Case Summary: Lack of Eyewitnesses

Recovery in the Absence of Eyewitnesses

Allen v. Schiller6 N.C. App. (1969)
Court of Appeals of North Carolina

Background

This case arose out of an accident in which a vehicle driven by defendant, Eulene Manus (Manus), struck two of Plaintiff Herbert Allen’s (Allen) vehicles parked in front of his house. The defendant was driving a Mustang owned by Charles David Formyduval (Formyduval). Some time after the accident, Eulene Manus passed away, and John Schiller (Schiller), as the administrator of her estate, was the named party in this action.

Procedural History

At the New Hanover County District Court, following the close of plaintiff’s evidence, the defendant’s moved for judgment of nonsuit (summary judgment), and the motion was granted. It is from the order which granted summary judgment to the defendants that the plaintiff Allen appealed.

Facts

Plaintiff’s evidence at trial tended to show that plaintiff’s vehicles, a 1963 Pontiac and a 1958 Chevrolet, were parked on the street in front of his house. The next morning around 5 a.m., the plaintiff heard a loud noise outside. When the plaintiff looked outside, he saw Defendant Manus’ Mustang, which had collided with the front of plaintiff’s Pontiac. The Pontiac had been pushed into the plaintiff’s Chevrolet, damaging its front end as well. After turning the motor and radio of the Mustang off, Plaintiff noticed defendant Manus, was sitting on his front porch with blood on her forehead. There was also blood on the driver’s side of the cracked windshield. There was a trail of blood from the vehicle in the road to the Plaintiff’s front porch where Manus was sitting shortly after the collision. The record also indicates that there were no eyewitnesses to the crash.

Governing Law

During the trial, plaintiff presented certified copies of the certificate of title and a registration card which showed both ownership and registration of the Mustang by Formyduval. Even in defiance of this claim, the defendant alleged that there was insufficient evidence of actionable negligence. However, the Court of Appeals had addressed such an issue when there are no eyewitnesses to an accident or collision.

In Greene v. Nichols, the Court reasoned, “It is generally accepted that an automobile which has been traveling on the highway, following the thread of the road, does not suddenly leave it if the driver uses proper care… The inference of driver-negligence from such a departure is not based on mere speculation or conjecture; it is based upon collective experience, which has shown it to be the ‘more reasonable probability.” This is essentially, the court using “common sense” methods to resolve a dispute. For instance, a car, if being operated by the proper care and attention, is not likely to dart from the road and strike something, and thus, when a vehicle leaves the roadway in such a situation, there is reason to believe the driver of that vehicle acted negligently.

Conclusion

The Court of Appeals ultimately overturned the trial court’s decision which granted summary judgment to the defendants. The Court, in following the reasoning of Greene, held that Plaintiff Allen was entitled to have the jury decide on the determination of actionable negligence.

The decision was based on the evidence that the Plaintiff presented, including: (1) the windshield was cracked only on the driver’s side of the vehicle; (2) Manus had a deep cut on her head; (3) There was blood in the car, on the driver’s side only, and on the steering wheel; and (4) the investigating officer testified that there was a trail of blood from the car to the front porch. These facts, when viewed collectively, make the likelihood that Manus was driving more than just mere suspicion or conjecture, and was a determination on the merits to be left to the more than capable jury.

Key Takeaways

The key to this case was the plaintiff’s overwhelming evidence that tended to show that Manus was operating the vehicle at the time of the incident. This evidence, which was enough to overturn the trial court’s decision, allowed the plaintiff to overcome the fact that there were no eyewitnesses to the accident. Because North Carolina case law allows circumstantial evidence to determine who was driving the vehicle, in the absence of direct evidence, the facts provided were sufficient to establish that Manus was operating the vehicle at the time of the collision.


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