Scheffer v. Dalton – North Carolina Appeals Court Weighs Deadly Crash Case

Contributory negligence is the degree to which an injured person or decedent may have contributed to his or her own condition. In many states, a finding of contributory negligence will not bar one’s chance to recover compensation. However, it will reduce the amount of compensation available.
In North Carolina, a finding of contributory negligence will prohibit a person from recovering any damages at all. This is a critical issue in many personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits, and defense attorneys are quick to pull this card whenever they can. It’s imperative that plaintiffs be prepared to counter these assertions as forcefully as possible.

In the recent case of Scheffer v. Dalton, the North Carolina Court of Appeals was asked to decide whether a trial court erred in refusing to grant plaintiff in a car accident lawsuit a new trial. Jurors had found defendant’s actions proximately caused decedent’s death, but also found plaintiff was contributorily negligent, thus barring any claim for recovery.

The finding was essentially that although defendant was negligent in causing decedent’s death, decedent was contributorily negligent in failing to exercise ordinary care to protect himself from injury. This involves engaging in conduct that ignores unreasonable risks of dangers that would have been apparent to a prudent person exercising ordinary care for his own safety. There also has to be a causal connection between plaintiff’s negligent act and the injury, or else it’s no defense to the action.

Decedent in this case was operating a moped, which is a low-power, lightweight motorized bicycle. State statute provides lighting requirements that, if not met, constitutes as negligence. These vehicles may also be subject to certain speed restrictions that other vehicle may not, even though it is within the posted maximum speed limit.

Evidence at trial tended to show:

  • Decedent was operating his moped on a highway on a dark night;
  • Decedent attached a batter-powered bicycle light to the left handlebar of the moped because the factory-installed headlamp had broken a month earlier in a previous collision;
  • A witness described passing decedent little more than a mile before the crash, and described the light as “very, very faint,” something she couldn’t see until it was within two car lengths’ distance;
  • Another witness also described barely being able to see decedent just moments before the crash;
  • Defendant’ didn’t see plaintiff’s light prior to executing a turn;
  • Defendant made a wide turn at an intersection that was not illuminated and entered decedent’s lane of travel, causing a collision that resulted in decedent’s death.

Here, there wasn’t much doubt that defendant’s actions were negligent. The jury decided as much too.

The problem was with plaintiff’s actions. They too were negligent and, the jury found, there was a causal link between plaintiff’s actions (i.e., traveling too fast for the model of vehicle he was on and having no proper light on that vehicle) and his fatal injuries. There was also evidence admitted that hinted the moped operator may have been under the influence of alcohol, while the passenger car driver was not.

But the appeals court didn’t take issue with any of this. What the judges did have a problem with was that jurors were not allowed to consider the “last clear chance” theory of auto accident cases. That is, defendant should have been more careful in looking both ways on the highway before moving forward into the intersection. There was evidence to suggest that if he had done so, he might have seen that faint light given off by the moped. Jurors should have been allowed to consider this fact, and thus, the case was remanded for a new trial.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Scheffer v. Dalton, Oct. 20, 2015, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
Riley v. Ford Motor Co. – South Carolina Supreme Court Weighs Defective Auto Parts Case, Oct. 19, 2015, Asheville Car Accident Attorney Blog

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