck was virtually covered with snow and very difficult to see at night. There was also evidence that the road surface was extremely slick. At least three witnesses testified to near collisions at the scene of the protruding, buried truck, and others detailed the circumstances which led them to conclude that the situation was 'hazardous.' Thus, we are of the opinion that there was more than sufficient evidence to support the trial judge's conclusion that the McGee truck constituted a 'serious hazard.'

The superior court found that the truck had been parked on Chena Hot Springs Road for at least three weeks prior to the accident. The testimony of at least three witnesses goes to establish that fact. There was evidence adduced that, prior to the accident, as many as six motorist complaints were filed with the state troopers drawing the hazardous condition of the road to their attention. The first of these was apparently lodged two weeks prior to Guinn's death. 7

From these considerations the trial court was entirely warranted in concluding that a reasonably prudent person in the State's position would have foreseen a real probability of significant harm to a motorist on the Chena Hot Springs Road if the McGee truck was left in its dangerous location for any substantial length of time. It has been said that conduct is negligent only if it creates an unreasonable risk of harm to a class of persons which includes the plaintiff and subjects that class to the hazard which ultimately injures the plaintiff. In other words, the law of negligence protects only from foreseeable risks of harm. 8 Under the circumstances of this case, we hold that the trial judge properly concluded that the McGee truck posed for motorists...

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    ...the market interest rate was deemed to be offset by price inflation and all other sources of future wage increases. In State v. Guinn, 555 P.2d 530 (Alaska 1976), the Beaulieu approach was refined slightly. In that case, the plaintiff had offered evidence of "small, automatic increases in t......
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    ...... variant of the evidentiary method was adopted by the Alaska. Supreme Court in Beaulieu v. Elliott, 434 P.2d 665. (1967), and refined in State v. Guinn, 555 P.2d 530. (1976). Pursuant to this formula, the Alaska courts first. calculate lost future earning capacity of the victim over his. ......
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