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Hammontree v. Jenner

Citation. 20 Cal.App.3d 528, 97 Cal.Rptr. 739 (Cal. Ct. App. 1971)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Jenner’s car crashed through the wall of the Hammontrees’ bicycle shop, striking Maxine Hammontree and causing personal injuries and damage to the bicycle shop.

Jenner testified to a medical history of epilepsy and cited numerous examples of how he had attempted to avoid future epileptic attacks.

The Hammontrees argued that Jenner should be held to an absolute liability standard, as in products liability cases, instead of a negligence standard.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A driver who is suddenly knocked unconscious due to illness will be held liable under a negligence standard for an injury resulting from the accident.


Jenner’s car crashed through the wall of the Hammontrees’ bicycle shop, striking Maxine Hammontree and causing personal injuries and damage to the bicycle shop.

Jenner claimed that he lost control of his car due to an epileptic seizure. Jenner testified that he had a medical history of epilepsy confirmed by examination of several neurologists from 1952 through the date of this car crash accident in 1967. The Department of Motor Vehicles put Jenner on probation around 1955 and required him to report to a doctor on a regular basis to evaluate his condition. Jenner regularly took the medication prescribed by his physician and followed all guidance from doctors. Jenner’s physician testified that he believed that it was safe for Jenner to drive given the precautions Jenner had taken.

Jenner claimed that he had no warning he would have a seizure prior to the accident and that he knew of no other reason for his loss of consciousness.

The Hammontrees claim that the trial court committed prejudicial error in refusing to give a jury instruction on absolute liability that would subject Jenner to liability for all injuries and property damage suffered as a proximate result of Jenner’s inability to control his car, even if Jenner had no warning of his impending seizure. The Hammontrees equated Jenner’s unique knowledge of his epileptic condition to a products liability case in arguing for absolute liability.

During the trial, the Hammontrees withdrew their claim of negligence and stood solely on the theory of absolute liability, waiving both the opening and closing jury arguments. Jenner argued the cause to the jury after which the trial judge read a series of negligence instructions.


Did the trial court commit a Prejudicial Error in refusing to give jury instructions on Absolute Liability for a defendant who operated his car while having knowledge of his medical history of epilepsy?


No. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s holding and declined to apply an absolute liability standard on a driver who lost his ability to safely operate and control his vehicle due to a seizure or health failure.


The Court of Appeal found that the trial judge properly refused the Hammontrees’ jury instruction because it is a negligence standard (and not an absolute liability standard) that determines the liability of a driver for injury resulting from an accident when the driver is suddenly knocked unconscious by illness.

A products liability theory is not applicable because an individual with an underlying health condition cannot be compared to companies that manufacture and distribute products to the public. The negligence standard is firmly established in case law. Any change to the standard should be made by the legislature through a comprehensive plan for the compensation of car accident victims to avoid chaos in the settlement and claims adjustment procedure.

The Hammontrees’ proposed jury instruction additionally fails for placing absolute liability on a driver for an illness or physical condition which had no reason to anticipate.

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