A local jury should have been told of the alleged negligence in a 2018 tractor-to-car crash on Colorado 92, appellate attorney Frank Patterson told the Colorado Court of Appeals during a proceeding. held at Montrose on Tuesday morning.
The local district court also erred in allowing a state trooper to testify about the law itself and tying that to an opinion about who was at fault, Patterson said, arguing on behalf of Adam. Carpenter. His client had been ordered to pay a $546,000 civil judgment to Cecil Norrid, who hit Carpenter’s tractor in the back – which had no working taillights or proper reflective plate on the rear – and was seriously injured as a result.
“The plaintiff hit the defendant,” Patterson said, but the jury was not allowed to hear the case law that a driver who hits another vehicle is presumed negligent. (In the original lawsuit, Norrid was the plaintiff; on appeal, Carpenter seeks review.)
Norrid’s appeals lawyer said Carpenter admitted to negligence in not having working taillights. Nelson Waneka also asked the Court of Appeal to reject arguments that Norrid was negligent in not using its driving lights. Norrid’s low beam headlights illuminated about 100 feet ahead of him and it was estimated he would have needed 198 feet to stop in time to avoid hitting Carpenter.
But there’s no law requiring high beams, Waneka said, and accepting Carpenter’s assertion to the contrary would potentially make everyone on the road at night careless if they drove faster than their low beams. could illuminate a safe stopping distance for any possible obstruction – a speed of not much more than 30 mph.
It was a case of comparative negligence, decided fairly by the jury at trial, he said.
Patterson and Waneka each appeared before Court of Appeals Justices Jerry Jones, Jaclyn Brown and Eric Kuhn, as well as an audience of approximately 200 students from Montrose High, Olathe High, Peak Academy and Ridgway High School . They then answered questions from students and other spectators.
The Court of Appeals came to town to hear the appeal Carpenter v. Norrid, as well as an appeal from La Plata County, in the courts of the State Judicial Department in the community. This program allows high school students and other members of the community to hear real cases that are being argued in the Colorado Court of Appeals. (See related story.)
It was light on the evening of Dec. 18, 2018, when Carpenter left his field after tending to his bulls and drove his tractor into the Colorado 92. Patterson said his client’s taillights worked when he was on the field and that he did not know that they had failed. . Two or three other vehicles passed Carpenter as he traveled at around 15 mph; neither of them had any trouble avoiding it.
“The plaintiff (Norrid) was also on Highway 92 that night. He did not pass the tractor. It slammed into the rear of the tractor at substantial speed, with no appearance of braking,” Patterson said.
Norrid was going between 53 and 60 mph; the speed limit on the stretch of road where the accident occurred was not specified on Tuesday.
“The real main fight in the trial court was accident fault, or division of accident fault,” Patterson said. “It was hotly contested throughout the trial.”
If the jury had found Norrid more than 50% responsible for the accident, Carpenter would not have been liable for a monetary judgment.
All of this made liability — and jury instructions regarding liability — critical, Patterson said.
“The trial judge categorically expressed his opinion that the defendant was negligent, even though she had not heard all of the evidence,” he argued.
As presented in Tuesday’s arguments, District Judge Mary Deganhart had ruled after a pretrial conference that the standard instruction as to the presumption of negligence — that the person who rams another vehicle is liable — did not apply. not. She concluded that there must be a specific law to support this jury instruction.
“It was wrong,” Patterson said. “It was an error of law. This jury instruction has been in place for 75 years, and they’ve never required an actual law that says it’s a presumption of negligence.
Patterson also asked the Court of Appeals to find that Deganhart erred in his last-minute reversal of a pretrial order.
About a year before the civil case went to trial, she granted a motion to allow testimony from the Colorado State Patrol trooper who responded to the crash, but said he couldn’t. to express an opinion on fault or cause, for that was the duty of the jury. .
However, she reversed course on the day of the trial, allowing the soldier to testify as an expert on what the law was, whether there had been a violation of the law and whose fault was the accident. .
In response to the appeal committee’s question, Patterson said it was a mistake to allow a witness to tell the jury what the law was, but the soldier was allowed to testify that he knew the law and then refers to reckless driving.
Jones noted that it’s not uncommon for a witness to say a driver is negligent. Patterson replied that it is rare to allow the witness to “link” law and liability. He said Norrid’s trial attorney admitted that was the plan and included asking the police officer what the burden of proof was, as well as asking whether Carpenter had been driving negligently.
“It’s up to the judge to instruct the jury,” Patterson said.
Although the trial court did not instruct the jury on reckless driving, the jury may have given more weight to the witness’s testimony because of his position, Patterson also said.
Jones said Carpenter himself apparently testified that if his taillights weren’t on it would be negligence, and so it appeared the soldier was testifying to something Carpenter admitted to.
Patterson said the problem was “intentional analysis” and setting up questions to assign blame through an expert witness who had also testified about the law.
The fact is that Norrid hit Carpenter’s tractor from behind and 75 years of case law says a driver in Norrid’s position is presumed negligent, so Carpenter was entitled to a jury instruction reflecting that, a said Patterson.
He also disputed Norrid’s assertion that there is no law regarding the use of lighthouses. “There were such laws. It was in the instructions we provided, but the court refused to tell the jury,” Patterson said.
But the presumption of negligence only applies when one vehicle follows another too closely, Waneka countered. Norrid was not.
Jones almost immediately stopped Waneka with a scenario: suppose a vehicle is moving at a speed (100 mph) that brings it very quickly closer to the one in front, leaving no time to avoid a collision.
“I don’t know if I have the answer to that question. It’s kind of a tricky situation. We don’t have those circumstances here,” Waneka said.
Jones asked why the above scenario wouldn’t be a matter the jury should be allowed to decide, such as whether the person was driving too fast for the conditions or, in fact, traveling without high beams on.
Waneka said there was no requirement to drive with the high beams on, but there were no other allegations of negligence against Norrid other than driving under the speed limit.
If there were such a requirement, almost anyone driving well above 30mph at night would be turned into a “negligent actor”, he said – and current regulations on the use of headlights would put most people at a dead end. It is illegal to have high beams within 200 feet of the rear of another vehicle or within 500 feet of an approaching vehicle, Waneka said.
“The driver gets caught in this trap of inherent negligence, like the Goldlilocks area, where you have to turn on your high beams to avoid being inherently negligent, but you’re also inherently negligent if you don’t. don’t turn them off less than 200 feet aft,” he said.
“…I would ask the court to consider the implications. It swallows up everyone’s conduct.
The real question is whether the trial court abused its discretion in allowing a reckless driving reference, Waneka said. Carpenter admitted his driving was reckless, even though he used the word “if,” Waneka said. It is undisputed that the taillights were not working, he added.
When asked if allowing a state trooper to tie the law and his opinion was a reversible error, Waneka said that was not what happened. Any mistake in allowing the testimony would have been harmless, he said, reiterating Carpenter’s admission about the taillights.
Jones pointed to the argument that a jury might have given special weight to a soldier’s testimony. “It kind of puts an extra cachet there,” he said.
Waneka disagreed, saying it was appropriate for expert witnesses to give their opinion and that the officer’s reference to reckless driving had not been accusatory.
He then asked the court to ‘consider the implications’ for finding it was negligent to drive with the dipped beam headlights on.
Patterson used the few seconds remaining in his 15-minute slot for a quick retort.
“If it had been, instead of a tractor, a cow, a horse or a breeder crossing the road on an unlit roadway, at night, and the plaintiff had struck it because he didn’t have time to react and stop, because he was driving faster than he could see with his headlights… that’s why the instruction (is requested).
Jones, Brown and Kuhn are now reviewing arguments heard Tuesday morning and issuing written rulings later.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is associate editor and senior editor of the Montrose Daily Press. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.