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Deaver v. Hickox

MARCH 16, 1967.




Appeal from the Circuit Court of Champaign County; the Hon. BIRCH E. MORGAN, Judge, presiding. Reversed and remanded.


This is an appeal from judgments of the Circuit Court against the defendant and in favor of Althea Deaver, Executor of the Will of Philip F. Deaver, deceased, and as Administrator of the estate of Lester M. Samples, deceased. The actions for wrongful death followed a collision of two automobiles at an unmarked country intersection.

There were no competent eyewitnesses to the accident. The Deaver Buick automobile was proceeding south while the Hickox Falcon automobile was proceeding east prior to the collision. There was standing corn in the northwest corner of the intersection which obscured the view of both drivers. The Hickox car left 39 feet of skid marks prior to the collision and apparently proceeded another twenty to twenty-five feet. The Deaver car was struck on its right side, overturned and came to rest on its top against a corner post in the southeast corner of the intersection about 17 feet from the center of the intersection.

The sole basis of the appeal is the action of the trial court in admitting, over objection, the expression of an opinion by a state highway police officer, Joe McCombs, as to the speed of the vehicles prior to the collision.

The witness had been a state police officer for about eight years. He had six weeks recruit training at the State Police Academy in Springfield, a two-weeks course on traffic patrol and accident investigation at Northwestern University, a two-weeks refresher course conducted by Northwestern University, and a one-month course in basic police work at the University of Illinois Police Institute in Champaign, Illinois. In the accident investigation course many aspects were studied, including taking care of the injured, measurement of skid marks, estimating damage to vehicles and accident reports. As expressed in ambiguous language, determination of speed in reference to skid marks and damage to vehicles was studied. The officer has investigated between 450 and 500 automobile accidents.

The officer described the skid marks and the position of the cars above referred to, stated that the primary damage to the Deaver automobile was at the right-hand door of the two-door vehicle, and that the primary damage to the Hickox vehicle was all in the front end including both front fenders, the hood and bumper, all of which were knocked back a foot to eighteen inches. Photographs of the damaged vehicles were exhibited to the witness. He testified that the oiled surfaced roadway was hot and soft.

The witness was asked the following question to which objection was made:

"Q. Officer, based upon your schooling, your training, and your experience, and based upon your personal observation of the length of the skid marks left by the defendant's car, the type and condition of the oiled surface roadway that you observed there at that time, and the type and extent of damage to the defendant's car, the damage to the left side of the plaintiff's — pardon me — of the doctor's car, the damage to the right side of the doctor's car, the fact that the doctor's car had damage to the top, the fact that the doctor's car had rolled over on its top, the size of each of the automobiles that you observed there, and the general construction of the Buick, and the respective location and distance of each car from the intersection, as you observed them there, now, based upon those observations do you have an opinion as to the speed of the defendant's Falcon when it struck the doctor's automobile?"

After objection, the court interrogated the witness out of the presence of the jury as follows:

"The Court: Let me ask you, Officer, do you feel that you have sufficient background to express an opinion on the matter?

"A. Yes, I have an opinion. I can't say exactly, naturally. I don't think anyone can where you've got an impact involved, say exact speed. I think I could from past experience more than education, can estimate a speed, speculate a speed, rather.

"Mr. Ryan: Did you say speculate a speed, Trooper?

"The Court: You mean estimate, based on skid marks and impact there as you saw it?

"A. Well, Your Honor, more on automobile damage than the skid marks. Skid marks, where you have a terrific amount of automobile damage following it, from my study, leaves a lot to be desired. You can't go much by the skid marks when you've got a terrific lot of automobile damage after it.

"Mr. Ryan: And that's what we have in this case. I understood the trooper to say here that where there are terrific skid marks and terrific damage to the ...

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