Waugh v. Traxler

Decision Date13 December 1991
Docket NumberNo. 19947,19947
Citation412 S.E.2d 756,186 W.Va. 355
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
PartiesJay W. WAUGH and Roxanne Waugh, Plaintiffs Below, Appellants, v. Marva TRAXLER, Defendant Below, Appellee.

Syllabus by the Court

1. " ' "Questions of negligence, due care, proximate cause and concurrent negligence present issues of fact for jury determination when the evidence pertaining to such issues is conflicting or where the facts, even though undisputed, are such that reasonable men may draw different conclusions from them." Syl. pt. 1, Ratlief v. Yokum , 280 S.E.2d 584 (W.Va.1981), quoting, syl. pt. 5, Hatten v. Mason Realty Co., 148 W.Va. 380, 135 S.E.2d 236 (1964).' Syllabus Point 6, McAllister v. Weirton Hosp. Co., 173 W.Va. 75, 312 S.E.2d 738 (1983)." Syl. Pt. 17, Anderson v. Moulder, 183 W.Va. 77, 394 S.E.2d 61 (1990).

2. "Violation of a statute is prima facie evidence of negligence. In order to be actionable, such violation must be the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury." Syl.Pt. 1, Anderson v. Moulder, 183 W.Va. 77, 394 S.E.2d 61 (1990).

3. The prima facie presumption of negligence created upon violation of a traffic statute or safety regulation may be rebutted by evidence tending to show that the person violating the statute did what might reasonably have been expected of a person of ordinary prudence, acting under similar circumstances, who desired to comply with the law.

4. " 'In determining whether there is sufficient evidence to support a jury verdict the court should: (1) consider the evidence most favorable to the prevailing party; (2) assume that all conflicts in the evidence were resolved by the jury in favor of the prevailing party; (3) assume as proved all facts which the prevailing party's evidence tends to prove; and (4) give to the prevailing party the benefit of all favorable inferences which reasonably may be drawn from the facts proved.' Syllabus Point 5, Orr v. Crowder, 173 W.Va. 335, 315 S.E.2d 593 (1983), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 981, 105 S.Ct. 384, 83 L.Ed.2d 319 (1984)." Syl.Pt. 2, Jarvis v. Modern Woodmen of America, 185 W.Va. 305, 406 S.E.2d 736 (1991).

William B. Carey, Berkeley Springs, for appellants.

William Richard McCune, Jr., Dale Buck, Jackson & Kelly, Martinsburg, for appellee.

WORKMAN, Justice:

This is an appeal by Jay Waugh and his wife Roxanne Waugh from a final judgment of the Circuit Court of Morgan County, entered pursuant to a jury verdict, which found no negligence on the part of the appellee, Marva Traxler. The appellants contend that the lower court erred (1) by refusing to rule that Mrs. Traxler was guilty of negligence as a matter of law; (2) by instructing the jury that the plaintiffs had the burden of proof in proving negligence even after the plaintiffs have established a prima facie case of negligence; (3) by amending plaintiffs' instructions setting forth the legal duties of a driver to inform the jury that the duties were not absolute duties, just desired goals; and, (4) by ruling that Mrs. Waugh had no claim for which she could recover damages and that the appellee was not liable for punitive damages. We disagree with the contentions of the appellants, find no reversible error, and therefore affirm the decision of the Circuit Court of Morgan County.

I.

At approximately 11:30 a.m. on January 28, 1986, appellant Jay Waugh was driving in an easternly direction on a secondary road in Morgan County, West Virginia. Larry Waugh, his wife Tammy, and their son were also in the vehicle. The appellee was operating her automobile and proceeding in the opposite direction on the secondary road. The appellee's vehicle crossed the center line of the icy roadway and struck the appellants' oncoming vehicle. 1 Both vehicles were totaled, and three people, including the appellee Mrs. Traxler and two individuals in the appellants' vehicle, were injured.

Based upon the appellee's admission to the investigating officer that she had lost control of her vehicle, the appellants moved for a directed verdict at trial. The appellants argued that a prima facie presumption of negligence exists where an individual has violated traffic law and that the appellee was negligent as a matter of law. The lower court denied the appellants' motion for a directed verdict, and the case proceeded to trial. The jury found no negligence on the part of the appellee. The appellants filed a motion requesting the lower court to either (1) set aside the verdict and grant a directed verdict on the issue of negligence with a new trial on the issue of damages; or, (2) to grant a new trial on the issue of negligence and damages. The lower court denied the appellants' motion, and the appellants now appeal to this Court.

II.

The appellants first contend that the lower court erred in refusing to rule that the appellee Mrs. Traxler was guilty of negligence as a matter of law. The appellants emphasize four specific legal duties allegedly violated by the appellee. The appellants assert that a driver has a duty, first, to keep a lookout for oncoming traffic and other sources of danger; second, to drive in one's own lane of traffic except in certain situations such as parades, funerals, etc.; third, to drive at a safe and reasonable rate of speed considering all prevailing circumstances; and, fourth, to keep one's motor vehicle under control.

The appellant asserts that the second and third requirements are matters of statutory law contained in W.Va.Code § 17C-7-1 (1991) and § 17C-6-1 (1991), respectively. 2 Accepting those four principles as valid, it is apparent that at least two of them must be determined through subjective analysis of the facts. A determination of whether a lookout is kept for oncoming traffic, for instance, is largely a matter to be decided by a jury after hearing all testimony regarding the circumstances of the accident. Likewise, whether a speed, if within set speed limits, is "safe and reasonable ... considering all prevailing circumstances" is a matter correctly assigned to the jury for determination.

" ' "Questions of negligence, due care, proximate cause and concurrent negligence present issues of fact for jury determination when the evidence pertaining to such issues is conflicting or where the facts, even though undisputed, are such that reasonable men may draw different conclusions from them." Syl. Pt. 1, Ratlief v. Yokum ; 280 S.E.2d 584 (W.Va.1981), quoting, Syl. Pt. 5, Hatten v. Mason Realty Co., 148 W.Va. 380, 135 S.E.2d 236 (1964).' Syllabus Point 6, McAllister v. Weirton Hosp. Co., 173 W.Va. 75, 312 S.E.2d 738 (1983)." Syl.Pt. 17, Anderson v. Moulder, 183 W.Va. 77, 394 S.E.2d 61 (1990). The jury in the present case had an opportunity to hear the evidence presented and to weigh the credibility of the witnesses. It determined that no negligence existed on the part of the appellee, and we discern no justification for disturbing that determination.

With regard to the more objective principles, however, those of control and remaining in one's own lane of traffic, the undisputed evidence in this case indicates violation by the appellee of those statutes. Yet the violation itself, as the jury appears to have understood, is not the equivalent of negligence. As we have previously explained, "the violation of a statute is prima facie negligence and not negligence per se. " Spurlin v. Nardo, 145 W.Va. 408, 415, 114 S.E.2d 913, 918 (1960). In Flanagan v. Mott, 145 W.Va. 220, 226, 114 S.E.2d 331, 335 (1960), we explained that "[o]nly a rebuttable prima facie presumption of negligence arises on a showing that the statute was violated." Likewise, in syllabus point 1 of Anderson, 183 W.Va. at 79, 394 S.E.2d at 63, we stated that "[v]iolation of a statute is prima facie evidence of negligence. In order to be actionable, such violation must be the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury." See also Pickett v. Taylor, 178 W.Va. 805, 364 S.E.2d 818 (1987); Syl.Pt. 3, Oldfield v. Woodall, 113 W.Va. 35, 166 S.E. 691 (1932).

With specific reference to the statutory duty created by West Virginia Code § 17C-7-1(a) to drive "upon the right half of the roadway" except in certain circumstances irrelevant to this matter, we believe that the undisputed facts indicate a violation of the statute and the concomitant creation of a rebuttable prima facie presumption of negligence. However, the establishment of a prima facie presumption of negligence is only the beginning of the inquiry. The jury must next determine, from the facts presented, whether the presumption was effectively rebutted.

We have never squarely addressed the issue of what evidence a party must produce in order to overcome or rebut the presumption of negligence in the context of a traffic violation. However, in a more fact specific example of the rebuttal of a prima facie showing of negligence, we have explained that a licensee who sold beer to a minor in violation of West Virginia Code § 11-16-18(a)(3) may rebut the prima facie showing of negligence by "demonstrating that the purchaser appeared to be of age and that the vendor used reasonable means of identification to ascertain his age." Anderson, 183 W.Va. at 84, 394 S.E.2d at 68.

In Witham v. Norfolk & Western Ry. Co., 561 N.E.2d 484 (Ind.1990), the Supreme Court of Indiana encountered a situation wherein a motorist was injured when his automobile was struck by a train. In addressing an alleged violation of a traffic statute, the Witham court recognized the established principle that "[p]roof of the violation of a safety regulation creates a rebuttable presumption of negligence." Id. at 485. "However, the presumption may be rebutted by evidence that the person violating the statute 'did what might reasonably be expected of a person of ordinary prudence, acting under similar circumstances, who desired to comply with the law.' " Id. (quoting Davison v. Williams, 251 Ind. 448, 457, 242 N.E.2d 101, 105 (1968))....

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