Martin v Herzog

US Tort Law

Martin v Herzog
Image: ‘Horse Drawn Cabs at Evening, New York’ by Frederick Childe Hassam

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.

Key Citations

“[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.”

Anderson v Minneapolis, St.Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Railway Co

US Tort Law

Anderson v Minneapolis
Image: ‘Train Painting’ by William Wray

The amendment of pleadings is an American civil right when free from the misdirection of a jury, and so on this occasion the intermingling of two events resulting in the destruction of property, allowed the claimant to establish reasonable causation before enjoying the benefits of restorative justice.

In August of 1918, it was alleged that sparks emitted from a locomotive engine owned by the defendants caused a bog fire that while unextinguished, continued to burn for an extended period, largely due to the usual drought conditions at the time. During early October, there were winds in excess of 75 miles per hour, which exacerbated the existing fire, while driving it towards the home of the claimant.

It was the subsequent effects of this natural occurrence that left the claimant’s home damaged and thus both the railway company and the Director General of Railroads ended up in the courts as co-defendants, as was permissible under s.10 of the Federal Control Act.

During the trial, there were two options open to the jury for a safe conviction, namely:

“If plaintiff was burned out by fire set by one of defendant’s engines in combination with some other fire not set by one of its engines, then it is liable.”

or:

“If the bog fire was set by one of defendant’s engines, and if one of defendant’s engines also set a fire or fires west of Kettle River, and those fires combined and burned over plaintiff’s property, then the defendant is liable.”

With confusion as to how best to approach the claim, the jury asked for confirmation as to whether liability could be found if it was agreed that the fire caused by the locomotive engine was significant enough to have been the primary contributor to the eventual fire that caused the damage, at which point the court agreed that it would. It was then that the claimant amended his pleading to one where both fires had been the sole cause of destruction to his home, as opposed to that of the bog fire alone.

While returning a verdict in favour of the claimant, the defendants argued that such pleading allowances were unlawful, before appealing to the St.Louis District Court, who denied a motion for a retrial, while allowing for the consideration of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Here consideration was given to both the discretion of the courts to allow for claim amendments, and the extent to which the Director General of Railroads is lawfully implicated. In the first instance, the Court explained how s.7784 of Chapter 77 of the Minnesota Statutes 1913 noted that:

“No variance between the allegations in the pleading and the proof is material unless it has actually misled the adverse party to his prejudice in maintaining his action or defence on the merits.”

Which on this occasion the court had already established which fires were attributable to the defendants, and at no point had any objection or evidence been shown to prove otherwise, while under s.4426 of Chapter 28 of the Minnesota Statutes 1913 also made it clear that:

“Each railroad corporation owning or operating a railroad in this state shall be responsible in damages to every person and corporation whose property may be injured or destroyed by fire communicated directly or indirectly by the locomotive engines in use upon the railroad owned or operated by such railroad corporation…”

It was further held that within the terms of the Transportation Act 1920, Congress conferred no express limitations as to the powers of the Federal Control Act, and that evidence of this was available under s.202 and 206 of the amended statute, and so it was that for these reasons the Court refused to reverse the original decision and dismissed the appeal.

Key Citations

“If the amendment to a complaint does not introduce an entirely new cause of action, but merely changes the statement of the manner in which the injury was inflicted, it is ordinarily permissible.”