By Cory Bilton
Having a case decided by a jury is one of the best features offered by the legal system in the US. The domain of the judge is to determine the law. The domain of the jury is to hear the facts of the case and assess the credibility of the witnesses. If the jurors believe you and your witnesses more than the opposing lawyer and her witnesses, you will prevail.
Except when you don’t…
A prime example of convincing the jury but losing anyway is the case of RGR, LLC v. Settle, released by the Supreme Court of Virginia a couple weeks ago. The storyline involves the death of the driver of a dump truck that was struck by a train. The driver’s widow brought suit against the business alongside the railroad tracks, which obstructed the view of the railroad tracks from the roadway by piling lumber nearby. When a factual dispute reaches the point of trial, there is almost always competing testimony from witnesses favoring each side. This was true in this case, too. Everyone agreed that Mr. Settle was approaching the tracks in his dump truck very slowly. But the conductor said Mr. Settle was looking straight ahead. Two other drivers directly in front of Mr. Settle said they couldn’t see where he was looking, but they were waiving at him to stop. Despite the competing witnesses, the jury was able to decide in favor of the driver’s widow. The Virginia Supreme Court reversed, instead deciding that the deceased was contributorily negligent as a matter of law.
It is the defendant’s burden to affirmatively show contributory negligence by the plaintiff. After the defendant presents evidence that the plaintiff contributed to her own injury, it’s usually up to the factfinder (e.g. the jury) to decide whether the plaintiff did so. In Settle, the court says that contributory negligence becomes a question of law (instead of fact) “only when reasonable minds could not differ about what conclusion could be drawn from the evidence.” They say a plaintiff with a jury verdict approved by the trial judge is in the “most favored position known to the law.” Despite that set up, the court took the verdict away from the widow.
Finding a deceased person contributorily negligent as a matter of law shortly after a group of jurors found that same deceased person not contributorily negligent seems internally inconsistent. Even the definition given by the court, that this only happens when “reasonable minds could not differ” points to the conflict. Either the justices are calling the members of the jury unreasonable, or the justices are deciding a factual situation where reasonable minds do in fact differ.
The court condemned the deceased for failing to avoid being struck by the train. The court laid out its logic in precise fashion: “Either Settle failed to look and listen with reasonable care; or if he did so, he failed to see the plainly visible approaching train; or if he did observe the train, he failed to stop before traveling on the tracks.” This is the same as saying, the fact that the collision occurred at all means that the deceased was at fault. Despite Settle’s ironclad logic, the jury below unanimously voted that Mr. Settle was not contributorily negligent just because the collision occurred.
To provide some contrast to the court’s seemingly arbitrary factual determination, Settle describes the Campbell decision, which was similar in that it was also a case of a driver struck by a train where the driver’s view was obstructed. Southern Railway Co. v. Campbell, 1 S.E.2d 55 (Va. 1939). But in Campbell, the court found contributory negligence was a question for the jury, because the driver had lowered his window and was looking and listening for the train when he was hit by a backward moving train. In Settle, with the competing, and possibly contradictory, testimony of the train conductor and the two other drivers directly in front of Mr. Settle, the court decided that contributory negligence is not for the jury to decide. Assuming there is a clear distinction between these two cases, it is obstructed from my view.
The fact that people (judges, lawyers, jurors, normal folks etc.) can disagree on whether Mr. Settle was contributorily negligent is not surprising to me. And this disagreement is not a bad thing either. However, for the justices to say that in a factual situation like Settle that “reasonable minds cannot differ” seems like a made-up reason for the justices to justify a reversal. Ironically, there is a dissent in Settle by Justice Powell, who is joined by Justice Mims. (Are Justices Powell and Mims unreasonable, too?) Determinations of law, even if divided, can help practitioners and citizens resolve or avoid future disputes. But when the court steps in to make a determination of fact, which does not provide any clarity to resolve or avoid future disputes, and also undermines an important pillar in our judicial system, we all suffer whether we realize it or not.
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