Case of the Day – Thursday, December 16, 2021

LOOKING FOR GOLD IN THE DROSS

We read judicial decisions not for the winners or losers (although that can be interesting and sometimes important). Instead, like the grizzled prospector on some mountain stream in gold rush country who washes pan after pan of gravel and sand for that all-too-occasional pebble of gold, we look for nuggets of wisdom hidden in the dross of legal minutiae.

Today’s case had a lot of moving parts. For brevity, I cut out all of the other defendants (such as the parents of the minor operating the motorcycle) and cross-defendants, cross-plaintiffs, counterclaimants, and the such, whose claims were irrelevant to the legal nugget in the case. Instead, I focused solely on the defendant Fancy Creek Township.

The Township was in the case because the plaintiffs claimed the stop sign at the intersection they blew on their motorcycle was obscured by bushes. The plaintiffs argued that the Township was negligent for not trimming the bushes away from the sign, and that was why they raced through the crossroads, only to be t-boned by a car that had the right of way.

So what do we know about negligence? First, we know the defendant must have a duty to the plaintiff. Second, he or she has to have breached the duty. Finally, the breach has to have been the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries (and, of course, the plaintiff actually has to have been injured).

In this case, the jury had found in favor of the Township. The Court of Appeals firmly held that the Township had a duty to motorists to keep the vegetation away from the signage. The Township had 37 miles of road to maintain, not a whole lot, but it had no inspection plan to ensure that the foliage stayed away from the signs. That, the Court said, was a breach of its duty.

But the Court, which was after all only reviewing what a jury had found, concluded that a rational jury could have decided that the very youthful and inexperienced motorcycle operator Ronnie was going too fast, or that he decided to blast through the intersection, or that he didn’t see the stop sign for some other reason. In other words, the Court said, the jury properly found that the Township’s negligence was not the proximate cause of Ronnie’s accident, and thus, it was not responsible for Craig’s injuries.

Norvell v. Fancy Creek Township, 130 Ill. App. 3d 275, 474 N.E.2d 53 (Ct.App. Illinois, 1985). A motorcycle driven by Ronald M. Kreis and on which Craig A. Norvell was a passenger collided with a car driven by Shirley Fieten at an intersection in Fancy Creek Township. Shirley was traveling north on Route 29 at a normal speed. The motorcycle approached on the Township road traveling west and entered the intersection without stopping. The car struck the bike.

A stop sign facing westbound on the Township road had been placed in the usual location. The Township had a duty to properly maintain the sign. Township workers had permitted bushes to grow in front of the sign to the extent that it was obscured at a distance of 61 feet east of the stop sign. However, some 355 feet east of the stop sign, a visible sign warning travelers that there was a stop ahead. Expert testimony indicated that a stopping distance for an automobile traveling at 45 mph would be 323 feet. At the time of the collision, Craig and Ronnie – the boys on the bike – were 13 and 15 years old, respectively.

When a vehicle approached the intersection from the east, as the motorcycle did, an operator could see other indications that an intersection was ahead. From 60 feet, the back of a stop sign on the west side of Route 29 was clearly visible. The grade of the Township road rose as it extended east from Route 29 until it reached a crest about 182 feet east of the route. Someone traveling west on the township road approaching the intersection could not see the intersection until reaching the crest. The Township had 37 miles of road to maintain, for which it had no regular inspection schedule. The intersection was one of the two most dangerous in the township.

Neither Craig nor Ron could recall the accident. Craig had only passed through the intersection once before as a passenger in a vehicle traveling on Route 29 three weeks before the collision. Ron’s sister lived south of the intersection a short distance, and that while Ron was driving in the area before the crash, he had once made a wrong turn and had come upon Route 29.

Craig, through a guardian, brought suit to recover for his injuries against the Township. After trial, the trial court entered a judgment in favor of the Township.

Craig appealed.

Held: The judgment in favor of the Township was affirmed.

A prior case had found a different township liable for negligence in a similar accident. Here, in that case, there was no sign present. In this case, there was a sign indicating a stop ahead and some evidence that the driver knew something of the area.

The Court found the Township was negligent but held that the negligence was not the proximate cause of the accident. The Township’s negligence in failing to keep the stop sign visible would, as a matter of law, have been a proximate cause of the collision unless the collision would have happened even had the stop sign had not been obscured.

Because a sign indicated that a stop was ahead, the Court found, a jury could have concluded that if Ronald did not see that sign or observe the other indications that he was approaching a State highway, then he was so inattentive that he would not have seen the stop sign even if it had not been obscured. On the other hand, the jury could have determined that Ron saw the warning sign, knew that a stop sign was ahead but was going too fast to stop, and therefore decided it was best to attempt to get across the intersection as quickly as possible. In either case, the jury could have concluded that the failure to clear the brush from in front of the sign was not a proximate cause of the collision.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

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