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Hargrove v. Neuner





Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County; the Hon. James K. Donovan, Judge, presiding.


On August 28, 1980, an automobile allegedly driven by David Hargrove and owned by plaintiff Tammy Bonn collided with an automobile driven by defendant, Harlan Neuner. Hargrove was killed; plaintiff Terry Bonn, alleged to be Hargrove's passenger, was seriously injured; and the car in which they were riding sustained extensive damage. Shortly thereafter, a three-count complaint arising from this collision was filed against defendant. The complaint sounded in negligence. Count I, for wrongful death, was brought by plaintiff Mary Hargrove, as administrator of David Hargrove's estate. Count II sought damages for personal injuries suffered by plaintiff Terry Bonn. Count III, brought on behalf of plaintiff Tammy Bonn, sought compensation for destruction of the automobile she professed to own.

Defendant denied liability for the collision and contested the extent of damages claimed by plaintiffs. He also contended that plaintiffs were contributorily negligent. Following a jury trial before the circuit court of St. Clair County, the court directed a verdict in favor of plaintiff Tammy Bonn on the issue of contributory negligence. Thereafter, the jury rendered its verdict against each plaintiff and in favor of defendant. The circuit court entered judgment for defendant on that verdict, and plaintiffs now appeal. We affirm.

• 1 The verdict for defendant presumes a finding by the jury that he was not negligent. Plaintiffs' first argument on appeal is that this verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence. We do not agree. A verdict is against "the manifest weight of the evidence" only when an opposite conclusion is clearly apparent or when the finding of the jury appears arbitrary and unsubstantiated by the evidence. (Holmes v. Sahara Coal Co. (1985), 131 Ill. App.3d 666, 674, 475 N.E.2d 1383, 1389.) Accordingly, a reviewing court will not disturb a jury's findings unless, considering all the evidence in the light most favorable to the party who prevailed at trial, the jury's conclusion is palpably erroneous and wholly unwarranted. (131 Ill. App.3d 666, 674, 475 N.E.2d 1383, 1389.) Such is not the case here.

The evidence adduced at trial showed that at dusk on the evening of August 28, 1980, David Hargrove and plaintiff Terry Bonn were driving east on Highway 161 in the city of Belleville. Both were riding in the front seat of their vehicle, a 1968 four-door Dodge. Hargrove was apparently the driver and Bonn the passenger, although this point is disputed. East of an intersection with Carson Road, Highway 161 descends a hill and curves to the left toward an intersection with Dutch Hollow Road. Between these two intersections Highway 161 is a 22-foot wide, concrete paved road with one lane for eastbound traffic and one lane for westbound traffic. The lanes are undivided, but are delineated by interval white striping. The westbound lane, approaching the Carson Road intersection, also has a yellow line marking it as a no-passing zone. The eastbound lane is bordered by a gravel shoulder, beyond which are marker posts, an embankment and woods. The speed limit is 55 miles per hour.

As Hargrove and plaintiff Terry Bonn proceeded along Highway 161 down the hill and around the curve east of Carson Road, their car went off the pavement and onto the gravel shoulder. It then skidded north in a semicircular path back across the eastbound lane and into the opposite lane, where it collided with defendant's westbound automobile. Testimony showed that the right rear passenger side of plaintiff's car struck the left front corner of the vehicle driven by defendant, a 1976 Chrysler Cordoba. The point of impact was approximately the center of defendant's westbound lane. After the collision, plaintiffs' automobile continued through the westbound lane and came to rest on an embankment north of the highway roadbed. It left 45 to 50 feet of skid marks on the pavement. Defendant's vehicle made no skid marks.

Plaintiffs' theory of the case is that the collision was caused by defendant's negligence when he passed another westbound auto traveling ahead of him. That auto was driven by Janis Vahlkamp. Marjorie Strom was her passenger. For the purposes of the present discussion, this auto shall be referred to as the "Vahlkamp vehicle." Plaintiffs contended that as defendant passed the Vahlkamp vehicle, he entered the no-passing zone and was exceeding the posted speed limit. Although defendant had ample time to return to the westbound lane, he allegedly remained in the eastbound lane and did not return to his proper lane of traffic until a split second before the collision. Plaintiffs suggest that the reason the Hargrove and Bonn automobile left the road, then swerved across the highway, was that David Hargrove saw defendant's oncoming vehicle in his lane and was attempting what proved to be an unsuccessful evasive maneuver.

Plaintiffs called defendant as an adverse witness. Defendant suffered a concussion in the collision and was unconscious at the scene. His memory of the facts surrounding the accident was impaired, and he could not recall passing the Vahlkamp vehicle or driving in the eastbound lane. He testified, however, that he could remember seeing a slower moving vehicle ahead of him in the westbound lane as he started around the curve east of the Carson Road intersection. The vehicle was said to be either a small station wagon or a hatchback-type vehicle, with license plates that bore the letters BAR, and was a two-tone color, tan and brown or brown and tan. Defendant stated that this vehicle proceeded for a long period of time straddling the centerline and appeared to be headed toward a sign in the middle of the road marking a concrete median that divided the highway's approach to the Carson Road intersection. Defendant testified that the vehicle veered to miss the median, at which time he first saw plaintiffs' automobile. According to defendant, plaintiffs' auto was proceeding eastbound out of control and toward his lane. Finally, defendant stated that he was familiar with this stretch of highway; he was driving slowly, perhaps 30 miles per hour; and was entirely within his lane at the time of impact.

Simply put, defendant's argument is that if any car caused the collision with plaintiffs' vehicle, it was this small, two-tone car ahead of him and not his own. This argument was corroborated by a statement given by plaintiff Terry Bonn to a field claim representative for defendant's insurer shortly after the accident. In that statement, Bonn indicated that plaintiffs' car dropped off the road and "slid out" when it moved to avoid an oncoming car in their lane, but that this car was not defendant's. At trial, plaintiff Terry Bonn admitted giving the statement and said that he had done so truthfully.

Plaintiffs produced only one eyewitness to the collision who was not involved in it, Janis Vahlkamp. Vahlkamp's testimony largely supported plaintiffs' theory of the case. She stated that she saw no westbound traffic, no small station wagon or hatchback, ahead of defendant. On cross-examination, Vahlkamp conceded that the curve in this stretch of Highway 161 would obstruct a westbound driver's view of traffic further ahead, but suggested that she was always close enough to defendant's automobile that she would have seen a third westbound vehicle in front of him if one had been present.

Plaintiffs also introduced deposition testimony by Marjorie Strom, Vahlkamp's passenger. Strom stated that defendant passed the car in which she was riding, but she did not know whether defendant returned to his lane of traffic. Like Vahlkamp, she saw no third westbound vehicle ahead of defendant. Strom testified, however, that she turned to talk to Vahlkamp as defendant's car was going around them. She did not see the collision.

Plaintiffs further adduced testimony from Sergeant Lewis Hurst of the Belleville police department. Sergeant Hurst was the officer in charge of the department's traffic unit and was in charge of and supervised the accident investigation in this case. His testimony was restricted by the court to such matters as on-scene measurements he took or observed, where the vehicles were located when he arrived, and the point of the impact.

• 2 In light of all the evidence, the question of whether the collision was caused by defendant's negligence is a matter upon which reasonable persons could disagree. Merely because the jury here apparently chose to believe defendant's theory that the collision was caused by someone else's automobile does not mean that the verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence. It was the jury's function to evaluate the weight of the evidence and to assess the credibility of the witnesses. (Gould v. Campbell's Ambulance Service, Inc. (1984), 130 Ill. App.3d 598, 603, 474 N.E.2d 740, 744.) The conflicting testimony here presented a clear jury question, and we cannot characterize the jury's finding in favor of defendant as arbitrary or palpably erroneous.

• 3 Plaintiffs' second argument on appeal is that the circuit court committed reversible error when it permitted defendant's attorney to show through cross-examination that plaintiff Terry Bonn had operated plaintiffs' vehicle earlier on the day of the collision, although Bonn did not possess a driver's license. At trial, plaintiffs' counsel objected to this line of questioning and moved to strike the evidence on the sole ground that it was irrelevant. Defendant countered by arguing that this testimony, in connection with other evidence, tended to prove: (1) that Terry Bonn, not David Hargrove, was the driver of plaintiff's vehicle at the time of the collision, and (2) that Terry Bonn, not Tammy Bonn, was the vehicle's owner. Plaintiffs' objection and motion were overruled by the circuit court. On appeal, plaintiffs now contend for the first time that evidence regarding Terry Bonn's operation of the vehicle without a license should ...

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