A refusal to grant a new trial is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard; accordingly, an appellate court reviews the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. The appellate court disturbs the trial court's exercise of discretion only in the most exceptional circumstances to prevent a miscarriage of justice. An abuse of discretion exists when evidence to support the verdict was completely lacking or was so slight and unconvincing as to make the verdict plainly unreasonable and unjust.
On the morning of January 16, 1998, Joyce Getchell and Barbara Lodge drove to work on the Kenai Spur Highway. Getchell headed south on the highway towards Kenai. Lodge headed north towards Nikiski. A thin layer of ice covered the unsanded road; the morning was dark. There was a dispute at trial about what happened next. However, because we draw all factual inferences in favor of the non-moving party when reviewing motions for JNOV and new trial, what follows is Lodge's account. Because of the darkness, the icy road conditions, and the possibility of moose crossing the highway, Lodge was driving at about forty-five miles per hour, even though the speed limit was fifty-five. A moose emerged out of the darkness from Lodge's right and tried to cross the road as Lodge neared Mile 20 of the highway. Lodge hit her brakes as hard as she could. She testified that her car skidded immediately and began to rotate in a counterclockwise direction. Lodge lost control of her car as it continued to rotate and slide. Ultimately, the car crossed the center line of the road. The car finished rotating and came to a stop in the southbound lane. As Getchell headed south towards Mile 20, driving between forty-five and fifty-five miles per hour, she saw a car in her lane. Getchell hit the passenger side of Lodge's car. The impact injured Getchell's ankle, requiring surgery. State Trooper Harold Leichliter investigated the accident and completed an accident report based upon his observations of the scene and witness interviews. Getchell brought a personal injury negligence action against Lodge. The jury found for Lodge. The court denied Getchell's motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) and a new trial. Getchell appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by denying her motions for JNOV and a new trial because defendant was negligent per se for crossing the center lane into oncoming traffic.
Was braking to avoid a moose, and then skidding into an opposing lane a negligent act by a driver?
In addition to evidence that defendant did not steer into the oncoming lane of traffic, she testified that she slammed on her brakes to avoid a moose in her lane. Defendant's brakes locked and she skidded into plaintiff's lane. Reasonable jurors could have concluded that the presence of the moose in the road excused defendant's skid into the oncoming lane of traffic. According to an accident reconstructionist, defendant's perception of the danger, before she took any evasive action, would have consumed one-and-a-quarter to one-and-a-half seconds. The reconstructionist also testified that given the surface and how slick it was, and given the speed of 45 miles an hour, defendant's attempts to correct her car's rotation would have had to have been almost instantaneous to stop. Based upon that testimony, reasonable jurors could have concluded that defendant was unable after reasonable care to comply with regulations prohibiting crossing into oncoming traffic.