Key Decisions

May 2013 – Accidents Happen

(filed under: Key Decisions Archive | May 20, 2013)

Accidents Happen

Spriesterbach v. Holland
(Cal. Ct. of App., 2d Dist.), filed April 9, 2013

KEY FACTS

Michael Spriesterbach sued Janice Holland for personal injuries he sustained in an automobile versus bicycle collision. The collision occurred when Spriesterbach, who was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk opposite the direction of travel on the adjacent street, attempted to cross in front of Holland, who was pulling out of a parking lot into the street.

A jury found that Holland was not negligent.

Spriesterbach appealed. He asserted that the trial court made two prejudicial instructional errors. First, the court refused to instruct the jury that if it found that Holland violated Vehicle Code section 21804, it must find she was negligent per se. Second, the court instructed that Spriesterbach was negligent per se because immediately before the accident he had been traveling on the sidewalk against the flow of traffic, in violation of Section 21650.1.

HOLDING & REASONING

The Court of Appeal affirmed.

Vehicle Code section 21804, governs a driver’s duty of care when turning from private property onto a public street. It provides:

(a) The driver of any vehicle about to enter or cross a highway from any public or private property, or from an alley, shall yield the right-of-way to all traffic, as defined in Section 620, approaching on the highway close enough to constitute an immediate hazard, and shall continue to yield the right-of-way to that traffic until he or she can proceed with reasonable safety.

(b) A driver having yielded as prescribed in subdivision (a) may proceed to enter or cross the highway, and the drivers of all other vehicles approaching on the highway shall yield the right-of-way to the vehicle entering or crossing the intersection.

As to Holland’s alleged negligence, the court noted that a mistake of judgment is not necessarily negligence, as mistakes are made even in the exercise of ordinary care. A driver violates Section 21804 only if he or she fails to act as a reasonably prudent and cautious person. Whether mistakes of judgment constitute negligence is a question of fact for a jury.

The court held that the jury necessarily found that Holland did not fail to use reasonable care to prevent harm to herself or others, that she did not do something that a reasonably careful person would not do in the same situation or that she failed to do something that a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation. Thus, Spriesterbach’s requested instruction was irrelevant.

As to the instruction that Spriesterbach was negligent because immediately before the accident he had been traveling on the sidewalk against the flow of traffic, the court concluded that the instruction was erroneous. The Vehicle Code did not require Spriesterbach to ride in the same direction as the vehicular traffic. His failure to do so was not negligent per se. However, even though the instruction was erroneous, it was not prejudicial because the jury never reached the issue of Spriesterbach’s negligence. Therefore, the error did not require reversal.

ANALYSIS

This case is interesting in holding that mistakes in judgment that lead to accidents are not necessarily “negligent.”