The decision to award no damages to a Brownsville man struck by a vehicle in Dallas - as reported in Wednesday's Democrat-Herald - illustrates that, even on a sidewalk, a pedestrian has a responsibility to watch out for cars, according to the judge who presided over the case.
Robert J. Morgan, a retired senior circuit court judge, spoke with the DH by phone Wednesday afternoon.
A Dallas resident, Morgan was on the bench Sept. 22-23 for the trial of a lawsuit filed by injured pedestrian Robert Charles Butson because Polk County Circuit Judge Charles Luukinen was in Benton County helping resolve the Brooke Wilberger case.
Butson, 81, was knocked to the ground on Nov. 15, 2007, as he walked toward a machine shop to see about having work done on his pickup. Hitting him was a van driven by Dallas resident Scott Alan Sommerfeldt, who was cited for failing to yield and fined $250.
Butson went to a hospital and, according to his suit, sustained permanent soft-tissue injuries to his neck, back and right thigh. He sought $100,000 in non-economic damages.
Instructed by Morgan to apply the principle of "comparative negligence," a 12-person jury found Butson half at fault for the mishap because he admitted he hadn't been paying attention to the cars around him.
That meant any damages awarded would be halved.
But on top of the 50-50 ruling, the panel decided Butson's injuries did not merit any compensation.
"A jury is a conservative legal instrument," Morgan said. "People have this notion that juries are very willing to give away other people's money, and that's just not true. There are runaway verdicts and those are the ones you hear about it, but most of the time that doesn't happen.
"I've presided over rear-end accident cases where the jury finds no damages, no fault," Morgan continued. "This is a center-right country, whether you like it or not, and a jury usually reflects that."
The judge said defendants in personal injury cases almost always opt for a jury trial for that reason.
Regarding Butson v. Sommerfeldt, Morgan explained that there were three common-law principles to consider for both driver and pedestrian: Lookout, control and speed.
Neither speed nor control was at issue in this case, and while the motorist was cited for failing to yield, "the pedestrian has a duty to keep a proper lookout as well."
The judged added, though, that "the standard of care for a motorist is much higher than for a pedestrian, for obvious reasons."
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