Martin v. Herzog

228 N.Y. 164, 126 N.E. 814 (1920)



Motorist's failure to use headlights was negligence per se because a statute required headlights for the protection of others.


Plaintiff and her husband were traveling by buggy at night. Defendant was driving a car, rounded a curve, and approached the buggy from the opposite direction. When defendant's car hit the buggy, plaintiff and her husband were thrown to the ground. Plaintiff's husband was killed in the collision. Plaintiff sued to recover damages for injuries that resulted in death. At trial, the court refused defendant's requested ruling that absence of statutorily required lights on the plaintiff's vehicle was prima facie evidence of contributory negligence. 


Does failure to comply with a statutory duty intended for the protection of others constitute negligence per se?






By the very terms of the hypothesis, to omit, willfully or heedlessly, the safeguards prescribed by law for the benefit of another that he may be preserved in life or limb, is to fall short of the standard of diligence to which those who live in organized society are under a duty to conform. In the case at hand, we have an instance of the admitted violation of a statute intended for the protection of travelers on the highway, of whom the defendant at the time was one. Yet the jurors were instructed in effect that they were at liberty in their discretion to treat the omission of lights either as innocent or as culpable. Jurors have no dispensing power by which they may relax the duty that one traveler on the highway owes under the statute to another. It is error to tell them that they have. The omission of these lights was a wrong, and being wholly unexcused was also a negligent wrong. 

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