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Martin v. Herzog


    Citation. Martin v. Herzog, 176 A.D. 614, 163 N.Y.S. 189, 1917 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 5114 (N.Y. App. Div. Feb. 2, 1917)

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff was killed when Defendant’s automobile crashed into Plaintiff’s buggy. Defendant requested a ruling that the lack of lights on Plaintiff’s buggy was prima facie evidence of contributory negligence.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Jurors have no dispensing power by which they may relax the duty that one traveler on the highway owes under the statute to another.

    Facts. The decedent (Plaintiff) was killed when Defendant’s automobile crashed into Plaintiff’s buggy. The accident was at night, when it was dark, and Plaintiff was operating his buggy without any lights, in violation of a statute. Defendant requested a ruling that the absence of lights on Plaintiff’s buggy was prima facie evidence of contributory negligence. The trial court refused Defendant’s request. The jury found Defendant liable and Plaintiff free from contributory negligence. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment. Plaintiff appealed the appellate court’s ruling.

    Issue. Does the jury have the dispensing power by which they may relax the duty that one traveler on the highway owes under the statute to another?

    Held. No. The appellate court’s verdict is sustained.
    * The unexcused omission of the statute is negligence in itself, or negligence per se. In this case, there was an excuse for Plaintiff to be driving without lights. Lights are intended for the guidance and protection of other travelers on the highway. Jurors should not have been permitted to treat the omission of lights either as innocent or as culpable. Plaintiff’s omission of lights was a wrong. Being unexcused, it was also a negligent wrong. No license should have been conceded to the tiers of facts to find it anything else.
    * In this case, the court also distinguishes the question of negligence and the question of causation. It is not enough that Plaintiff was negligent in failing to light his buggy. For Plaintiff to be negligent, his negligence must also be the cause of the accident. A plaintiff who travels without lights does not forfeit the right to recover damages unless the absence of lights is at least a contributing cause of the incident. Negligent conduct does not always equate to contributory negligence.

    Discussion. The jury may not discount a breach of a statutory duty. The question of duty is a question of law. The jury is the trier of facts. Plaintiff wrongfully violated a statute intended for the protection of Defendant. Plaintiff is negligent per se. The only thing left to determine is causation and injury. If Plaintiff’s failure to light the buggy was the cause of the accident, then it is contributory negligence.


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