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Champion v. Knasiak

DECEMBER 13, 1974.

MELVIN CHAMPION, A MINOR, BY HIS MOTHER AND NEXT FRIEND, WILLIE MAE CHAMPION, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

EDMUND KNASIAK ET AL., DEFENDANTS. — (ILLINOIS BELL TELEPHONE COMPANY ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.)



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. WILLIAM F. CROWLEY, Judge, presiding.

MR. PRESIDING JUSTICE SULLIVAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

This is a negligence action brought on behalf of a minor plaintiff to recover damages for personal injuries sustained when he was allegedly struck by two automobiles, the first owned by defendant Edmund Knasiak and driven by defendant Joellyn Knasiak, the second owned by defendant Illinois Bell Telephone Company (hereafter Bell) and operated by defendant Richard Coleman, its employee. The trial court directed a verdict in favor of Edmund Knasiak on the ground that Joellyn Knasiak was not operating his automobile as his agent. The jury then returned a verdict for the plaintiff in the amount of $28,000 against the remaining three defendants. Judgment was entered on the verdict from which only defendants Bell and Coleman have appealed.

The issues presented for review are (1) whether plaintiff failed to prove that Coleman and Bell proximately caused any injury to him; (2) whether plaintiff's counsel prejudiced defendants' rights to a fair trial in (a) placing in evidence events after the accident, (b) asking Coleman to comment on a written statement made by other witnesses, (c) inferring that defendants had concealed evidence, and (d) appealing to prejudice; (3) whether the court erred in permitting a youth who witnessed the accident to state his opinion on Coleman's ability to avoid the accident and further in permitting counsel for plaintiff to comment on the opinion; and (4) whether the trial court's refusal to hold a hearing at the trial to determine the competency of the plaintiff's minor witnesses deprived Coleman and Bell of a fair trial.

The accident in question occurred on 103rd Street, a short distance west of Wallace Avenue in Chicago. Plaintiff, age 6 1/2, was running across 103rd Street in a northerly direction when he was struck by an eastbound vehicle driven by Joellyn Knasiak, the impact catapulting him into the westbound lane. An approaching westbound Bell automobile driven by Coleman stopped near where the boy had fallen. The evidence conflicted as to whether the Bell vehicle struck plaintiff.

James Champion, plaintiff's brother, 9 years of age at the time of trial, testified that he, plaintiff, and Billy Jordan were playing on the south side of 103rd Street in Billy Jordan's front yard when plaintiff left to get a shovel at his house on the north side of 103rd Street. From Billy's front yard, he saw plaintiff get hit by two cars going in opposite directions. First, a white car hit him. Then, as plaintiff was in the street trying to get up, the front part of a green car struck him. James also said that he first heard a car skid, and when he looked out he saw plaintiff falling. He saw the front left wheel of the white car strike plaintiff; plaintiff was struck on the way back from his house after getting a shovel; but James did not tell his mother he had witnessed the accident because he was scared. In fact, he denied having seen the accident when asked by his mother on numerous occasions for more than four months after the accident.

Another of plaintiff's brothers, Jerry Champion, 11 years of age at the time of trial, testified that he was on the front porch of the Champion house on the north side of 103rd Street when he heard a car putting on its brakes. He looked up and saw a white car going east toward Wallace that had already hit plaintiff and was stopping. Plaintiff was flying through the air and landed in the westbound lane slightly west of Wallace. Jerry ran down the porch steps, around to the front of the house and toward plaintiff. When he was a few feet from plaintiff, he saw for the first time an approaching green car down by a pet shop east of the Wallace intersection with 103rd Street. Plaintiff was lying on his back with his head touching the center line of 103rd Street and his legs to the north in the westbound lane. Although he stated that the green car came by and hit plaintiff, he did not know what part of plaintiff's body was struck nor what part of the green car made contact. The green car did not stop immediately but traveled two or three car lengths beyond plaintiff, who was still thrashing around after the green car hit him. Jerry saw only one person in the green car. After the occurrence, Jerry went back to the house and got his mother.

Michael McAlister, age 15, worked part-time at the Fernwood Newspaper Agency on the northeast corner of the intersection of 103rd and Wallace. He testified that he was walking west across Wallace close to the north edge of 103rd Street. When he was about halfway across Wallace, he observed plaintiff leave the sidewalk on the southwest corner of the intersection and run directly north across 103rd Street. McAlister saw an approaching eastbound light-blue Pontiac and "hollered" at plaintiff to stop. At that instant, the left front side of the Pontiac struck plaintiff in the left thigh area. McAlister heard the Pontiac's brakes screeching, and although he had no driving experience at that time, he estimated its speed at 30 to 35 miles per hour. The Pontiac traveled about 15 feet after impact and left skid marks on the street. The lady who had been driving the Pontiac left it in the position where it stopped and got out.

McAlister further testified that plaintiff was thrown up into the air and landed on his back in the westbound lane. His head was on the center line and his feet were to the north. He laid still after landing. McAlister immediately started to run towards plaintiff at an angle to the southwest but looked over his left shoulder to the east before crossing into the street and saw the westbound Bell car crossing Wallace. He estimated its speed at 30 miles per hour. The Bell car passed him on his left and struck plaintiff without slowing down or changing direction. McAlister could see its taillights, and they did not go on before it hit plaintiff, although it stopped at impact.

McAlister stated that he was near the northwest corner when the Bell car passed him, but he was able to run behind it and to the south in time to see the left front tire run over plaintiff's leg. At that time, plaintiff was lying only a few feet west of Wallace. He did not know which leg was run over by the Bell car.

McAlister stated that when the Bell car stopped, plaintiff's legs and thighs were beneath the car forward of the left rear wheel. Plaintiff was lying with his head to the south and his legs to the north. McAlister heard the Bell driver say, "I thought it was a dog." The Bell driver held plaintiff in his arms until an ambulance arrived but left the scene before the police arrived. The Pontiac driver also left but later returned after the police had arrived. McAlister gave the police the license number of the Bell car.

Joellyn Knasiak testified that she was driving eastbound on 103rd Street approaching Wallace, traveling at 24 to 30 miles per hour, when plaintiff suddenly appeared in her lane of travel a short distance ahead of her. She applied her brakes and swerved to the right but struck the boy. She did not see the Bell car strike plaintiff, but after she stopped her car she saw the Bell car stopped in the westbound lane. At that time plaintiff was beneath the car forward of the left rear wheel. He was trying to get up, but the Bell driver was holding him down.

Richard Coleman, age 45, an assignment foreman for Bell, stated that he was working with William Bailey picking up disconnected telephones on Saturday, April 4, 1970. He was driving westbound on 103rd Street and, as he reached the east edge of Wallace traveling at about 25 miles per hour, he observed plaintiff on the southwest corner about 30 feet west of Wallace. Plaintiff was alone on the sidewalk about a foot or two from the curb and was running east along the right side of a car illegally parked in the bus stop. When he reached the front of the parked car, he turned sharply and ran into the street. Coleman was about in the middle of Wallace when plaintiff left the curb, and he immediately applied the brakes. Plaintiff ran into the eastbound lane a foot or two in front of Mrs. Knasiak's car, which was traveling about the same speed as Coleman's. The middle of the front bumper struck the boy's left leg. It appeared to him that plaintiff turned to look at Mrs. Knasiak's car just as the impact knocked him physically out of his shoes into the air, and his head then struck the hood of the Knasiak vehicle. When plaintiff was struck, Coleman was braking his car at the west edge of Wallace and turning slightly to the right. Plaintiff was thrown in a northeasterly direction. Coleman lost sight of him as he landed near the side of the left front fender of the Bell vehicle which traveled not more than two to four feet further, coming to a stop facing northwest. Coleman did not see, hear or feel anything to indicate contact with plaintiff's body. He stated that his car did not strike the boy.

Coleman was the first person to reach plaintiff, and he observed that his legs were pointing north but were not beneath the car. He attempted to hold plaintiff by the shoulders to keep him from moving. In his attempt to rise before Coleman reached him, plaintiff was thrashing around and had moved in a generally easterly direction toward the rear of the car. Coleman told Bailey to call an ambulance and asked someone in the crowd that gathered to get plaintiff's mother. Mrs. Knasiak came over to the site but then returned to her car. Coleman stayed with the boy until the ambulance arrived, and no one at the scene accused him of having struck plaintiff.

When plaintiff and his mother left in the ambulance, Coleman looked around for Mrs. Knasiak but did not see her. Both lanes of travel were blocked and eastbound traffic was backed up. No police were present and, assuming that they were not involved and since they could easily be located because of their plainly marked car, Coleman and Bailey went back to work.

William Bailey, age 23, not employed by Bell at the time of the trial, was a front seat passenger in Coleman's car. He was checking the routing slips for their afternoon stops. As they approached Wallace, he observed three or four children playing on the southwest corner of the intersection in front of a building, and he observed that eastbound traffic was approaching. He did not see the Knasiak car strike plaintiff, since he was looking down at his routing slips, but he heard tires screeching and when he looked up he saw plaintiff flying through the air across the street. The Bell car was just entering the Wallace intersection and was traveling at about 5 or 10 miles per hour. Coleman quickly applied his brakes and their car stopped just west of the west curb of the intersection. Bailey lost sight of the boy as he landed near the front left side of the Bell car at a point between the door and the front fender. He did not see, hear, or feel anything to indicate that plaintiff came into contact with the Bell car.

After he got out of the car and went around to the driver's side, Bailey observed plaintiff lying beside the car ahead of the left rear wheel. No part of his body was beneath the car. Coleman was already administering first aid and was moving the conscious boy to the back of the car to get him out of traffic. At Coleman's request, Bailey called an ambulance. After the ambulance left with plaintiff and his mother, the crowd dispersed and, since there were no police at the scene, he and Coleman went back to work. No one at the scene had accused them of hitting plaintiff or asked for their names and addresses. Bailey did not check the Bell car for damage, because it had not struck the boy.

Plaintiff injured his forehead and left leg. The forehead injury was a laceration which was sutured at the hospital. The left leg injuries were a fractured left femur and a torn femoral artery. His right leg was not injured.

After leaving the scene, Coleman and Bailey completed their day's work. They then returned to the company garage where Coleman parked the car and mentioned to the wire chief on duty that he had witnessed an accident but filled out no report. He was unaware of any company policy which required employees to fill out any report forms when they witnessed accidents.

That evening, Coleman received a call from the duty foreman, who told him that the police had called seeking the identity of the Bell employee who had been at the accident scene. Coleman was given the number of a police sergeant to call. He called the police sergeant, went to the company garage, and then drove the car to the downtown Bell building where he picked up Jerome Engram of the Bell Security Department. They went to the police station where two policemen examined the car with a spotlight in the presence of Coleman and Engram. There were no dents or scratches or marks of any kind on the car and, to Coleman's knowledge, the officers found no red mark on the tread of the left front tire. However, Engram later testified that the police found a red mark on the tread of the left front tire. This mark, however, was never identified as blood, and the car was not impounded.

OPINION

I.

Defendants first contend that plaintiff failed to prove that any injury to him was proximately caused by Bell or Coleman.

• 1 Every tort action grounded in negligence requires the showing of (1) a duty owed by defendant to plaintiff; (2) a breach of that duty, i.e., a negligent act or omission; and (3) a resulting compensable injury which proximately results from the breach. Lasko v. Meier, 394 Ill. 71, 67 N.E.2d 162; Fugate v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 12 Ill. App.3d 656, 299 N.E.2d 108.

Here, defendants Bell and Coleman challenge the sufficiency of the proof of proximate causation. They refer us to the comment on subsection 1 of section 433B of Restatement (Second) Law of Torts (1965), at page 442, stating as follows:

"Subsection (1) states the general rule as to the burden of proof on the issue of causation. As on other issues in civil cases, the plaintiff is required to produce evidence that the conduct of the defendant has been a substantial factor in bringing about the harm he has suffered, and to sustain his burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence. This means that he must make it appear that it is more likely than not that the conduct of the defendant was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm. A mere possibility of such causation is not enough; and when the matter remains one of pure speculation and conjecture, or the probabilities are at best evenly balanced, it becomes the duty of the court to direct a verdict for the defendant."

Under this reasoning, they argue, the evidence here was insufficient to create a prima facie case of any negligence on their part which proximately ...


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