Case Summary: Duty of Care

Duty of Care as an Element of Negligence

Oraefo v. Pounds
North Carolina Court of Appeals, 2014

Background

Oraefo v. Pounds is a case between two drivers involved in a motor vehicle collision in Durham, North Carolina. The plaintiff (Oraefo) was hit by the defendant (Pounds) while the defendant was attempting to change lanes.

Procedural History

At the trial court, a judgment was entered finding the defendant negligent, but Oraefo was also found to have contributed to the accident. The trial court cited contributory negligence in their decision. However, Oraefo contends that the trial court “committed a reversible error by submitting the issue of contributory negligence to the jury”. Oraefo v. Pounds, 13-101 (N.C. Ct. App. 2014).

Facts

In this case, the plaintiff (Oraefo) was traveling south on N.C. Highway 55 (also known as Alston Avenue) in Durham, North Carolina. The defendant (Pounds) was also traveling south on N.C. Highway 55. Oraefo appeared to be driving slower than the posted 45 mile per hour speed limit, so Pounds switched into the left southbound lane in order to pass Oraefo’s vehicle. From her rear view mirror, Oraefo saw Pounds’s vehicle approaching and noticed that it was “weaving in and out of traffic.” As Pounds passed Oraefo, Oraefo honked her horn. Pounds moved alongside Oraefo’s car, activated her right turn signal and attempted to re-enter the far right-hand lane in front of Oraefo’s vehicle. Before Pounds actually moved over into the far right-hand lane, she saw Oraefo’s vehicle both in her side-view mirror and by looking directly over her shoulder. Because she perceived that Oraefo’s car was a “great amount of distance behind” her own vehicle, she attempted to merge into the far right-hand lane. She then felt a “bump” as the two automobiles collided. The collision occurred when the driver’s side of Oraefo’s vehicle made contact with the passenger-side back bumper of Pounds’s vehicle.

Rules of Law

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of North Carolina, which decided that the trial court acted in accordance with the law when it presented the issue of contributory negligence to the jury. The duty that fellow drivers owe to one another was noted as one of the key factors in the court’s determination to affirm the trial court’s decision. The North Carolina Supreme Court has held, in the context of evaluating a contributory negligence issue arising from a motor vehicle accident, that a driver must keep such an outlook in the direction of travel as a reasonably prudent person would keep under the same or similar circumstances. The Court also recognized that N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-141(a) and N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-141(m), when “construed together, establish a duty to drive with caution and circumspection and to reduce speed if necessary to avoid a collision, irrespective of the lawful speed limit or the speed actually driven.” State v. Stroud, 78 N.C. App. 599 (1985).

Additionally, the North Carolina Supreme Court has held that “ordinarily a person has no duty to anticipate negligence on the part of others. In the absence of anything which gives or should give notice to the contrary, he has the right to assume and to act on the assumption that others will observe the rules of the road and obey the law. However, the right to rely on this assumption is not absolute, and if the circumstances existing at the time are such as reasonably to put a person on notice that he cannot rely on the assumption, he is under a duty to exercise that care which a reasonably careful and prudent person would exercise under all the circumstances then existing.” Penland v. Green, 289 N.C. 281(1976).

Applying those principles to the facts in this matter, the Court held that the testimony of both Oraefo and Pounds constituted sufficient evidence for the trial court to submit the contributory negligence issue to the jury. By Oraefo’s own admission, she “saw [Pounds] from the rear view mirror weaving in and out of traffic,” and honked her horn at Pounds when her vehicle was passed.

From this evidence presented, the jury could have reasonably inferred that Oraefo—being fully aware of Pound’s intent to re-enter her land of travel—breached her duty of care by failing to reduce her speed or otherwise attempting to avoid a collision.

Conclusion

It is important to remember that the duty of care while driving a motor vehicle is to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise, under the existing circumstances at the time. In this case, Oraefo owed a duty to Pounds, especially because Oraefo noticed erratic driving by Pounds. Therefore, as the law has been interpreted in North Carolina, “reasonable prudence requires a motorist who sees another vehicle being operated in a negligent manner to take all the more care to avoid collision.” McNair v. Goodwin, 264 N.C. 146 (1965).


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