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Fisher v. United States

October 31, 2006

ELIZABETH FISHER, INDEPENDENT ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF RAY E. FISHER, DECEASED, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gilbert, District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This matter is before the Court on a motion for summary judgment by the United States of America (Doc. 25) and a joint motion for summary judgment by Jackson County and the Jackson County Department of Highways (collectively referred to as Jackson County) (Doc. 31). Elizabeth Fisher, the independent administrator of the estate of Ray E. Fisher, deceased (Fisher), has responded to defendants' motions (Docs. 33, 34). For the following reasons, these motions will be DENIED.

BACKGROUND

Ray E. Fisher (the decedent) died in an automobile accident at the intersection of McMahon Road and Dowell Road (the intersection) in Jackson County, Illinois, on October 4, 2004. His vehicle collided with a vehicle driven by Janice Jeremiah, a rural mail carrier, as she proceeded west on Dowell, into the intersection. Traffic on westbound Dowell was unrestricted; the stop sign that should have been standing on McMahon was on the ground and out of sight. Dowell is larger than McMahon, a narrow gravel road, but the parties disagree over how it should be characterized. The United States refers to Dowell as a "preferential," paved road.

Fisher calls it an "an oil and chip surface," and denies that it was the preferential road.

Fisher claims her decedent had the right of way pursuant to the statute, 625 ILCS § 5/11-901, which gives drivers approaching an unprotected intersection from the right the right-ofway. She contends that by failing to yield to his right-of-way, Jeremiah acted negligently when she entered the intersection. Because Jeremiah was acting within her capacity as a federal mail carrier at the time of the accident, Fisher claims the United States is liable for her alleged negligence. See 28 U.S.C. § 2671 et seq. Fisher also claims that Jackson County is liable for the accident because it negligently installed the stop sign on McMahon.

ANALYSIS

I. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Spath v. Hayes Wheels Int'l-Ind., Inc., 211 F.3d 392, 396 (7th Cir. 2000). In determining the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact, the Court construes all facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Spath, 211 F.3d at 396.

If the moving party meets its burden, the nonmoving party has the burden "to go beyond the pleadings and affirmatively demonstrate, by specific factual allegations, that there is a genuine issue of material fact which requires trial." Borello v. Allison, 446 F.3d 742, 748 (7th Cir. 2006) (internal quotations and citations omitted); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-26; Johnson v. City of Fort Wayne, 91 F.3d 922, 931 (7th Cir. 1996). A genuine issue of material fact is not demonstrated by the mere existence of "some alleged factual dispute between the parties," Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247, or by "some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts," Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Rather, a genuine issue of material fact exists only if "a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the [nonmoving party] on the evidence presented." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252; Insolia v. Phillip Morris Inc., 216 F.3d 596 (7th Cir. 2000).

II. The United States's Motion for Summary Judgment

Fisher has stated claims against the United States for personal injury and wrongful death. As she has brought these claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2671 et seq., Illinois law applies. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1).

The United States chose only to address the issue of breach in its motion, so the Court will similarly confine its inquiry. According to the United States, Dowell's preferential status clothed Jeremiah with the right-of-way without regard to 625 ILCS 5/11-901. See King v. Illinois Division of Highways, 30 Ill.Ct.Cl. 457, 1975 WL 20018 (Ill. Ct. Cl. 1975). More than this, it claims Dowell's status entitled Jeremiah to presume that the decedent would stop before entering the intersection even though the stop sign was down. See Salo v. Singhurse, 537 N.E.2d 339 (Ill. App. Ct. 5th Cir. 1989). Thus, it claims Jeremiah did not breach her duty of care when she drove into the intersection.

The United States's position is oversimplified and, ultimately, incorrect. To begin, its claims cannot be accepted because it has not adequately supported its contention that Dowell was the preferential road. It simply assumes -- presumably, because McMahon was a narrower, gravel road and Dowell was paved (or had an oil and chip surface) -- that Dowell was the preferential road. It offers no case or statutory law to support this proposition, though it is reasonably clear the United States has gleaned a hierarchy of road surfaces from King v. Illinois Division of Highways. There, the Court assumed that one of the roads at an intersection was the preferential road because it was a "2-lane concrete pavement and obviously a main road," while the other was "a narrow oiled street obviously . . . of secondary importance." King, 1975 WL 20018, at *4. This holding is relevant here, but on the facts before it now, the Court cannot say that McMahon was obviously a road of secondary importance. Depending on the circumstances (i.e., if Dowell was only a few feet wider than McMahon and not divided into two lanes) it might be unfair to presume that the ...


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