This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

C2-01-1410

 

Tommy Allen Enger,

Appellant,

 

vs.

 

Beverly Rae Johnson,

Respondent,

 

Michael Ray Johnston,

Respondent.

 

Filed February 19, 2002

Affirmed
Foley, Judge
*

 

Cook County District Court

File No. C599149

 

Thomas M. Skare, Newby, Lindgren, Skare & Westermann, Ltd., 1219 – 14thStreet, P.O. Box 760, Cloquet, MN  55720 (for appellant)

 

Steven L. Reyelts, Downs, Reyelts, Leighton, Bateman & Hylden, Ltd., 700 Providence Building, 332 West Superior Street, Duluth, MN  55802-1801 (for respondent Beverly Rae Johnson)

 

Robert C. Barnes, 1000 Alworth Building, 306 W. Superior Street, Duluth, MN  55801 (for respondent Michael Ray Johnston)

 

            Considered and decided by Anderson, Presiding Judge, Crippen, Judge, and Foley, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N

FOLEY, Judge

            A jury found that respondent Beverly Rae Johnson was not negligent in a motor vehicle accident that caused damages to appellant Tommy Allen Enger.  Appellant challenges the district court’s denials of (1) his motions for a directed verdict and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), arguing that the evidence shows that Johnson was negligent as a matter of law, and (2) his motion for a new trial, arguing that the jury’s verdict was perverse and that the district court’s admission into evidence of a physician’s letter was prejudicial error.  Because the district court did not err by denying the directed verdict and JNOV motions and because the issue of damages is moot, we affirm.

FACTS

            On November 1, 1995, Enger was a passenger in a car driven by respondent Michael Ray Johnston on Broadway Avenue in Grand Marais.  A car driven by Beverly Rae Johnson entered the intersection of Broadway and Third Street, and the vehicles collided.  Enger sued both drivers.

            At trial, Johnston testified that they were proceeding uphill on Broadway on a misty day when he saw Johnson’s vehicle “a couple of seconds” before the collision.  He testified that she “came right through the stop sign” on Third Street.  Broadway did not have a traffic light or stop sign at the intersection.

            Johnson testified that she stopped at the stop sign, looked in both directions before driving into the intersection, and did not see Johnston’s car until it was “right in front” of her.  She also testified that the design of her car created a blind spot and that her view of Broadway was obstructed by a house and a large bush at a corner of the intersection.

            Enger testified that, since the collision, he has experienced tenderness in his neck and back, pounding headaches, constant neck pain, tingling and numbness in the hands, and mid- and lower-back pain.  Enger also testified that he changed jobs from asbestos removal to insulation installation, which is less physically demanding, and that he did not participate in outdoor activities as frequently as he did before the collision.  He also testified that, except for medical appointments, he did not miss work as a result of the symptoms.

            The jury found neither driver negligent and awarded no damages.[1]  On appeal, Enger does not challenge the jury’s finding that Michael Ray Johnston was not negligent.

D E C I S I O N

I.

            On appeal from a motion denying JNOV, we must affirm if there is “any competent evidence reasonably tending to sustain the verdict.”  Obst v. Microtron, Inc., 614 N.W.2d 196, 200 (Minn. 2000) (quotations omitted).  The standard of review of a denial of a directed verdict is equally stringent.  See Am. Mach. & Tool Co. v. Strite-Anderson Mfg. Co., 353 N.W.2d 592, 598 (Minn. App. 1984) (stating that directed verdict and JNOV have “same standard”), review denied (Minn. Sept. 12, 1984).  We view the evidence in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party and determine only whether the evidence was sufficient to present a question of fact for the jury.  Boone v. Martinez, 567 N.W.2d 508, 510 (Minn. 1997).

            Enger contends that the evidence shows that Johnson violated traffic regulations as she entered the intersection and therefore was negligent as a matter of law.  See Minn. Stat. §§ 169.13, subd. 2 (1994) (prohibiting careless operation of motor vehicle in manner that endangers property or person), .14, subd. 3 (requiring driver to drive at appropriate reduced speed when approaching and crossing intersection), .20, subd. 3 (requiring driver to stop at stop sign and yield to other vehicles that have entered intersection).

            The violation of a traffic regulation is prima facie evidence of negligence.  Minn. Stat. § 169.96(b) (2000).  Once a traffic violation has been established, the burden shifts to the violator to present evidence of an excuse or a justification for the violation.  Marshall v. Galvez, 480 N.W.2d 358, 361 (Minn. App. 1992).  But if the violator presents evidence of an excuse or a justification, the question of whether the violation constitutes negligence is for the jury to decide.  Gertken v. Farmers Elevator of Kensington, Minn., Inc., 411 N.W.2d 550, 554 (Minn. App. 1987), review denied (Minn. Oct. 28, 1987).  It is only when the violator offers nothing that could serve as an excuse or a justification that “the court should hold the violator negligent as a matter of law.”  Riley v. Lake, 295 Minn. 43, 53, 203 N.W.2d 331, 338 (1972). 

            Here, Beverly Rae Johnson testified that she was “absolutely positive” that she (1) stopped at the stop sign, (2) looked up and down Broadway when she was stopped, and (3) proceeded into the intersection “really quite slowly.”  On this evidence, the jury could reasonably have found that Johnson did not violate traffic regulations by driving carelessly, by approaching and crossing the intersection at an inappropriate speed, or by not stopping at the stop sign.  See Minn. Stat. §§ 169.13, subd. 2, .14, subd. 3, .20, subd. 3.

            We note, however, that the jury was presented with no evidence on which it could reasonably have found that Beverly Rae Johnson yielded to Michael Ray Johnston’s car as Minn. Stat. § 169.20, subd. 3, required her to do.  Thus, we must determine whether Johnson presented any evidence that could serve as an excuse or a justification for the violation.  See Riley, 295 Minn. at 53, 203 N.W.2d at 338. 

            Beverly Rae Johnson testified that her view of Broadway was obstructed by a house and a large bush on a corner of the intersection and by a blind spot created by her car.  She introduced two photographs showing the obstructed view of Broadway from Third Street and testified that there is a change of elevation between the two streets. 

            We cannot conclude that this evidence could not, as a matter of law, serve as an excuse or a justification for Beverly Rae Johnson’s failure to yield.  Together with her testimony that she stopped at the stop sign, looked both ways before proceeding, and entered the intersection slowly, and the testimony of both drivers that they did not see the other car until immediately before the collision, the jury could reasonably have found that Johnson exercised the care that an ordinarily prudent person would use in the same situation.  The issue of negligence was, therefore, a question of fact for the jury.  See Gertken, 411 N.W.2d at 554.  The district court did not err by denying Enger’s directed-verdict and JNOV motions.

II.

            On appeal from a denial of a new trial, we will not set aside a jury verdict unless it is “manifestly and palpably contrary to the evidence as a whole and in the light most favorable to the verdict.”  Raze v. Mueller, 587 N.W.2d 645, 648 (Minn. 1999) (quotation and citation omitted).  Enger argues the jury’s special verdict on negligence and its award of no damages were perverse, and, therefore, the district court erred by denying his motion for a new trial. 

            But, as we stated above, the jury could reasonably have found that Beverly Rae Johnson was not negligent.  And because the jury found that Johnson was not negligent, the issue of damages is moot.  See Russell v. Johnson, 608 N.W.2d 895, 900 (Minn. App. 2000), review denied (Minn. June 27, 2000).  The jury’s award of no damages, even if erroneous, does not require a new trial.  Id.

            Enger also argues that the district court committed prejudicial error by admitting into evidence a letter from a treating physician.  The letter went entirely to the issue of damages, and thus the district court’s evidentiary ruling, even if erroneous, does not require a new trial.  See id.

            Affirmed.



* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.

[1]  The parties stipulated to the amount of past medical expenses.