Using Violations Of Statutes To Prove Negligence Rather Than Negligence Per Se
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Vintila v. Drassen, 52 S.W.3d 28 (Mo. Ct. App. 2001).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can the violation of a law be used as evidence to establish breach of duty outside of a negligence per se claim?
A claim for negligence requires that the plaintiff prove four things: (1) a duty, or obligation to act in a certain way, owed by the defendant; (2) a breach of that duty by defendant; (3) harm to plaintiff; and (4) that harm was sufficiently caused by the defendant’s breach of duty. Id. at 41. Missouri also recognizes a claim for negligence per se, based upon the violation of a law, so long as the violated law is determined to be appropriate for such a claim. Id. at 37. This case dealt with an odd question: If a defendant’s negligent acts involve the violation of statutes, can the plaintiff bring an ordinary negligence claim rather than a claim for negligence per se? Id. at 37. And if so, can evidence of the violation of those statutes be used to support that negligence claim? Id. at 39. The court found that violations of a statute don’t require the bringing of a negligence per se claim over a negligence claim, and that evidence of laws (and evidence of a defendant’s violation of such laws) are appropriate evidence in negligence claims. Id. at 37.
In this case, Defendant was driving a truck with an oversized load for his employer. Id. at 33. Defendant was operating under a special permit for carrying oversized loads, which imposed obligations for such transport: oversized loads must be moved at least 1,000 feet away from other oversized loads, such loads cannot be transported between 4:00 pm and 6:00 pm, and such loads must stop at bridges. Id. Naturally (we are talking about a lawsuit, after all), Defendant broke all three of these rules on the day at issue. Id. Defendant was driving at the rear of four vehicles, including another oversized load. Id. The other three vehicles had passed over the bridge when a vehicle, driven by Plaintiff’s husband with Plaintiff riding as a passenger, approached the bridge coming from the other way. Id. at 34. The vehicle attempted to stop after cresting a hill, but it was too late. Id. Plaintiff’s vehicle was hit head-on and Plaintiff was tragically killed. Id. Plaintiff’s estate filed suit alleging negligence, based upon, among other things, the violations of three regulations concerning transporting an oversized load pursuant to a special permit. Id. at 35.
The court begins by discussing the difference between a negligence per se claim and a negligence claim. Id. at 37. In a negligence per se claim, the focus is on proving a violation of the statute and that the statute is appropriate for a negligence per se claim. Id. In a negligence claim, the goal is simply proving that a defendant had an obligation which the defendant did not honor. Id.
Using this setting, the court found no error in allowing the regulations and their violations to be presented to the jury. Id. After all, reasoned the court, regulations are excellent standards of care, or duties, for a negligence claim. Id. The difference in these cases is that a violation of the statute is not a homerun for the plaintiff; instead, the jury must decide if the totality of the circumstances show the defendant acted unreasonably. Id. The court properly allowed the evidence to be considered by the jury, and Defendant was properly found liable. Id. at 37-38.