Hammontree v. Jenner

20 Cal. App. 3d 528 (1971)

One-Sentence Takeaway: When a driver is suddenly stricken by an illness that he had no reason to anticipate, rendering him unconscious, he is not chargeable with negligence.

Summary: Defendant suffered an epileptic seizure while operating his vehicle, which caused him lose control of his car and crashe through the wall of Plaintiff’s bike shop, resulting in personal injuries to Plaintiff and damage to the shop.

At trial, Defendant testified that he had a history of epilepsy and that he was on medication that controlled his seizures.  12 years before the accident, the DMV found out about Defendant’s condition and put him on probation—he had to report to the doctor every 6 months.  Four years later he was asked to check in with a doctor once a year.  The doctor testified that he thought it was safe for Defendant to drive.

Following a defense verdict, the trial court entered a judgment in favor of Defendant.

On appeal, Plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in refusing to grant her a motion for summary judgment and also contended that the trial court committed prejudicial error by refusing to give a jury instruction on absolute/strict liability.

The court of appeal affirmed the judgment in favor of Defendant and held that the doctrine of strict liability did not apply to drivers.

The court relied upon the established precedent providing that the liability of a driver suddenly stricken by an illness rendering him unconscious rests on the principle of negligence.  In this case, Plaintiff withdrew her claim of negligence and after both parties rested, she objected to the giving of negligence instructions and wanted to stand solely on the theory of absolute liability.  The court ruled that only the legislature can decide to use strict liability for auto drivers, because there would be many problems if the court did so.  The court reasoned that, without substantial detail about how the rule would operate, there will be a lot of confusion about the auto accident problem.  Settlement and claims adjustment procedures would become chaotic until new rules were worked out on a case by case basis.  Also, hardships of delayed compensation would be seriously intensified.

The court of appeal did not consider this case analogous to a products liability case (in which strict liability is applied against manufacturers of the products).

Similar Holdings: Ford v. Carew & English, 89 Cal.App.2d 199 (1948) (upholding jury verdict in defendant’s favor where defendant without warning lost consciousness due to strained heart muscles; the jury could believe the defendant’s version based on contradictory evidence that he could not anticipate suddenly fainting); Zabunoff v. Walker (1961) 192 Cal.App.2d 8 (jury could conclude there was no negligence on the part of defendant who had complied with a yield sign and was exercising due care, but then sneezed, preventing him from seeing the plaintiff’s car; “[s]ince a sneeze is a reflex action which could not necessarily be anticipated by a reasonably prudent person, the jurors could have concluded that the sneeze was an intervening cause similar to a fainting spell and that no negligence on the part of respondent was thus established”).

Compare With: Bashi v. Wodarz, 45 Cal.App.4th 1314 (1996) (declining to extend rule discussed in Hammontree to sudden mental, as opposed to physical, illness).

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