Liability for negligence arising from a breach of statute is unquestionable in terms of culpability, however when both parties have acted beyond their prescribed rights, it becomes a matter of priority in reaching summary judgment.
In dusk of August 21 1915, a husband and wife were entering a stretch of road in a wagon, that whilst doing so on a bend, was unequipped with lights, as required by s.286 of the New York Highway Laws 1909, which explained that:
“Every motor vehicle, operated or driven upon the public highways of this state…shall, during the period from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise, display at least two lighted lamps on the front and on the rear of such vehicle…”
It was at this point that a car driven by the now appellant collided with the wagon, killing the respondent’s husband. Upon litigation, the appellant remarked that he was unable to see the wagon, and thus had been straining to peer into the darkness at the time of the accident. In defence, the respondent argued that the inability to avoid the wagon constituted negligence under s.332(1) of the same Act, and which read:
“Whenever a person operating a motor vehicle shall meet on a public highway any other person riding or driving a horse or horses or other draft animals or any other vehicle, the person so operating such motor vehicle shall seasonably turn the same to the right of the centre of such highways so as to pass without interference.”
In the first instance, the jury upheld the respondent’s contention of negligent driving, while reducing the culpability of the deceased to that of contributory negligence when failing to upholster his vehicle with lights. The matter was then put before the Appellate Division, who reversed the judgment in favour of the appellant.
Challenged again, the New York Supreme Court examined the importance of statute, further noting that while both sections were essentially safeguarding the rights and lives of road users, the failure to install and use lights was by design, tantamount to absolute negligence, as had been found in both Massoth v. D & H Canal Co. and Cordell v. N.Y.C & H.R.R. Co.
It was also held that legislation is not something privy to the whims of a jury, regardless of how trivial such details might appear when taken in context, and that the misdirection of the trial judge was unlawful and in therefore in need of redress. So it was for these reasons, that the Appellate Court ruling was sustained and damages awarded to the appellant with costs.
“[T]o omit, willfully or heedlessly, the safeguards prescribed by law for the benefit of another that he may be preserved in life or limb, is to fall short of the standard of diligence to which those who live in organized society are under a duty to conform.”
“A statute designed for the protection of human life is not to be brushed aside as a form of words, its commands reduced to the level of cautions, and the duty to obey attenuated into an option to conform.”