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Cox v. Stutts





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Douglas County; the Hon. James N. Sherrick, Judge, presiding.


This appeal is from summary judgments entered on behalf of certain defendants in a negligence action brought to recover for personal injuries. The action arose from a series of motor vehicle collisions which occurred in the southbound lanes of Interstate Highway 57 near Tuscola in the early afternoon of December 24, 1980. At all times pertinent, the visibility was greatly impaired because of blowing snow. The basic issue on appeal is whether negligence upon the part of the defendants, in whose favor the summary judgments were entered and whose vehicles were involved in the chain of collisions, could have been a proximate cause of the injuries which plaintiff ultimately sustained.

On November 19, 1982, plaintiff, Ruth Cox, initiated the litigation by filing a 12-count complaint against 12 defendants in the circuit court of Douglas County. A subsequent count against an additional defendant was added later. On January 30, 1984, the court entered summary judgment in favor of defendant Linda S. Heath. On February 29, 1984, the court entered summary judgments in favor of defendants John Schuster and John Flynn. After disposal of plaintiff's claims against other defendants, plaintiff appealed the summary judgments in favor of the three defendants.

The factual basis for the three summary judgments was provided by various depositions which had been placed on file. Several undisputed facts were revealed by those depositions. At least 13 automobiles were forced to stop as they passed through the area of the collisions. Defendant Justin K. Hickerson was driving in a southerly direction as he approached the scene. After driving through an area of extremely low visibility, Hickerson noticed two vehicles parked in the two southbound lanes of the highway. As the highway was completely covered with ice, he was unable to stop and he drove into the driver's side of one of the cars. That car was apparently facing in an easterly direction and was extending across the highway. When Hickerson's car came to a stop, it was hit by another vehicle headed in a southerly direction. Subsequent collisions continued to occur for a period of more than an hour. Defendants Schuster and Flynn drove vehicles which arrived at the scene during this period.

Eventually, defendant Heath arrived on the scene, was unable to stop her vehicle and ran into a vehicle in front of her. The impact was sufficient that she received serious injuries. Plaintiff then arrived on the scene as a passenger in a vehicle driven by her daughter. The vehicle stopped without a collision, and plaintiff alighted and walked to the Heath vehicle. At least one vehicle stopped north of the vehicle in which plaintiff had been riding. Soon a vehicle coming from the north collided with the last of those vehicles and produced a chain reaction causing the vehicle in which plaintiff had been riding to strike plaintiff. Plaintiff sustained rather severe injuries.

A party is entitled to a summary judgment when the matters properly before the court show that no question of fact exists on any material issue necessary to entitle the movant to a judgment as a matter of law. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 110, par. 2-1005.) Although defendant Flynn also maintains that the evidence conclusively shows that he was not negligent, the heart of the contentions of each of the three defendants is that the record conclusively shows that any negligence on their part could not have been a proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries. We examine the contentions of each of the three defendants separately, considering the evidence most favorably to the plaintiff.

• 1 We begin with the case against defendant Flynn. When he arrived on the scene, he was able to bring the vehicle he was driving to a stop some three or four feet behind the vehicle stopped in front of him. He did so without hitting any other vehicle. His automobile was then hit immediately by the Heath car. Plaintiff asserts that defendant could have been negligent in failing to move his vehicle onto the shoulder before stopping. Although a contention that Flynn could have been shown to be negligent seems uncertain, at best, we need not decide that question, because we hold that any negligence on his part could not have been a cause, let alone a proximate cause, of plaintiff's injuries.

The alleged causal connection between Flynn's act of stopping his car on the highway and plaintiff's injuries is that Flynn's act contributed to the blocking of the southbound lanes, which, in turn, was a causative factor in the chain collision whereby the car plaintiff had been riding in was pushed against her. However, at the time the Heath vehicle hit Flynn's, the latter vehicle was only three or four feet behind a vehicle stopped in front of it. Heath testified that she could see only approximately two car lengths in front of her at the time of the collision. The impact of the collision between Heath's and Flynn's vehicles was quite violent. It is apparent that if Flynn's vehicle had not been there, the Heath vehicle would have had a violent collision with the vehicle stopped in front of Flynn and the road would have been blocked in the same manner. It cannot be stated with reason that any of the significant events which occurred subsequent to the collision between Heath and Flynn's vehicles would have been any different if Flynn had driven onto the shoulder before stopping. In fact, the events would not have been any different if Flynn's vehicle had not been present. Flynn's conduct was not an efficient cause of plaintiff's injuries and could not have been a proximate cause of them. (W. Prosser & W. Keeton, Torts sec. 41 (5th ed. 1984).) Accordingly, summary judgment was properly entered in favor of Flynn.

• 2 Similarly, Schuster's conduct has no causal relationship to plaintiff's injuries. He arrived on the scene before Flynn. Construed most favorably to plaintiff, the evidence indicated that Schuster's vehicle collided with one or more vehicles which were already blocking the highway. Schuster then drove some distance to the south and parked his vehicle off the road prior to the time that Flynn arrived. The evidence does not indicate that Schuster did anything to contribute to the blocked highway that confronted the vehicles subsequently arriving on the scene. Thus, the lack of showing of causal relationship between Schuster's conduct and plaintiff's injuries also justified the summary judgment entered in his favor.

• 3 Defendant Heath makes no claim that her conduct could not be found to be negligent. Rather, she also relies upon the theory that her negligence could not have been a proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries. As with Flynn and Schuster, her conduct of running into a vehicle ahead of her was not a cause of the road blockage because the road was already blocked. However, unlike Flynn and Schuster's conduct, her conduct and her resultant injuries were a cause of persons such as plaintiff being out of their automobiles and on the road. Thus, there was some causative relationship between any negligence on Heath's part and plaintiff's injuries. Accordingly, we must determine if such negligence could be found by a trier of fact to be a proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries.

Heath argues that the act of the driver who hit the cars parked behind the one in which plaintiff had been a passenger and which started the chain reaction of colliding vehicles was an intervening factor which insulated Heath's conduct from a proximate relationship to plaintiff's injuries. The supreme court has stated the relationship between the existence of proximate cause and an intervening factor as follows:

"The rule that the causal connection between a person's negligence and an injury is broken by the intervention of a new, independent, efficient and intervening cause so that the negligence is not actionable is subject to the qualification that if the intervening cause was foreseen or reasonably might have been foreseen by the wrongdoer, his negligence may be considered the proximate cause of the injury and he may be held liable notwithstanding the intervening cause." (Emphasis added.) (Neering v. Illinois Central R.R. Co. (1943), 383 Ill. 366, 381, 50 N.E.2d 497, 504.)

Application of the foregoing rule to negligence actions arising from a series of highway collisions involving multiple vehicles has been difficult.

In Hook v. Heim (1977), 54 Ill. App.3d 368, 369 N.E.2d 563, an initial multivehicle collision left one of the vehicles completely blocking a highway. A group of people, including plaintiff, came to the scene to aid those in the vehicles. After approximately five minutes, a third vehicle came along the highway, hit the vehicle blocking the highway and knocked that vehicle into the plaintiff. In an action for personal injuries caused by negligence, the plaintiff obtained a judgment on a verdict against the driver of one of the two vehicles creating the roadblock. The Fifth District reversed and remanded for a new trial, but held that plaintiff had presented a jury question of whether negligence by the defendant driver in causing the first collision was a proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries suffered ...

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