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Dobson v. Rosencranz

APRIL 4, 1967.




Appeal from the Circuit Court of LaSalle County; the Hon. HOWARD C. RYAN, Judge, presiding. Reversed and remanded with directions.


Rehearing denied and opinion modified May 18, 1967.

Phillip Dobson, plaintiff, instituted this action to recover for personal injuries allegedly sustained on October 1, 1962, when automobiles being driven by him and by defendant, Bernard Rosencranz, collided in the intersection of First and Joliet Streets in LaSalle. The jury returned a verdict for plaintiff in the sum of $18,000, upon which judgment was entered, and thereafter, upon motion of defendant, the Circuit Court of LaSalle County granted a new trial. We have previously allowed plaintiff's petition for leave to appeal from that order. Plaintiff contends that the trial court abused its discretion in granting a new trial, and in support of this contention, argues that the record discloses a preponderance of evidence from which the jury reasonably could have concluded that defendant (1) negligently failed to yield the right-of-way, or (2) negligently failed to keep a proper lookout, or (3) negligently failed to stop, slow, or turn his automobile to avoid the collision. Defendant contends that plaintiff failed to establish his cause of action by a preponderance of evidence, and that the trial court properly exercised its discretion in granting a new trial.

The record discloses that on October 1, 1962, at approximately 4:00 p.m., plaintiff, accompanied by his wife, was driving north on Joliet Street near its intersection with First Street in the City of LaSalle. This intersection was controlled by stop lights. Visibility was clear and the pavement was dry. The intersecting streets upon which plaintiff and defendant were respectively traveling were each between forty-five to forty-eight feet in width. Plaintiff testified that as he approached the intersection, the traffic light controlling traffic on Joliet Street was red, and that therefore he brought his car to a stop about three feet back from the crosswalk line. Also stopped at the light in the lane to the left of plaintiff's car, and slightly ahead, was a large gravel truck with lights signaling for a left turn. The names of the owner and driver of that truck are unknown. Another automobile, driven by Richard P. Bligh, was stopped immediately behind plaintiff's car. Plaintiff, his wife, and Bligh all testified that the truck obscured their vision to the left as the vehicles were stopped for the red light so that they could not see the traffic control light governing traffic on First Street, although they could clearly see the traffic control lights governing traffic on Joliet Street. Plaintiff testified that he remained stopped until the traffic light to his right turned green, and that he then started forward at an estimated speed of twelve to fifteen miles an hour. Mrs. Dobson testified that her husband did not accelerate his vehicle until about three seconds after the light had turned green, and that the truck started forward a little bit before them, and then suddenly stopped after going about four feet into the intersection, after which defendant's vehicle suddenly passed from the left in front of the truck and the collision occurred. Defendant testified that he saw the truck at the intersection, but did not see plaintiff's car until an instant before the collision. He stated that the light controlling traffic on First Street was green when he entered the intersection, and that it changed to amber when he was in the center of the intersection. He stated that he was traveling at approximately fifteen miles per hour as he approached the intersection, although witness Bligh estimated defendant's speed at approximately twenty-five to twenty-eight miles per hour as it traveled in the intersection.

After the accident, plaintiff, defendant and Bligh got out of their automobiles. Bligh testified that he then said to Rosencranz: "Fellow, you just run a red light." Bligh said that Rosencranz replied: "I guess I did." Defendant Rosencranz admitted at the trial that Bligh had made this accusation, but testified that he then denied the charge, and stated that he did not run a red light. Dobson, in his testimony regarding this conversation, stated that defendant replied: "Yes, but I thought I could make it."

[1-4] Both parties agree that the only issue before this court is whether the trial court properly exercised its discretion in granting a new trial. This issue has frequently been presented to us, and in the recent case of Dunlavey v. Patti, 79 Ill. App.2d 442, 223 N.E.2d 858, we stated the applicable rule of law to be as follows:

"A court of review will not reverse an order of a trial court, granting a new trial, unless the record clearly shows an abuse of discretion. An abuse of discretion is shown, however, where it appears that the trial court set aside a verdict and granted a new trial merely because it would have decided the case differently had it been the trier of fact, or because it feels that inferences or conclusions other than those drawn by the jury are more reasonable. The trial court cannot substitute its inferences and conclusions of fact for those drawn by the jury if those drawn by the jury find reasonable support in the evidence, Foster v. VanGilder, 65 Ill. App.2d 373, 213 N.E.2d 421, for it is the jury's function to weigh the conflicts and discrepancies in the evidence, to determine if the witness's testimony is credible, in whole or in part, and to draw the ultimate conclusions of fact. Finley v. New York Cent. R. Co., 19 Ill.2d 428, 167 N.E.2d 212."

In the instant case, the defendant's post-trial motion sought a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or in the alternative, a new trial. The trial court denied the motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, but granted a new trial for the stated reason that the plaintiff did not sustain his burden of proof by a preponderance or greater weight of the evidence. The trial judge prepared a memorandum of opinion which contained his evaluation of the evidence and his reasons for concluding that the plaintiff had failed to sustain the burden of proof. In this memorandum he observed that it was plaintiff's burden to prove that he had the right-of-way and that defendant was not lawfully in the intersection. The evidence admitted to meet this burden was noted in said memorandum to consist of the conversation between plaintiff, Bligh, and defendant immediately after the collision wherein Bligh charged defendant with having proceeded through a red light, and the evidence concerning the speed and the time and the distances traveled by the several vehicles at the intersection, which was argued by plaintiff to prove or corroborate that defendant entered the intersection on a red light. With respect to the conflicting testimony regarding the conversation between Bligh and defendant, immediately after the accident, the trial judge remarked:

"This then leaves as the only evidence concerning the color of the stop light when the defendant entered the intersection the positive statement [at the trial] of the defendant that it was green and changed to yellow. This is opposed by the alleged admission of the defendant [at the scene]. As pointed out above there is a vast difference between the exact language used by the defendant in the admission as related by Bligh from that related by the plaintiff himself. If we are going to have the jury determine what the defendant meant by such an admission then the words used must be submitted to the jury for their interpretation. The variance in the wording of this alleged admission as related by these two witnesses is substantial, if not contradictory. Admittedly admission will constitute strong evidence of a fact to be proven, however, admissions must be specific and not some witness's interpretation of what was said. These two statements were given as exact language used by the defendant and obviously they do not constitute the exact language of the defendant."

With respect to the testimony of the several witnesses who gave estimates of time, speed and distance, the trial court commented as follows:

"No one's power of recall is so perfect that he can some three years after an accident with precision detail whether one, two, three or four seconds are involved in a particular transaction, or whether a particular distance involved is ten, fifteen, or twenty feet, or whether the speed of the vehicle, as he recalls it, was ten, fifteen or twenty miles per hour, and a slight deviation in any of these variables could be used to prove or disprove either side of the case. Accordingly, I am not going to split hairs, and I consider any evidence based on these computations to be of the very weakest kind."

It is a matter of interest to us that while one trier of fact, on one occasion, will give as a reason for minimizing the value of certain testimony that "no one's power of recall is so perfect as to permit such accurate recall after the lapse of so much time as was demonstrated here," the same, or another trier of fact, on a different occasion, will sometimes give as a reason also for discounting the value of similar testimony the opposite premise that "the inability of the witnesses to be consistent on such points cannot be unnoticed." The premise that no one's power of memory is so perfect as to permit exact recall might have been applied here by the trial court, as perhaps it was by the jury, to reasonably explain the variations in the versions of plaintiff and Bligh as to the alleged admissions made by defendant at the scene. But the trial court did not apply this premise in that instance; rather it found the variations substantial and unreasonable, suggesting that consistency should be required here, while consistency in the testimony as to distances and speed was thought suspect. We do not doubt that some reasonable men will agree with the inferences and conclusions of the trial court in this respect as to when perfect consistency should be required and when it is cause for suspicion, and as to the value of opinion testimony on distances and speed. It also seems apparent, however, that other reasonable men would agree with the opposite conclusions reached by the jury, that is, that the variation in the testimony of plaintiff and Bligh as to the admissions of defendant is only slight, the gist of both being that defendant candidly acknowledged having entered the intersection unlawfully, and that the testimony of distances, time, and speed are corroborative of this admission. We think there is reasonable basis in the record for the determination made by the jury, and we conclude that the trial court usurped the function of the jury by substituting for the jury's conclusions its conclusions as to whether the testimony of Bligh, Dobson, or Rosencranz was true and/or accurate regarding the conversation after the accident, and the reliability and weight to be given to this and the evidence of distances and speeds.

Bernard Rosencranz, defendant, was called as a witness by plaintiff under section 60 of the Illinois Civil Practice Act. In commenting on this testimony, the trial judge stated:

"The type of cross-examination which Mr. Rosencranz was subjected to under § 60 may have had the effect of weakening his testimony in the minds of the jury, and counsel may have, by the asking of his questions and the tone of his voice, been able to implant in the minds of ...

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