In Smith v. Wells, 2019 PA Super 181, the Superior Court reversed a trial court’s decision to uphold a jury decision that was against the law.
Plaintiff Richard Smith was traveling on the Pennsylvania Turnpike when saw braking ahead. He successfully brought his vehicle to a complete stop within the assured clear distance between his vehicle and the car ahead. However, Defendant Andrew J. Wells, who was driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee behind Mr. Smith’s Buick, did not. Mr. Wells admitted that he did not see the illuminate brake lights of Mr. Smith’s vehicle until it was too late. He also stated, “I didn’t stop quick enough, I guess, and rear-ended the car in front of me.” As a result Mr. Wells’ Jeep rear-ended Mr. Smith’s Buick, and propelled it into the stopped car that was in front of Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith filed suit against Mr. Wells for physical injuries he claims resulted from the accident. At trial, Mr. Wells’ attorney, in his opening statement to the jury, stated that the collision was Mr. Wells’ “fault . . . no question about it.” Thereafter, the evidence introduced at trial, and defense counsel’s closing remarks focused on whether Mr. Smith was actually injured by the wreck. The defense’s theory was that Mr. Smith suffered from pre-existing injuries, which resulted from three (3) prior automobile accidents. At no point during trial did Mr. Wells defend his conduct in operating his vehicle. Accordingly, Mr. Smith asked the trial court to instruct the jury that Mr. Wells negligently drove his vehicle and so breached the standard of care as a matter of law. The trial court denied that motion and authored a verdict slip asking the jury to determine whether Mr. Smith was negligent. Surprisingly, the jury’s response to this question was in the negative.
Mr. Smith moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) on the question of negligence, essentially arguing that the jury’s verdict was contrary to the law. The trial court denied Mr. Smith’s request. Thereafter, Mr. Smith filed a post-trial motion seeking the same result. After the trial court denied Mr. Smith’s post-trial motion, Mr. Smith appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court asking them to decide whether “the evidence . . . established Mr. Wells’ negligence warranting a directed verdict or judgment notwithstanding the verdict.
A plaintiff must prove four things in a negligence action: (1) a duty to act or not act within “a reasonable standard of conduct for the protection of others against unreasonable risks”; (2) breach of that duty; (3) a “close, causal connection between the conduct and the resulting injury”; and (4) harm to the plaintiff. W. Prosser, LAW OF TORTS § 30 at 143 (4th ed. 1971). By returning a verdict of no negligence, the jury exculpated Mr. Wells on the second element and found that he had conformed his conduct to the standard of reasonable care.
The trial court relied upon Cirquitella v. C. C. Callaghan, Inc., 200 A. 588 (Pa. 1938) in denying Mr. Smith’s motion for JNOV. In Cirquitella, the defendant was following 20 feet behind a funeral procession at about eight to ten miles per hour through city streets. “The day was cold, and snow and ice were upon the street.” The Superior Court determined that Cirquitella offered little insight into how drivers should conduct themselves, during rush hour, on the Turnpike, in the 21st century. Moreover, the Court noted the PA Motor Vehicle Code, 75 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 101 – 9805, including the concept of negligence per se did not exist when the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided Cirquitella. Furthermore, the Court made clear, despite the Cirquitella holding that:
the mere happening of a rear-end collision does not [at common law] constitute negligence as a matter of law on the part of the [driver] in the rear . . . the manner in which an accident occurs is a circumstance to be considered in determining the issue of negligence. Where, as here, a vehicle has been struck in the rear while slowing for a traffic signal, there is an inference to be drawn that the driver of the offending vehicle either was not sufficiently vigilant or failed to have his vehicle under such control that he could bring it to a stop within the assured clear distance ahead.
Cianci v. Burwell, 445 A.2d 809, 810 (Pa. Super. 1982). The Cianci Court further explained that a driver who rear-ends a car may inculpate himself by his own words; and, that Mr. Wells did so in this case.
Finally, the Court analyzed 72 Pa.C.S.A. § 3361, which states:
No person shall drive a vehicle at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard to the actual and potential hazards then existing, nor at a speed greater than will permit the driver to bring his vehicle to a stop within the assured clear distance ahead. Consistent with the foregoing, every person shall drive at a safe and appropriate speed when approaching and crossing an intersection or railroad grade crossing, when approaching and going around a curve, when approaching a hill crest, when traveling upon any narrow or winding roadway and when special hazards exist with respect to pedestrians or other traffic or by reason of weather or highway conditions.
The Court held that by its plan language, this clause prohibits anyone from driving at any “speed greater than will permit the driver to bring his vehicle to a stop within the assured clear distance ahead.” Ultimately, the Court held that Mr. Wells drove at a speed that made it impossible for him to stop his vehicle within the assured clear distance ahead; and, that the trial court erred in its statutory construction when it did not find Mr. Wells’ violation of second clause of Section 3361 to be negligence per se. Consequently, the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s decision regarding the JNOV, and remanded the case back to the trial court for a new trial on causation and damages, only.