STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Sheri A. Rickard, et al.,
Filed October 6, 1998
Sherburne County District Court
File No. C9961858
Gary T. LaFleur, Traci M. Ranallo, Babcock, Locher, Neilson & Mannella, 118 E. Main St., Anoka, MN 55303 (for appellant)
Steven R. Schwegman, William V. Faerber, Quinlivan, Sherwood, Spellacy & Tarvestad, 400 First St., Suite 600, P. O. Box 1008, St. Cloud, MN 56302 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Huspeni, Presiding Judge, Randall, Judge, and Peterson, Judge.
Appellant challenges the trial court's legal determination that he was a bicyclist at the time of the collision and asserts the trial court erred in granting respondents' motion for a directed verdict. Because we find as a matter of law that appellant was a bicyclist and that the trial court did not err in granting the motion for directed verdict, we affirm.
To avoid traffic congestion ahead, appellant pedaled his bicycle across the road, thereby entering a right-turn lane going against traffic. As he entered the lane, he took his right foot out of the right bicycle stirrup and lowered himself off the bike seat. He then glided along using his right foot to propel himself and his bicycle. Appellant testified he was moving at a speed slightly faster than a normal walk.
Respondent Sheri Rickard entered the intersection intending to turn right. Drivers turning right are directed to yield, while drivers continuing straight or turning left must stop at a stop sign. Respondent testified that as she entered the right turn lane, she looked left for approximately two to three seconds, focussing on whether she needed to yield or come to a complete stop. When she looked forward again, she suddenly saw appellant, applied her brakes, and testified she was nearly stopped when she collided with appellant.
The intersection contained a high hedge which obstructed the views of both appellant and respondent. Evidence indicated that respondent's vehicle was in the middle of the turn lane, and appellant was approximately three to four feet from the curb in the lane of traffic at the time of the collision.
On cross-examination, appellant admitted that it was reasonable for a driver using the turn lane to look left so as to yield to oncoming traffic. He also testified that he knew he was supposed to travel with traffic as a bicyclist and that he was on the wrong side of the street when the impact occurred. He admitted that he was a little nervous because he knew he was on the wrong side of the road and could not see approaching cars. He hoped he could get around the corner before any cars entered the lane to turn right.
At trial, the court held that appellant was a bicyclist as a matter of law and directed a verdict in favor of respondents, concluding that no reasonable jury could have found respondents more negligent than appellant.
1. Bicyclist as a matter of law
Appellant challenges the court's legal determination that he was a bicyclist, not a pedestrian, at the time of the collision. A reviewing court is not bound by and need not give deference to a trial court's decision on a purely legal issue. Frost-Benco Elec. Ass'n v. Minnesota Pub. Utils. Comm'n, 358 N.W.2d 639, 642 (Minn. 1984).
Minnesota traffic regulations define bicycle as "every device propelled solely by human power upon which a person may ride * * *." Minn. Stat. § 169.01, subd. 51 (1996). A pedestrian is defined as "any person afoot or in a wheelchair." Minn. Stat. § 169.01, subd. 24 (1996). "Ride" means to be carried or conveyed; to be supported or carried on. The American Heritage Dictionary 1551 (3d ed. 1992). "Afoot" is defined as on foot, i.e., on one's own feet. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary 164 (vol. I 1987). Appellant argues that he was a pedestrian as a matter of law because he was not riding his bicycle; rather, he was "walking" the bike with his right foot, and the bicycle was "merely attached to his person."
Consideration of the facts and statutory definitions in this case compels the conclusion that appellant was a bicyclist. While he may have been pushing his bicycle with one foot, that fact does not permit us to conclude that he was "afoot." He did not have control over his feet, as one foot was attached to the bicycle stirrup. He was straddling his bike while gliding faster than a walk. Without the bicycle's support, he would have fallen down. Accordingly, the trial court properly concluded that, as a matter of law, appellant was a bicyclist.
2. Directed verdict
In reviewing a directed verdict, the appellate court independently reviews the sufficiency of the evidence to present a fact question to the jury. Nemanic v. Gopher Heating & Sheet Metal, Inc., 337 N.W.2d 667, 669 (Minn. 1983). We must examine the evidence and its inferences to determine whether the evidence could reasonably sustain a contrary verdict. Northwestern State Bank v. Gangestad, 289 N.W.2d 449, 453 (Minn. 1979). "[U]nless the evidence is so conclusive that reasonable minds can come to only one conclusion, the question of the apportionment of causal negligence should be left to the jury." Riley v. Lake, 295 Minn. 43, 58, 203 N.W.2d 331, 340 (1972).
In this case the trial court found that "there is no way a reasonable jury could find the [respondent] negligent * * *."(1) "[Appellant's] fault exceeded any fault on the part of [respondent]." The court thus directed a verdict in respondent's favor.
Appellant argues that the location of the collision and the fact that respondent looked left as she entered the curve, thereby failing to maintain a proper lookout, are two critical factual disputes that must be resolved by a jury. Appellant asserts that he was struck in the curve of the turn lane, while respondent testified that she was pointed straight in the lane. The precise location of the impact is immaterial, however; it was never an issue in the case.
Nor can we agree with appellant's argument that respondent, by looking left as she entered the turn lane, failed to maintain a proper lookout. Respondent yielded as directed by law:
The driver of a vehicle approaching a YIELD sign shall slow to a speed that is reasonable for conditions of traffic and visibility, and stop if necessary, and yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian legally crossing the roadway, and to all vehicles on the intersecting street or highway which are so close as to constitute an immediate hazard.
Minn. Stat. § 169.201 (1996). Respondent slowed as she approached the yield sign and testified that she was prepared to stop, if necessary, depending on approaching traffic. Respondent could not look to the right and obey the yield directive at the same time. Moreover, appellant testified that it was reasonable for respondent to look left as she entered the intersection.
Appellant argues that there are other factual questions regarding whether he was a bicyclist or a pedestrian. Because we have determined that on the uncontested facts appellant was a bicyclist, as a matter of law, further analysis of this argument is not necessary.
We are aware that it is rare to keep the issue of causal negligence apportionment from a jury; however, under certain circumstances a directed verdict is appropriate. 57B Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 1282 (1989); see also Marshall v. Galvez, 480 N.W.2d 358, 360 (Minn. App. 1992) (only in exceptional cases do courts direct verdicts for plaintiffs in negligence cases). Further, the rules governing directed verdicts are also equally applicable to a motion for summary judgment. 57B Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 1953 (1989).
[W]hen the facts are uncontroverted and reasonable people could not differ in determining the standard of care such that, at trial, the court would have to grant defendant's motion for a directed verdict, it is appropriate to grant the motion for summary judgment in the interest of avoiding a wasteful trial.
Wright, Miller & Kane, Federal Practice & Procedure: Civil 3d § 2729 (1998). The uncontested facts here demonstrate that respondent was acting appropriately and according to law. Any conclusion that while obeying the yield directives of the statute respondent could have simultaneously stopped her car in time to avoid the collision with appellant would have been based on speculation, which is not a proper ground on which to rest a jury verdict.
Caselaw is instructive on the propriety of granting a directed verdict or awarding summary judgment in a negligence action. In Hastings v. United Pac. Ins. Co., 396 N.W.2d 682 (Minn. App. 1986), the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants, finding that the plaintiff failed to present evidence showing that the driver in a two-car collision failed to exercise due care or that the driver's intoxication contributed to the cause of the accident. This court concluded that "the trial court was correct in granting summary judgment for lack of material facts showing causation." Id. at 683.
Similarly, appellant in this case failed to show any material factual disputes which would impact the causal negligence analysis. Respondent properly yielded according to traffic regulations and appellant agreed with her actions. Further, the uncontroverted evidence indicates that appellant was inappropriately biking in the wrong lane travelling against traffic in an obstructed intersection with which he was familiar. Unfortunately, appellant's hope that he could beat oncoming traffic around the corner was not fulfilled.
In this particular case, in the interest of curtailing a wasteful trial, the trial court properly granted a directed verdict in favor of respondent. No reasonable jury could have concluded that respondent was more negligent than appellant.
1. The trial court also stated: "There is no possibility that a reasonable jury could find that [respondent] was more negligent than [appellant]." To the extent that this statement presupposes that respondent's negligence must exceed appellant's before appellant could prevail, it is an incorrect statement of law under Minn. Stat. § 604.01, subd. 1 (1996), which states:
Contributory fault does not bar recovery * * *, if the contributory fault was not greater than the fault of the person against whom recovery was sought, but any damages allowed must be diminished in proportion to the amount of fault attributable to the person recovering.
These words clearly permit recovery if a jury found that the negligence between a plaintiff and defendant was equal. Furthermore, Minn. Stat. § 604.01 as interpreted by Minn. R. Civ. P. 49.01 and 4 Minnesota Practice CIVJIG Spec. Verdict Form 1 (1986) allows a plaintiff to recover if fault was attributed equally.