North Carolina Man Unable to Recover Damages Due to Contributory Negligence

In a recent North Carolina appetreellate decision, a personal injury plaintiff appealed a summary judgment motion granted in favor of the defendant. The North Carolina car accident case arose when the plaintiff was driving a truck east early one evening. The plaintiff’s father was riding in the truck with him. Only a quarter mile from their home, they saw a tree had fallen and was blocking traffic in both lanes. The branches of the tree held the trunk about five feet above the road.

The plaintiff’s father asked him to slow down, and he stopped at most 40 feet from the tree. The father turned the hazard lights on and called his mother to ask her to bring a chainsaw, so he could remove the tree. He also told the plaintiff to get across the tree and try to slow cars down while waiting for the mom to arrive. The plaintiff climbed onto the top of the tree and asked his dad for gloves because he’d gotten pinesap on his hands.

The plaintiff stood on the tree and waved his arms at a car that was approaching. The father would later testify he never got down from the tree and was acting like a teenager because he thought the other driver would stop. The father told him to jump down, but when the plaintiff tried to jump, his pants caught on a tree limb.

The defendant was driving a truck from the other direction, and as he got to a curve in the road, he was blinded by sunlight hitting his windshield and causing a glare. He moved his foot toward the brake and reached for the sun visor. He didn’t realize there was a tree in the road or see the plaintiff until he hit the tree. The tree branch hit the plaintiff in the head, and he was thrown onto the road on his back, unconscious. He was bleeding from the ears and airlifted to the hospital. He was treated for skull fractures and a swollen brain. He didn’t remember the days before the accident or the time in the hospital.

He sued the defendant, claiming the defendant was negligent. The defendant raised a number of defenses, including contributory negligence, and later moved for summary judgment. The lower court granted summary judgment for the defendant.

The plaintiff appealed. The appellate court explained that summary judgment is rarely appropriate when negligence or contributory negligence is alleged. However, it could be appropriate if the plaintiff’s forecast of evidence establishes contributory negligence as a matter of law, or if it fails to show negligence.

The plaintiff argued that even if he was negligent, the defendant had the last clear chance to avoid the accident. He also argued his IQ fell into the category of mild mental retardation, changing the ordinary standard of care such that the jury should decide if he acted with the degree of care he could perceive based on diminished mental capacity. The appellate court disagreed.

The record didn’t include enough evidence to show the plaintiff lacked the ability to avoid a clear danger, so it found that the plaintiff was subject to the universal rule that everybody who has the ability to use ordinary care for his own safety is required by law to do so. If he failed to do so and contributed to his own injuries, he will be found contributorily negligent. It noted that somebody whose mental faculties are reduced, but who is not totally insane, is capable of using the standard of care of somebody of similar mental capacity under the same circumstances. The plaintiff in this case claimed a lower standard of care, but the appellate court found his low IQ wasn’t factually similar to senility or diminished mental capacity. He held a valid driver’s license and was a good driver who drove his younger siblings without being supervised. He was 18 at the time of the accident and, in spite of his head injuries, got a high school diploma the next spring. He was an experienced driver familiar with those roads.

The appellate court also rejected his last clear chance argument, since for that argument, he had to forecast evidence that if the defendant had kept a reasonable and proper lookout, he would have discovered the plaintiff’s helpless peril in time to avoid hurting him by using reasonable care. A plaintiff is considered in helpless peril if his prior contributory negligence put him in a position from which he is powerless to extract herself. The last clear chance doctrine isn’t applicable if the injured person is always in control of the danger and chooses to take a risk. In this case, the plaintiff was goofing off in the tree, even though they could hear the truck pipes going up the hill.

The judgment was affirmed.

If you have been harmed due to the wrongful conduct or negligence of another party, the experienced Charlotte car accident attorneys at Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation. We represent clients in the Charlotte, NC metro area and also Greensboro, NC and Winston-Salem, NC. Contact us at 919-229-8359 or via our online form.

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