Judgment for motorist reversed in fatal pedestrian accident case

In the case of Wright v. Eastman, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed the trial court's ruling in favor of a motorist who was sued for negligence in a fatal pedestrian motor vehicle accident. The Superior Court ruled that the trial court erred by summarily concluding that there was no evidence of negligence by the motorist and by denying the plaintiff the right to submit evidence from two expert witnesses. The Superior Court sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Background of the case

The accident happened about midnight on the evening of June 15/16, 2008. The motorist was coming home from work, driving in the curb lane of a four-lane, undivided road when he struck the decedent in the roadway. The decedent had a blood alcohol level of 0.42 percent at the time.

Procedural history

The administrator of the decedent's estate brought a negligence suit against the motorist. The trial court prevented the plaintiff from introducing the opinion testimony of two experts who concluded that the motorist could have seen the decedent from a sufficient distance to have stopped his vehicle in time to avoid the accident. The trial court disallowed the expert testimony, finding that it lacked any factual basis and was "based solely on conjecture or surmise." The trial court determined that there was no evidence that the motorist was negligent in any way, or that he could have prevented the accident, and entered summary judgment for the motorist.

Superior Court's ruling

The analysis of the plaintiff's experts, one an engineer with expertise in the design and testing of automobile lighting, and the other an accident reconstructionist, indicated that the motorist could have seen the decedent from a distance of 160 to 170 feet away, and at that distance he could have stopped his vehicle in time or swerved to miss her. The trial court excluded the expert testimony on the ground that it lacked an adequate factual foundation, since the motorist's uncontradicted testimony asserted that the decedent was only 30 feet from him when he first observed her. The Superior Court held that this ruling was improper. The jury should have been permitted to assess the credibility of the motorist's testimony, said the Superior Court, to determine when the motorist first observed the decedent in the road and whether the decedent was not visible to the motorist at any time before he first saw her.

In addition, said the court, the critical inquiry in determining whether the motorist breached his duty to the decedent, was not when he actually saw her, but when it was his duty to see her. The expert opinion evidence regarding the decedent's visibility, said the court, was sufficient for a jury to conclude that the decedent was visible at a significantly greater distance than 30 feet, where the motorist testified that he did not see the decedent until she was already standing in the road, and yet he never saw her in motion.

Individuals who have been injured, and grieving families who have sustained the loss of a loved one in a fatal accident, due to another's negligence or other wrongful conduct are urged to immediately seek the assistance of a competent attorney experienced in personal injury and wrongful death matters.