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Leonard v. Pacific Intermountain Express

OPINION FILED APRIL 12, 1976.

GEORGE D. LEONARD ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS-APPELLEES,

v.

PACIFIC INTERMOUNTAIN EXPRESS CO. ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS. — (LESTER E. EXLINE, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.) — (SOUTHERN EXPRESS, INC., ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,

v.

LESTER E. EXLINE, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE — (GEORGE D. LEONARD ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.). — PACIFIC INTERMOUNTAIN EXPRESS CO. ET AL., CROSS-PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,

v.

LESTER E. EXLINE, CROSS-DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.)



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. ALFONSE WELLS, Judge, presiding.

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

These multiple actions, consolidated in the trial court, arose out of a highway accident involving two cars and two trucks all proceeding in the same direction. The first vehicle was a passenger car driven by Lester E. Exline. The second vehicle, another passenger car, was driven by George D. Leonard, who had two passengers, Monica Perko Garretson and George Perko. (George Perko is not a party to this litigation.) The third vehicle, a tractor with two trailers, was owned by Pacific Intermountain Express Co. (P.I.E.) and driven by Sanford C. Matter, accompanied by an alternate driver, Leo Weis. The fourth vehicle, another tractor and trailer truck, was driven by Robert Stryszyk and owned by Southern Express Co.

A plethora of complaints, cross-complaints and other pleadings was filed. There was a separate trial as to liability only. At the end of the trial, the court directed a verdict in favor of Leonard (driver of the second vehicle) and against P.I.E. and Matter (respectively owner and driver of the third vehicle) on the ground that they were negligent as a matter of law. The jury returned a general verdict in favor of Leonard and against Exline, but answered a special interrogatory finding Leonard guilty of contributory negligence. The trial court then set aside the directed verdict against P.I.E. and Matter and the jury's general verdict against Exline and entered judgments in their favor. Leonard appealed from the judgments, contending that the answer to the special interrogatory was against the manifest weight of the evidence and that the jury was improperly instructed. P.I.E. and Matter contend that the directed verdict and judgment in favor of Leonard was error.

The jury found in favor of Monica Garretson (passenger in the Leonard car) and against Exline (driver of the first car). The court directed a verdict in favor of Monica Garretson and against P.I.E. and Matter. Judgments were entered on these verdicts. P.I.E. and Matter also claim error in the directed verdict and judgment in favor of Monica Garretson. The court also directed a verdict in favor of Exline and entered judgment for him. P.I.E. and Matter also claim this directed verdict was error. The court also directed verdicts against Southern and Stryszyk (respectively owner and driver of the fourth vehicle). This is not questioned on appeal.

The collision occurred at approximately 9:30 p.m. on Friday, July 14, 1967. Exline left his place of employment on Chicago's southwest side on Friday afternoon. He testified that he went shopping with a co-worker and then stopped for two or three beers before heading for home. At Route 45 he entered Interstate Highway 55, a six-lane, limited access expressway which runs in a southwesterly direction from Chicago. The posted minimum speed limit on I-55 is 45 miles per hour. Some time thereafter, Leonard approached from the rear and followed Exline in the far right-hand or outside lane. Shortly thereafter, at an exit-entrance area, Exline slowed well below the minimum speed or, as contended by Leonard, stopped. This forced Leonard to slow or stop. There was no traffic or other obstruction in front of Exline and, although the weather was clear and dry, he said that the reason for his slowing down was that he was looking at the road signs. Exline then sped up to about 45 or 50 miles per hour. Leonard testified he tried to pass Exline but could not because of the speed and volume of traffic in the lane to his left. About a mile from the first slowdown, Exline again slowed down or stopped shortly after passing another exit. Again, there was no apparent reason for this behavior. When Exline's car slowed, this forced Leonard also to slow and come to a stop.

Also traveling in the right lane were the P.I.E. truck and the Southern vehicle behind it. Sanford Matter, the driver of the P.I.E. truck, testified that he had just left his terminal after loading and completing a safety check on his truck and had entered the highway a few miles before the place of the accident. He said he was traveling at approximately 45 miles per hour when another truck, identified as a Carson Freight Line truck, started to pass him about two blocks before the accident scene. When the Carson truck got past the P.I.E. truck, Matter flashed his lights to signal the Carson driver that it was clear for him to come back into the right lane. Both trucks then traveled about one-half to one block in the right lane, with Matter, admittedly, only 100 feet behind the Carson truck. Suddenly the Carson driver pulled his truck from the right lane into the center lane or into the left lane. When the Carson truck moved to the left, Matter immediately saw in the right lane an obstruction on the road, which was the stopped Exline and Leonard cars. Matter attempted to stop his truck as quickly as possible and to go around the obstruction on the left. The tractor and trailer combination started to jackknife and Matter could not get it stopped or completely into the left lane. The right front wheel of the tractor climbed over and crushed the left rear portion of the Leonard car. The tractor and the lead trailer then tipped over on their left sides, while the other trailer was left standing upright.

The Southern tractor-trailer combination, driven by Stryszyk, had been following the P.I.E. truck for approximately a mile before the accident. The first indication of trouble that Stryszyk saw was the brake lights on the P.I.E. truck come on. He immediately applied his brakes and then saw the P.I.E. truck flip over. Stryszyk steered to the right of the pileup, smashed through an exit sign and overturned. He did not strike any of the other three vehicles ahead of him.

Officer Charles Krisik of the Illinois State Police testified that he was dispatched to the scene of the accident and arrived there 5 to 10 minutes after it had occurred. He stated that after observing and talking to Exline it was his opinion that Exline was intoxicated and should not have been driving. He also issued traffic citations to the drivers of both trucks for following too closely.

A consulting traffic engineer, Willard Alroth, was called as an expert witness by P.I.E. for the purpose of testifying to the emergency stopping distance of a truck such as the P.I.E. vehicle involved here. The expert's opinion was that a truck, traveling at 45 miles per hour, with two 26-foot trailers and a gross weight of 72,000 pounds, could be stopped within a distance of 180 to 230 feet including the distance traveled from the time the driver perceives the emergency situation to the time of application of the brakes.

P.I.E. and Matter contend it was error for the trial court to direct a verdict in favor of Exline in the suit by P.I.E. and Matter against Exline. They correctly state that the standard to be followed in granting a directed verdict is set out in Pedrick v. Peoria & Eastern R.R. Co. (1967), 37 Ill.2d 494, 510, 229 N.E.2d 504:

"In our judgment verdicts ought to be directed and judgments n.o.v. entered only in those cases in which all of the evidence, when viewed in its aspect most favorable to the opponent, so overwhelmingly favors movant that no contrary verdict based on that evidence could ever stand."

The directed verdict against them could only have been granted because of the Pedrick principle or because they were guilty of contributory negligence as a matter of law.

The evidence clearly raised an issue of fact against Exline. He stopped or slowed his vehicle well below the minimum speed limit on an interstate highway, thus creating an obstruction which exposed the drivers behind him to an unreasonable risk of harm. His reasons for slowing or stopping did not excuse his conduct. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1967, ch. 95 1/2, par. 185.) His actions were a proximate cause of the damage to those following him.

However, we agree with the trial court that P.I.E. and Matter did not demonstrate their freedom from contributory negligence. Their expert witness testified that because of its weight and speed it would take, at the minimum, 180 feet to stop this truck. The Illinois statute requires trucks of this classification to maintain a distance of 300 feet from other trucks. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1967, ch. 95 1/2, par. 158.) Yet Matter, the driver of the P.I.E. truck, admitted he was following the Carson truck which had passed him at only a distance of 100 feet and that they had traveled approximately one-half to one block in this position before the Carson vehicle pulled out of the right lane. The testimony of P.I.E.'s alternate driver, Leo Weis, who was in the cab with Matter, was even more damaging. He testified that they followed the Carson truck with only a 30- or 40-foot distance between them. P.I.E. and Matter seek to excuse this conduct by asserting that the 300-foot distance could not be maintained because its truck had just been passed by another truck and in order to maintain the statutory distance they would have had to decrease their speed below the posted statutory minumum.

As to the passing by the Carson truck, Matter and Weis testified that Matter had blinked his lights after the Carson truck was beyond them as a signal to the Carson driver that it was safe for him to come back into the right lane in front of them and Matter testified that after the Carson truck had moved to the right lane, he followed it for one-half to one block at a distance of 100 feet before the Carson truck pulled out of the right lane. In that one-half-to one-block distance, Matter could have gradually slowed his truck to lengthen the gap without causing any serious hazard to the vehicles behind him. Although Matter and Weis testified that Matter slowed down when the Carson truck reentered their lane, this was contradicted by their testimony that the distance between them and the Carson truck when it pulled into their lane was the same as when it pulled out about a block later.

P.I.E. and Matter assert that the statute is subject to a reasonable interpretation, implying that it could not have been complied with here because they had just been passed. While all statutes must be reasonably interpreted, we see nothing unreasonable in holding that Matter had a clear opportunity to comply with the statute. He signaled the Carson ...


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