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Law School Case Brief

Barnum v. Williams - 264 Or. 71, 504 P.2d 122 (1972)

Rule:

If a party is in violation of a motor vehicle statute, such a party is negligent as a matter of law unless such party introduces evidence from which the trier of fact could find that the party was acting as a reasonably prudent person under the circumstances. This is regardless of whether the circumstances do or do not include facts which the law regards as an emergency. Another way of stating this is that the violation of a motor vehicle statute creates a presumption of negligence. When the evidence establishes that a party has violated a motor vehicle statute, such a party has the burden of producing evidence that, nevertheless, he was acting reasonably. Without such evidence the party is negligent as a matter of law. If the party having such burden produces no evidence of reasonable conduct or the court finds the evidence produced is insufficient to prove reasonable conduct, the court must find the party negligent as a matter of law. If the party produces evidence which the court determines raises a question of fact whether the party acted reasonably, despite violation of the statute, then, the question of the party's negligence is for the jury.

Facts:

The motorcycle plaintiff Barnum was driving collided with the car defendant Williams was driving. Barnum later filed a lawsuit against Barnum in Oregon state court seeking to recover damages for injuries he sustained in the collision. At trial, the evidence showed that Barnum was going uphill and rounding an extremely sharp curve to his left. Williams was coming downhill. The road was divided into two lanes by a yellow line. The line was much closer to the curb on Williams' side. The jury could have found that the impact occurred on or near the line or on Barnum's side of the line. The jury could also have found that when Williams observed Barnum, Barnum was riding on the center line and leaning into the turn; Williams in the narrow lane was near the center line and became apprehensive that they might collide; Williams applied his brakes and slid into Barnum's lane and collided with Barnum. After trial, the jury found for Williams, and Barnum appealed, contending that the trial court gave two erroneous jury instructions. 

Issue:

Did Williams act reasonably as a prudent person under the circumstances of the collision?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The court affirmed the judgment for Williams. One instruction given by the trial court provided that if the jury found that, under all the attending circumstances, a statute could not or should not have been complied with by a person exercising reasonable care for the safety of himself and others, then it could find that the failure to strictly observe the statute should be excused and should not be deemed negligence. The court held that if Williams was in violation of a motor vehicle statute, he was negligent as a matter of law unless he introduced evidence from which the trier of fact could find that he was acting as a reasonably prudent person under the circumstances. The rule applied regardless of whether the circumstances did or did not include facts that the law regarded as an emergency. Therefore, the court held that the instruction was proper where the jury could have found that Williams acted as a reasonably prudent person although his vehicle might have crossed the dividing line.

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