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Sanders v. Wright

June 9, 1994


Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Paul R. Webber, III, Trial Judge - (Merits)), (Hon. Curtis E. von Kann, Trial Judge - (Damages))

Before Ferren, Acting Chief Judge,* and Schwelb and King, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: King

Opinion for the court by Associate Judge KING.

Dissenting opinion by Acting Chief Judge FERREN.

KING, Associate Judge: Appellant, plaintiff in the trial court, appeals the trial court's reduction of the damages awarded to him by a jury in this negligence action. Appellee Wright cross-appeals the trial court's denial of his motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Since we conclude that the trial court erred in denying appellee's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict we do not reach appellant's claim with respect to the damages award.


During the late evening on February 11, 1988, Wright was driving his automobile southbound on Interstate 295 in Southeast Washington. Appellant was a passenger in a vehicle driven by Geraldine Mitchell, which was travelling in the same direction at some unspecified distance behind Wright's vehicle. The weather conditions were described as bad: it had been raining on and off "heavy at times, light at times," the temperature was thirty-five to forty degrees, the visibility was fair, the road was wet, and the heavy traffic was travelling below the posted speed limit. Near the South Capitol Street exit, Wright, observing the brake lights activate on the vehicle travelling in front of him, applied his own brakes causing his vehicle to begin spinning out-of-control. Mitchell's vehicle then collided with Wright's vehicle, pushing it fifteen to thirty feet. Both cars came to rest on the right shoulder of the road one-behind-the-other. Wright's vehicle was in front, and both vehicles were pointed in the same direction they had been travelling before the collision. *fn1

After appellant and Mitchell determined that neither had sustained injuries as a result of the accident, Mitchell exited her vehicle to determine the condition of the driver of the vehicle with which she had collided. She found Wright slumped over his steering wheel, having suffered head injuries. Mitchell walked back to her car and activated her emergency flashers. As she did so, an off-duty police officer, who was not in uniform, stopped to inquire about the accident. After remaining for a moment or two, the officer departed, stating that she would call for police and rescue assistance. That officer never returned to the accident scene; however, emergency personnel arrived approximately ten minutes later.

Meanwhile, appellant had exited the Mitchell vehicle and was standing on the shoulder of the road between the passenger door of that vehicle and the guardrail. During the next few moments, the traffic on the roadway passed by the accident scene without incident. Approximately five to ten minutes after the initial collision, however, a vehicle driven by James Jones, *fn2 with the engine roaring, *fn3 sped off the access ramp from South Capitol Street and struck appellant, who was still standing on the shoulder between the Mitchell vehicle and the guardrail. As a result of that collision, appellant suffered severe injuries, including the partial amputation of his left leg, as well as serious damage, requiring reconstructive surgery and grafts, to his right leg.

Appellant filed this action in the Superior Court against Wright. Appellant also brought an action in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against James Edward Jones; Cedar Hill Cemetery, Inc., which owned the vehicle driven by Jones; HIG Corporation, the parent company of Cedar Hill Cemetery; and Innovative Marketing Technology, Inc., Mr. Jones' employer (the "HIG defendants"). Appellant settled with the HIG defendants for $1.9 million. After this settlement with the HIG defendants, appellant entered into a stipulation with Wright, which provided that for purposes of liability, in case of a judgment in favor of appellant in Superior Court, Wright was to be considered a joint tortfeasor.

At the liability phase of the trial before Judge Webber, the jury returned a verdict finding Wright liable for appellant's injuries. Wright's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or for a new trial was thereafter denied. In the damages phase of the trial before Judge von Kann, the jury awarded $1,900,000, which, apparently by coincidence, is identical to the sum received in the settlement with the HIG defendants. Judge von Kann, ruling that Wright was entitled to a pro tanto credit based on the settlement reached by appellant with HIG, entered a judgment of $0. Appellant now claims that Judge von Kann committed error because damages should have been reduced pro rata not pro tanto. Wright contends Judge Webber erred in his denial of the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. As noted above, we conclude that the motion for the judgment notwithstanding the verdict should have been granted and we, therefore, do not consider the issue raised with respect to damages. *fn4


We begin our analysis by observing that " motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict under Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50 (b) may be granted only when the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, permits only one reasonable Conclusion as to the proper judgment." Washington Welfare Ass'n, Inc. v. Poindexter, 479 A.2d 313, 315 (D.C. 1984) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A judgment notwithstanding the verdict may only be awarded when "no juror could reasonably reach a verdict for the opponent of the motion." McKnight v. Wire Properties Inc., 288 A.2d 405, 406 (D.C. 1972) (citations and footnote omitted). "Thus, upon review of a judgment n.o.v., the question for us is not whether there is sufficient evidence in the record to support the findings and decision of the Judge, but whether a jury of reasonable men [and women] could properly have reached a verdict in favor of appellant, the party upon whom the onus of proof was imposed." Faniel v. Chesapeake & Potomac Tel. Co., 404 A.2d 147, 150 (D.C. 1979) (citation and internal modifications omitted).

In negligence cases, such as the instant one, the question of proximate cause is usually a question of fact for the jury. District of Columbia v. Freeman, 477 A.2d 713, 716 (D.C. 1984). "The question becomes one of law, however, when the evidence adduced at trial will not support a rational finding of proximate cause." Id. (citation omitted). *fn5 "Proximate cause is a test of whether the injury is the natural and probable consequence of the negligence or wrongful act and ought to be foreseen in light of the circumstances." Ceco Corp. v. Coleman, 441 A.2d 940, 944 (D.C. 1982) (citations and internal modification omitted). A third party's negligence is a superseding cause of harm "where the original actor should not have anticipated that act." Id. (citations omitted). "A superseding cause is an act of a third person or other force which by its intervention prevents the actor from being liable for harm to another which his antecedent negligence is a substantial factor in bringing about." RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS ยง 440, at 465 (1965). Therefore, Wright's primary negligence could only be the proximate cause of appellant's injuries if it ...

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