University of Vermont AAHS

Atkins v. Stratmeyer

 

South Dakota Supreme Court
600 N.W.2d 891
September 29, 1999

 

Summary of Opinion

Plaintiff Atkins was injured when his motor vehicle collided with defendant’s horses on a public highway. A jury found for the plaintiff and awarded damages. Defendant appealed. The South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the jury’s award of damages based on the negligence of the defendant in permitting the horses to go onto the highway.

 

Text of Opinion

DOBBERPUHL, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from a jury verdict in favor of Brad and Lori Atkins (Atkins) stemming from an automobile accident in which Brad Atkins struck three horses belonging to Robert and Marilyn Stratmeyer (Stratmeyers). The jury found Stratmeyers negligent in not preventing their horses from being on the road and granted Atkins a monetary award for injuries and damages sustained in the collision. Stratmeyers appealed and Atkins filed a notice of review. We affirm in part and reverse and remand for award of costs.

FACTS

 

Brad Atkins was driving to work around 3:10 a.m. on November 23, 1994, on South Dakota State Highway 17 near Lennox, South Dakota. He collided with three horses which were on the road and belonged to Stratmeyers. Atkins' vehicle rolled into the ditch and he sustained physical injuries. Atkins' total damages, including medical, lost wages, and property damage, was about $76,000. The jury found in favor of Atkins and awarded Atkins damages of $100,000 and his wife Lori $1,000 for loss of consortium.

The fenced-in enclosure in which the horses were kept was adjacent to the accident site. It was not conclusively established as to how the horses escaped from the enclosure and onto the road. No fences were damaged or broken, no horse hair was found on the tops of fences to show the horses jumped over, and Stratmeyers said that upon their examination the next morning they found all the gates closed. Testimony by horse experts from both parties showed the most likely way the horses ended up on the road was through a gate which was left open. It is undisputed that the last person to check the gates before the accident was either Stratmeyer.

As will be detailed in the pertinent discussion below, at several points before, during and after trial, Stratmeyers made various objections and moved for directed verdict, mistrial, new trial, and judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The trial court's rulings on these motions led Stratmeyers to appeal and raise the following issues:

Whether a mistrial or new trial was required due to mention of Atkins' insurance and financial condition during the jury trial.

Whether the jury was precluded from finding Brad Atkins contributory negligent due to (1) allowing a highway patrol officer to testify that the vehicle was traveling the speed limit and (2) refusing to instruct the jury regarding over-driving the conditions.

Whether the trial court erred in instructing the jury to consider evidence, testimony and argument concerning the high volume of traffic on the highway where the accident occurred.

Whether the evidence at trial supported the jury's verdict of negligence on the part of Stratmeyers.

Atkins filed a notice of review and raises several issues regarding jury instructions concerning a livestock owner's duty of care which they want given if the case is remanded. Atkins also present one issue having to do with costs which were not awarded to them:

Whether the trial court erred in refusing to grant Atkins the costs of: (1) costs in obtaining impairment ratings from a physician; (2) all copies made by plaintiffs in the process of prosecuting this matter without itemizing the use of each photocopy; and (3) the costs of retaining a private investigator for investigating service in producing and finding evidence necessary to try the case.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

"Evidentiary rulings will not be disturbed unless there is a clear showing of an abuse of discretion." Zens v. Harrison, 538 N.W.2d 794, 795 (S.D.1995)(citing State v. Hanson, 456 N.W.2d 135, 138 (S.D.1990); State v. Olesen, 443 N.W.2d 8, 9 (S.D.1989); State v. Bawdon, 386 N.W.2d 484, 486 (S.D.1986)).

We also review a trial court's grant or denial of new trial under the abuse of discretion standard:

It is a well-established rule in South Dakota that a trial court has broad discretion to grant a new trial on the ground of insufficient evidence. Lewis v. Storms, 290 NW2d 494,497 (SD 1980). Nevertheless, a jury's verdict should not be set aside "except in extreme cases where it is the result of passion or prejudice or the jury has palpably mistaken the rules of law...." Stoltz v. Stonecypher, 336 NW2d 654,657 (SD 1983)(citing Simons v. Kidd, 73 S.D. 306, 42 N.W.2d 307, 309 (1950)). A verdict should only be set aside if the jury's conclusion was unreasonable and a clear illustration of its failure to impartially apply "the reasoning faculty on the facts before them." Lewis, 290 N.W.2d at 497 (quoting Drew v. Lawrence, 37 S.D. 620, 623, 159 N.W. 274, 277 (1916)).

LDL Cattle Co., Inc. v. Guetter, 1996 SD 22, p 13, 544 N.W.2d 523, 526-27.

The trial court is best able to judge whether a verdict is the product of passion and prejudice, and the Supreme Court will not disturb its decision except for clear abuse. Stene v. Hillgren, 77 S.D. 165, 88 N.W.2d 109 (1958).

An application for a new trial is addressed to the sound discretion of the trial court and the grant or denial will not be overturned absent a showing of abuse of discretion. Lewis v. Storms, 290 N.W.2d 494 (S.D.1980); Jensen v. Miller, 80 S.D. 384, 124 N.W.2d 394 (1963). Orders granting new trials stand on firmer ground than orders denying them. Id.; Gould v. Mans, 82 S.D. 574, 152 N.W.2d 92 (1967). Simmons v. City of Sioux Falls, 374 N.W.2d 631, 632 (S.D.1985).

Regarding a judgment NOV (notwithstanding the verdict), we have said:

A motion for judgment [notwithstanding the verdict] is based on and relates back to a directed verdict motion made at the close of all the evidence. [SDCL 15-6-50(b) ] Thus, the grounds asserted in support of the directed verdict motion are brought before the trial court for a second review. We review the testimony and evidence in a light most favorable to the verdict or the nonmoving party, ... then without weighing the evidence we must decide if there is evidence which would have supported or did support a verdict. (citations omitted).

Schuldies v. Millar, 1996 SD 120, p 8, 555 N.W.2d 90, 94-95 (quoting Bauman v. Auch, 539 N.W.2d 320, 325 (S.D.1995)); see also State v. DeNoyer, 541 N.W.2d 725, 733 (S.D.1995); Bridge v. Karl's, Inc., 538 N.W.2d 521, 523 (S.D.1995).

DECISION

Whether Atkins' insurance and financial condition were improperly mentioned during jury trial.

In Brad Atkins' testimony during trial in front of the jury, the subject of insurance was mentioned:

Question: And did you have to borrow any money to just--did you receive any pay while you were sick?

Answer: No. My dad's company was smaller at that time. We didn't offer insurance and I didn't qualify for Workman's Comp, so I had to borrow three thousand dollars from my father.

Stratmeyers claim that this exchange improperly introduced insurance to the jury and left the jury with the impression that Atkins did not have applicable health insurance, which in actuality he did possess. Stratmeyers also claim that Atkins improperly mentioned damages in closing arguments:

Atkins' Counsel: Let's talk about damages for a moment. There's really no dispute at all that the Atkins suffered $70,693.57 in damages. They spent that for the car that was destroyed, the medical expenses, the lost work. That's a goodly sum of money for somebody else's enjoyment. So there's no quarrel with that.

The trial court had issued a pretrial order prohibiting the mentioning of insurance, but said it was allowable for Atkins to talk about damages. Stratmeyers moved for mistrial after both the above incidents. The trial court denied the motions. After judgment was entered, Stratmeyers moved for a new trial based on the alleged improper injection of insurance. Again, the trial court denied the motion. The trial court offered Stratmeyers a limiting instruction after insurance was mentioned but Stratmeyers declined.

The rule prohibiting the introduction of insurance is found in SDCL 19-12-13:

Evidence that a person was or was not insured against liability is not admissible upon the issue whether he acted negligently or otherwise wrongfully. This section does not require the exclusion of evidence of insurance against liability when offered for another purpose, such as proof of agency, ownership, or control, or bias or prejudice of a witness.

"This rule evolved as a way to protect defendants from the possibility that a jury may be influenced in its findings of liability or damages by the mention of insurance." LDL Cattle Co., Inc. v. Guetter, 1996 SD 22 at p 27, 544 N.W.2d at 528-529 (citing Lowe v. Steele Const. Co., 368 N.W.2d 610, 613 (S.D.1985)). What was mentioned in this case was Atkins' health insurance, not Stratmeyers' liability insurance, which is not prohibited by the statute.

Nevertheless, Stratmeyers insist that the above statements to the jury were in violation of the trial court's orders and resulted in prejudice to the Stratmeyers, thus requiring a new trial. Similar to the applicable statute, South Dakota case law on this issue involves the mention of defendant's liability insurance, not the mention of plaintiff's health insurance. See, e.g., LDL Cattle Co., Inc. v. Guetter, 1996 SD 22 at p 27, 544 N.W.2d at 528-29; Arbach v. Gruba, 89 S.D. 322, 327, 232 N.W.2d 842, 845 (S.D.1975). Even the mere mention of the presence of liability insurance is not always grounds for immediate mistrial. Lowe v. Steele Const. Co., 368 N.W.2d at 613. "Though evidence of liability insurance is generally inadmissible on the issue of negligence, SDCL 19-12-13, certain questions concerning liability insurance were allowed in voir dire to determine potential juror bias or prejudice." Schuetzle v. Nash-Finch Co., 72 S.D. 588, 594, 38 N.W.2d 137, 140 (1949)(modified on other grounds, Hoffman v. Royer, 359 N.W.2d 387, 391 (S.D.1984)). "Statements of witnesses implying that the defendant carried liability insurance, not responsive to questions asked but in the nature of voluntary statements that could not have been anticipated, are not deemed to be reversible error if they are excluded from consideration by the jury under proper instructions of the court." Schuetzle, 72 S.D. at 594, 38 N.W.2d at 140.

Even if these statements could be considered error, it is harmless error. The trial court found, and we agree, that Stratmeyers did not suffer any prejudice as a result of Atkins' minimal reference to insurance and financial condition. We decline to extend the law to prohibit every single mention of financial status or insurance in cases such as this where it is vital to establish the amount of damages. The trial court is affirmed on this issue.

Whether the jury was precluded from finding Brad Atkins' contributory negligent due to (1) allowing a highway patrol officer to testify that the vehicle was traveling the speed limit and (2) refusing to instruct the jury regarding over-driving the conditions.

The investigating officer testified at trial that he believed Atkins' vehicle was traveling the speed limit of 55 mph shortly before and at the time of impact. Stratmeyers claim that the officer had no foundation for his opinion and he was not qualified as an expert to render an opinion of the probable speed of the vehicle. Part of the testimony was as follows:

Question: At that time, is one of your duties to estimate the speed at which the collision took place?

Answer: Yes.

Question: What did you estimate the speed to be on that night?

...

Answer: ... I saw no indication of excessive speed at the location, no braking marks, so I used my judgment and went with the posted legal speed limit, fifty-five.

...

Question: And isn't it a fact that in those situations where you don't have any data to actually arrive at a speed calculation, it's your practice to give the driver the benefit of the doubt and just put in the speed limit, the prevailing speed limit at that time?

Answer: With no evidence, no skids, and nothing to indicate an excessive speed, that was my decision that night to go with the posted speed limit, yes.

"[A] lay witness may give an opinion if he has personal knowledge of the matter." Gerlach v. Ethan Coop Lumber Ass'n., 478 N.W.2d 828, 831 (S.D.1991)(citing State v. Bittner, 359 N.W.2d 121 (S.D.1984); SDCL 19- 15-1; SDCL 19-14-2)). "Nonexpert testimony ... requires no foundation and ... a nonexpert may testify regarding his or her opinions or inferences which are based on perceptions and which facilitate a clear understanding of the testimony or the determination of a fact in issue." State v. No Heart, 353 N.W.2d 43, 48 (S.D.1984); United States Fire Ins. Co. v. Dace, 305 N.W.2d 50, 56 (S.D.1981).

"The weight and credibility of the officer's opinion was for the jury to determine." State v. No Heart, 353 N.W.2d at 48. Here, the jury was free to place whatever weight on the officer's opinion it felt was warranted by the situation. The officer was never offered nor qualified as an expert and his testimony made clear the limitations of his opinion. It was not err to allow the officer to testify as he did.

The second part of this issue involves the trial court's refusal to instruct the jury on over-driving the road conditions. This stems from the Stratmeyer's assertion that there was fog the morning of the accident and that even if Atkins was going the speed limit, he was still over-driving the conditions and thus he was contributory negligent. Only one witness, Jay Lundt, who was driving around the same time and location as the accident, said there was fog that morning and that it was lifting shortly after the accident. No one else, including Atkins, the medical and emergency personnel, or the investigating office recall the presence of fog that morning.

Despite the lack of evidence showing fog that morning, the trial court erred in not giving the jury instruction on over-driving the conditions. It was up to the jury to decide the credibility of the one witness who recalled fog and whether Atkins was contributory negligent in light of such evidence. However, Stratmeyers must establish that such error prejudiced them by showing "the jury probably would have reached a different verdict, one more favorable to him, had correct instructions been given." LDL Cattle Co., Inc. v. Guetter, 1996 SD 22 at p 35, 544 N.W.2d at 530. Due to the lack of overwhelming evidence establishing the presence of fog, we believe the jury would not have reached a different conclusion had they received the instruction. Thus, the error was harmless. The trial court is affirmed on this issue.

Whether the trial court erred in instructing the jury to consider evidence, testimony and argument concerning the high volume of traffic on the highway where the accident occurred.

Stratmeyers claim that the trial court's instructions to the jury that they should consider the character of the highway in determining the standard of care owed by the horse owners was erroneous and not the correct law in South Dakota. The Stratmeyers are mistaken in this assertion.

Landowners have a duty of ordinary care regarding their roaming animals:

At common law an owner of a domestic animal is under no legal obligation to restrain it from being at large on the highway unattended, and he is not liable for damages for an injury resulting from its being so at large unless he has knowledge of vicious propensities of the animal or unless he should reasonably have anticipated that injury would result from its being so at large on the highway.

Eixenberger v. Belle Fourche Livestock Exchange, 75 S.D. 1, 5, 58 N.W.2d 235, 237 (1953)(emphasis original); see also, Pexa v. Clark, 85 S.D. 37, 40, 176 N.W.2d 497, 499 (1970)(adopting the above standard in a case involving animals in a fenced lot, specifically mentioning the "busy highway" adjacent to the enclosure). This Court has said that in the absence of a specific statute, this rule governs the responsibility of livestock owners. Hitzel v. Clark, 334 N.W.2d 37, 39 (S.D.1983).

Thus, we look to the facts of each case and consider "[t]he character of the road, the kind of traffic thereon, the time of day, and all other pertinent facts and the surrounding conditions" to determine whether the defendant should have reasonably anticipated the danger. Estate of Shuck v. Perkins County, 1998 SD 32, p 12, 577 N.W.2d 584, 587 (quoting Eixenberger, 75 S.D. at 6, 58 N.W.2d at 238). Whether the owner could have anticipated that the animals would stray onto the highway is a question of fact for the jury. Eixenberger, 75 S.D. 1, 58 N.W.2d 235. Here, it appears the jury considered these factors and found that Stratmeyers should have anticipated the horses' escape would cause injury.

Stratmeyers would like to twist the law, specifically Zeeb v. Handel, 401 N.W.2d 536 (S.D.1987), into saying that the busy traffic on the highway should not be a factor. Zeeb looked at whether the owner should have anticipated that the animals might escape, but did not mention the factors the jury should consider in making that determination, such as the highway characteristics. Zeeb did not need to go into those factors since the animals in that case had a history of escaping. Stratmeyers' argument on this point is not persuasive. The trial court is affirmed on this issue.

Whether the evidence at trial supported the jury's verdict of negligence on the part of Stratmeyers.

Stratmeyers moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict under SDCL 15-6-50(b) and moved for a new trial based on insufficiency of the evidence under SDCL 15-6-59(a)(6). Both motions were denied by the trial court.

A reiteration of the standard here is beneficial: "[A] jury's verdict should not be set aside 'except in extreme cases where it is the result of passion or prejudice or the jury has palpably mistaken the rules of law.' " LDL Cattle Co., Inc. v. Guetter, 1996 SD 22 at p 13, 544 N.W.2d at 526-527 (quoting Stoltz v. Stonecypher, 336 N.W.2d 654, 657 (S.D.1983)); Simons v. Kidd, 73 S.D. 306, 42 N.W.2d 307, 309 (1950)). "A verdict should only be set aside if the jury's conclusion was unreasonable and a clear illustration of its failure to impartially apply 'the reasoning faculty on the facts before them.' " Id. (citing Lewis v. Storms, 290 N.W.2d 494, 497 (S.D.1980); Drew v. Lawrence, 37 S.D. 620, 623, 159 N.W. 274, 277 (1916)).

Stratmeyers argue that the trial court should have entered a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or granted a new trial because the evidence did not support the jury's verdict. They claim the evidence showed that Stratmeyers did not act negligently.

Despite Stratmeyers' claim to the contrary, there was evidence to support the jury verdict. Testimony at trial showed the most probable manner in which the horses escaped from the fenced enclosure was through an open gate. Stratmeyers admit that they were the last ones to check the gates, so the logical and obvious conclusion which the jury reached was that Stratmeyers negligently left a gate open. The trial court is affirmed on this issue.

Whether Atkins should have received: (1) costs in obtaining impairment ratings from a physician; (2) cost of all copies made by plaintiffs in the process of prosecuting this matter without itemizing the use of each photocopy; and (3) the costs of retaining a private investigator for investigating service in producing and finding evidence necessary to try the case.

The statute which allows recovery of costs is SDCL 15-17-37:

The prevailing party in a civil action or special proceeding may recover expenditures necessarily incurred in gathering and procuring evidence or bringing the matter to trial. Such expenditures include costs of telephonic hearings, costs of telephoto or fax charges, fees of witnesses, interpreters, translators, officers, printers, service of process, filing, expenses from telephone calls, copying, costs of original and copies of transcripts and reporter's attendance fees, court appointed experts and other similar expenses and charges. These expenditures are termed disbursements and are taxed pursuant to s 15-6-54(d).

The trial court has the discretion to award distributions. Genetics Research v. J K Mill-Iron Ranch, 535 N.W.2d 839, 846 (S.D.1995).

We have previously held that photocopies are covered under the statute, if they can be proved. Schuldies v. Millar, 1996 SD at p 35, 555 N.W.2d at 100. As Atkins provided a report with a specific amount expended for in-office photocopies, the trial court should have awarded Atkins such fees.

We have not previously addressed awarding costs for investigation fees and impairment ratings. In Nelson v. Nelson Cattle Co., 513 N.W.2d 900 (S.D.1994), this Court had the opportunity to expand SDCL 15-17-37 to allow recovery of expert witness fees beyond the statutorily mandated "court appointed experts." But this Court chose to follow the statutory language word for word "in the absence of some clear reference to expert witness fees being treated different from statutory witness fees." Id. at 907. We again decline to expand the statutory language and hold that investigation fees and impairment ratings are not recoverable costs under SDCL 15-17-37.

The trial court is affirmed except as to its denial of costs for Atkins' photocopies. The matter is remanded to the trial court for an order awarding those costs in accord with this decision.

KONENKAMP, Justice (concurring in result).

I cannot agree with the majority that it was permissible to allow the highway patrol officer to testify that Brad Atkins was travelling fifty-five miles per hour at the time of the accident. The opinion lacked any foundation. The officer took no measurements and made no examination of the damage to ascertain speed at impact. Not having data to make a speed calculation, the officer nonetheless told the jury that he used his "judgment and went with the posted legal speed limit, fifty-five." He was neither qualified as an expert witness nor called as one. Contrary to the majority's characterization, this was not lay witness opinion testimony.

Lay witness opinions are defined in SDCL 19-15-1 (Rule 701):

If the witness is not testifying as an expert, his testimony in the form of opinions or inferences is limited to those opinions or inferences which are (1) rationally based on the perception of the witness and (2) helpful to a clear understanding of his testimony or the determination of a fact in issue.

Generally, this rule has been construed to allow two types of lay opinions: (1) collective fact opinions, and (2) skilled lay observer opinions. Edward J. Imwinkelried, Evidentiary Foundations 279 (4th ed 1998). A collective fact opinion is the expression of an inference lay people commonly draw. Id. at 280. Unable to articulate all the sensory data supporting a logical inference, the rule allows opinions on subjects such as height, distance, speed, color, and identity. Id. Lay witnesses must have personal knowledge of the data supporting their opinions. State v. Bittner, 359 N.W.2d 121, 126 (S.D.1984) (Rule 701 is qualified by SDCL 19-14-2 (Rule 602) requiring witnesses to have "personal knowledge"). The officer did not observe Atkins driving his vehicle or striking the horses. Thus, he had no personal knowledge as a basis for giving a lay opinion.

In the second category, which is not applicable here, courts allow skilled lay observer opinions about a person's voice, handwriting, or sanity. Id. See State v. Loftus, 1997 SD 131, p 32, 573 N.W.2d 167, 175- 76 (Konenkamp, J., concurring) (familiarity with handwriting and the relationship or circumstances forming that familiarity must be described for the lay person's testimony to be admitted). These opinions are only admissible if lay witnesses are repeatedly and personally exposed to the characteristics of those whom they are giving an opinion about. Imwinkelried, supra, at 281.

It was error, therefore, to admit the officer's speed estimate. Nonetheless, the error was harmless, as the jury had considerable other evidence with which to judge whether Atkins was contributorily negligent. Furthermore, the jury could easily conclude from the officer's testimony that his opinion was really more of a hunch.

Lastly, I concur in result on the first issue. It was harmless error to allow the testimony about not having insurance. But I do not think our opinion should be read as encouraging this kind of testimony. In other circumstances, it may well be not only irrelevant, but unduly prejudicial as well.

AMUNDSON, Justice (dissenting) [omitted].


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