228 N.Y. 164 (1920).

One-Sentence Takeaway: Plaintiff’s failure to use lights on his carriage when traveling after dark, in violation of a statute, constituted negligence per se because the statue was designed to protect other travelers such as Defendant.

Summary: Plaintiff’s husband was killed when the carriage in which they were riding was struck by Defendant’s automobile when Defendant rounded a curve in the road and allegedly crossed the center line in violation of a statute.  The husband also violated a statute because he was traveling after dark without lights on his carriage.

The jury found for Plaintiff, but the Appellate Division reversed and ordered a new trial.

On appeal to New York’s highest court, writing for the majority, Judge Cardozo stated that the trial court erred when it charged the jury, pursuant to Plaintiff’s request, that the failure to have lights in violation of the statute was some evidence of negligence but was not conclusive evidence of negligence. Judge Cardozo also refused Defendant’s requested charge that the absence of lights was prima facie evidence of contributory negligence.

According to Judge Cardozo, the failure of the husband to have lights in violation of the statute was not merely evidence of negligence, but rather “it [wa]s negligence in itself.” Judge Cardozo noted that sometimes courts are less rigid in applying the rule when the party complaining of another’s statutory violation is not a member of the class the statute was created to protect, or when an ordinance, rather than a statute, prescribes the safeguard.  The instant case, Cardozo stated, presented a situation in which Plaintiff violated a statute intended for the protection of travelers on the highway, of whom Defendant was one, and the jurors did not have the power to relax the duty owed by Plaintiff to Defendant under the statute.

Judge Cardozo required more than proof of a statutory violation before imposing liability or barring recovery. It was crucial, stated Judge Cardozo, to avoid confusing the question of negligence with the question of the causal connection between the negligence and the injury. According to Judge Cardozo, in a case in which the alleged negligence is the failure to have lights, a defendant who violates the statute by traveling without lights will not be required to pay damages unless the absence of lights was the cause of the accident. Likewise, a plaintiff who violates the statute will not be found to be contributorily negligent and thus forfeit his right to recover unless the absence of lights was at least a contributing cause of the accident.

In the case at hand, Judge Cardozo concluded that a causal connection between the violation of the statute and the accident could be inferred, because the accident was a result Defendant’s failure to see decedent’s carriage at a time when lights might have enabled him to see and, thus, avoid the accident.

The court directed that judgment be entered in favor of Defendant.1

Footnotes:

1. Note that since this case was decided under the old contributory negligence system where negligence of a plaintiff constituted a complete bar to recovery, Plaintiff was not able to recover any damages from Defendant.  Under the modern comparative negligence principles now followed in most jurisdictions, the husband’s negligence likely would have reduced the amount of damages awarded to Plaintiff instead of constituting a complete bar to recovery.

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