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Howard v. Bennett

Supreme Court of South Dakota

April 19, 2017

DOUGLAS W. HOWARD, Plaintiff and Appellee,
v.
PATRICK C. BENNETT, Personal Representative of the Estate of RAYMOND EARL BENNETT, Deceased, Defendant and Appellant.

          ARGUED FEBRUARY 15, 2017

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE SEVENTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT PENNINGTON COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA THE HONORABLE HEIDI LINNGREN Judge

          ADAM BRADSKY of Bradsky, Bradsky & Bradsky, P.C. Rapid City, South Dakota Attorneys for plaintiff and appellee.

          HEATHER M. LAMMERS BOGARD Costello, Porter, Hill, Heisterkamp, Bushnell & Carpenter, LLP Rapid City, South Dakota Attorneys for defendant and appellant.

          ZINTER, Justice

         [¶1.] Raymond Bennett failed to negotiate a curve on a highway, drove his motorcycle off the road, and was killed. The Highway Patrol arrived and secured the scene. Approximately an hour and a half later, Douglas Howard rounded the same curve and encountered a vehicle that had come to a complete stop in his lane of travel. Howard applied his brakes, lost control of his motorcycle, and sustained injuries. He later sued Bennett's estate (the Estate), contending that Bennett's negligence in the first accident created a dangerous condition that caused Howard's injuries in the second accident. The Estate moved for summary judgment, contending that Bennett's negligence was not the cause of the second accident. The Estate alleged that the Highway Patrol's scene management was a superseding cause that relieved Bennett of liability. The circuit court denied the motion. We granted the Estate's petition for a discretionary appeal and now reverse.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2.] Because this appeal involves summary judgment, we restate the facts in a light most favorable to Howard, the nonmoving party. See Zerfas v. AMCO Ins. Co., 2015 S.D. 99, ¶ 8, 873 N.W.2d 65');">873 N.W.2d 65, 69. On August 5, 2012, during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Bennett was on his motorcycle traveling east on Highway 44 towards Rapid City. Highway 44 has several curves in that area and a posted speed limit of fifty miles per hour. At approximately 3:00 p.m., Bennett, who was intoxicated, entered a curve at a high rate of speed and drove into the ditch. He was killed in the accident. Neither the motorcycle nor any debris obstructed the highway.

         [¶3.] Several Highway Patrol troopers arrived over the next eight minutes to manage the scene and investigate the accident. At 4:00 p.m., Trooper Robert Rybak arrived to perform accident reconstruction. By that time, Bennett's body had been removed, his motorcycle remained at the scene but completely off the highway, and traffic was flowing in both directions. A highway patrol trooper was stationed on a curve east of the scene to alert westbound motorists of the accident, but no trooper was stationed west of the scene.

         [¶4.] At 4:39 p.m., Howard was west of the scene on his motorcycle traveling east towards Rapid City. He did not see any warning or indication that there was an accident ahead. After rounding the same curve, which Howard described as a "blind corner, " Howard encountered a motorhome that was stopped in his lane of travel. Because there was a vehicle approaching in the oncoming lane, Howard forcefully applied his brakes to avoid colliding with the motorhome. However, he lost control of his motorcycle and was injured.

         [¶5.] Howard sued Bennett's estate, alleging that Bennett's negligence in his own accident created a dangerous condition that proximately caused Howard's injuries in the subsequent accident.[1] The Estate moved for summary judgment. Although the Estate conceded that Bennett was negligent in causing his own accident, it argued that Bennett's negligence was not a proximate cause of Howard's injuries. The Estate specifically contended that Bennett was relieved of liability because the Highway Patrol's failure to warn eastbound traffic of the accident was a superseding cause. The circuit court denied the motion, ruling that there were issues of disputed fact for a jury to decide whether Bennett's negligence was a proximate cause of Howard's accident. We granted the Estate's petition for a discretionary appeal.[2]

         Decision

         [¶6.] The Estate argues that Bennett cannot be liable because Howard's injuries were caused by the negligence of the Highway Patrol troopers who were in charge of securing and managing the accident scene. More specifically, the Estate contends that the troopers' failure to warn eastbound traffic of the accident site was a superseding cause that relieved Bennett of any liability and that Bennett's negligence merely furnished a condition that led to Howard's injuries. Howard argues that the circuit court properly denied summary judgment because there is a dispute whether Bennett's negligence, in combination with the Highway Patrol's alleged negligence, was a proximate cause of Howard's injuries, and that such a dispute must be resolved by a jury.[3]

         [¶7.] Although Bennett argues that the issue in this case involves the question of duty, the parties' contentions implicate the causation element of negligence law.[4] More specifically, the parties' contentions relate to proximate cause and superseding cause, which are interrelated concepts. "Proximate cause is defined as 'a cause that produces a result in a natural and probable sequence and without which the result would not have occurred. Such cause need not be the only cause of a result. It may act in combination with other causes to produce a result.'" Hamilton v. Sommers,2014 S.D. 76, ¶ 39, 855 N.W.2d 855, 867 (quoting Peterson v. Issenhuth, 2014 S.D. 1, ¶ 17, 842 N.W.2d 351, 355-56). However, "[w]hen the natural and continuous sequence of causal connection between the negligent conduct and the injury is interrupted by a new and independent cause, which itself produces the injury, that intervening cause operates to relieve the original wrongdoer of liability." Braun v. New Hope Twp.,2002 S.D. 67, ΒΆ 10, 646 N.W.2d 737, 740 (emphasis ...


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