Wrongful Death and Contributory Negligence in North Carolina

In North Carolina, a plaintiff’s right to recover compensation in a personal injury or wrongful death action is barred upon a finding of contributory negligence. This means that the jury will look at whether a plaintiff’s own negligence or breach of duty was a contributing factor to an accident that causes his injuries or death.

Scheffer v. Dalton is a North Carolina wrongful death case. The plaintiff in the case was the administrator of Jeremy Talbot Scheffer’s estate, who sued the defendant, claiming the defendant’s negligence caused the wrongful death of Jeremy Talbot Scheffer. The defendant answered that Scheffer’s own negligence contributed to the accident, barring recovery. The plaintiff’s reply claimed that the other driver had the last clear chance to keep from hurting the man who was killed.

Scheffer drove a moped and worked at a bike shop. One day in 2010, he left the bike shop on his moped. The original headlight on the moped had broken, and the decedent had installed a bicycle light in its place. He often charged the light’s batteries at his place of employment, but there was no evidence as to whether he did this that day.

While Scheffer was on his moped that day, a woman was driving south and saw a weak light. The light passed her car, but she didn’t see anything when she turned to look. A mile out from where she saw the light was where the moped driver was killed. A man located at an intersection along the highway saw a car coming and waited. He didn’t see the moped or a light.

However, he did see a streak go by, which he thought was a motorcycle. He turned once it went by. The defendant was driving south and waited for a vehicle to pass before turning. He then turned, and Scheffer’s moped hit the defendant’s car; the defendant never saw the moped.

At trial, an accident reconstruction expert testified that the defendant was going extremely slowly for a few seconds before turning left on green. The light was fixed on the decedent’s moped, but it was pointing somewhat to the left, rather than straight ahead, and it wasn’t supposed to be used on a moped. There was no evidence of whether the light was working at the time of the accident. An officer who investigated determined there effectively was no functioning headlamp, and the decedent was driving up to 32 mph at the time of the accident.

When the defendant finished presenting evidence, the plaintiff moved for a directed verdict on contributory negligence, but the motion was denied. The jury considered whether the defendant had been negligent in various ways, such as by failing to yield the right of way or failing to keep a reasonable lookout. However, the court determined the defendant didn’t have the last clear chance to avoid the plaintiff, since he never saw him at all.

The jury found that the defendant’s negligence legally caused the decedent’s death, but the decedent was contributorily negligent. The plaintiff appealed, arguing among other things that the court should have allowed him to submit the issue of last clear chance to the jury and shouldn’t have submitted the issue of contributory negligence.

The appellate court explained the trial court had to submit the issue of contributory negligence to the jury if the defendant showed more than a scintilla of evidence to prove the decedent was driving with insufficient lighting. However, it found that the trial court did make a mistake in failing to submit the issue of last clear chance to the jury. This issue should be submitted to the jury if there is contributory negligence, but the plaintiff is able to show:  (1) the plaintiff had put himself in danger from which he couldn’t escape by using reasonable care, (2) the driver knew of this danger and inability to escape, (3) the driver could have avoided injuring the plaintiff by using reasonable care after he should have realized the danger to the plaintiff, and (4) the driver failed to use the time and means to avoid hurting the plaintiff.

The appellate court explained that the decedent’s dangerous situation wasn’t just because of insufficient lighting but because the defendant started to make a left turn into oncoming traffic, arguably without maintaining a proper lookout. The appellate court ruled that the trial court should allow the jury to determine this issue.

If a loved one was killed in a motorcycle accident, Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation. Contact us at 888-258-1087 or via our online form.

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