Brief Fact Summary.
Mrs. Martin’s (Plaintiff) husband was killed in a car accident when her husband was driving without lights and Herzog (Defendant) was crossing the center line. Defendant argued that Mr. Martin’s failure to use lights, in violation of a statute, constituted contributory negligence.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
The failure to act in accordance with a statutory duty constitutes negligence per se, which can be considered prima facie evidence of contributory negligence.
On August 21, 1915, Plaintiff was a passenger in a buggy driven by her husband. Mr. Martin did not have the buggy’s lights on, in violation of a statute. Meanwhile, Defendant’s car was coming around a curve and so did not see the Martins’ buggy in his lights. Defendant was allegedly crossing the center line of the road and collided with the Martins’ buggy, killing Mr. Martin. Plaintiff sued for damages. Defendant requested an instruction that Mr. Martin’s failure to use lights as required by law was prima facie evidence of contributory negligence. The court denied this request and instead instructed the jury that the failure to use lights could be used as evidence of negligence but was not conclusive evidence of negligence. The court also granted Plaintiff’s request and instructed the jury that driving without lights is not negligence in itself. The jury found for Plaintiff and Defendant appealed. The appellate court reversed and Plaintiff appealed.
Does the failure to act in accordance with a statutory requirement constitute negligence per se, unless there is a legal excuse?
(Cardozo, J.) Yes. The failure to act in accordance with a statutory duty constitutes negligence per se, which can be considered prima facie evidence of contributory negligence. Failing to follow a statutory duty that was enacted in order to safeguard others necessarily means that an individual has not met the standard of diligence required. As a result, this failure is not just evidence of negligence, but is negligence per se. The jury in this case should not have been allowed to ignore the duty imposed by statute. Even with the finding of negligence per se, a causal connection between the negligence and the injury must be shown in order to support a finding of contributory negligence. Here, a connected can be made from evidence that the collision happened after dark between the unlit buggy and Defendant’s car. This prima facie case for contributory negligence can be overcome by evidence put forth by Plaintiff that breaks the causal connection between the negligence per se and the injury. The jury instructions here did not reflect these legal principles and so the appellate division’s reversal is affirmed.
Most courts follow the approach stated here. According to Justice Traynor, this approach is applicable even when the statute involved was not properly published and therefore was not in effect. The violator would not be able to be prosecuted if the statute was not in effect, but the statute still provides a standard by which negligence can be judged. This is because the legislature is acting to generalize a community standard, even when it is hampered by legal technicalities. Clinkscales v. Carver, 136 P.2d 777 (Cal. 1943).