July 8, 2015 – A jury awarded the injured plaintiffs $1 million in a truck driver negligence case. Recently, the state supreme court declined the trucker driver’s appeal, rejecting the claim that a jury instruction on trucker negligence was incorrect and misled the jury.
In 2008, Ronald and Kathleen Dakter entered an intersection on a state highway in Juneau County when their vehicle collided with a 65-foot semi-trailer truck driven by defendant Dale Cavallino, who had 31 years of experience driving semi-trucks.
The Dakters were injured and filed a lawsuit alleging negligence. The parties agreed that semi-truck drivers have an ordinary standard of care, that is, “the care a reasonable and prudent truck driver would use under the same or similar circumstances.”
At trial, the Dakters presented experts who testified about the safety standards and practices that apply to truck drivers and concluded Cavallino did not meet them. For instance, one expert testified that Cavallino was driving too fast given the conditions.
The defendant’s expert testified that Cavallino did not violate the safe driving practices for truck drivers. After a 10-day trial, the judge gave a negligence instruction.
It said Cavallino was negligent if he “did not use the degree of care, skill, and judgment which a reasonable semi truck driver would exercise in the same or similar circumstances having due regard for the state of learning, education, experience, and knowledge possessed by semi truck drivers holding commercial driver’s licenses.”
The jury found that Cavallino was 65 percent causally negligent and awarded more than $1 million in damages. Cavallino challenged the verdict, arguing the jury instruction created a heightened standard of care, misstating the law and misleading the jury.
He requested a new trial. The circuit and appeals courts denied the request. The appeals court acknowledged that the jury could have misinterpreted the instruction as creating a higher standard of care for semi-truck drivers, as opposed to other drivers.
However, assuming without deciding that the instruction was erroneous, the appeals court ruled that any error was not prejudicial to Cavallino’s case.
In Dakter v. Cavallino, 2015 WI 67 (July 7, 2015), the Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously affirmed, concluding Cavallino was not entitled to a new trial. However, the justices differed on reasoning, with a majority opinion and two concurrences.
A four-justice majority, in an opinion by Justice Shirley Abrahamson, concluded that the truck driver negligence instruction was “neither incorrect nor misleading.”
Two justices agreed that the instruction was not erroneous in this particular case, but wrote separately to clarify the reach of the court’s decision. Chief Justice Patience Roggensack concluded that the instruction was wrong, but the error was harmless.
The majority noted that circuit courts have broad discretion in crafting jury instructions, but any instructions must properly inform the jury of the applicable law. In this case, the majority concluded, the jury instruction communicated a correct statement of the law.
Justice Abrahamson noted that under the “superior knowledge rule,” adopted in a seminal 1931 Wisconsin case, “an actor with special knowledge or skill meets the standard of ordinary care by employing that special knowledge or skill.”
The majority also noted that Wisconsin follows the “profession or trade principle,” which says persons engaged in a profession or trade “must act commensurate with the knowledge and skill a reasonable member of that trade or profession possesses.”
“Importantly, although both the superior knowledge rule and the profession or trade principle describe the circumstances the jury is to consider in determining negligence, neither doctrine sets forth a heightened standard of care,” Abrahamson wrote.
They merely determine what the ordinary standard of care is for persons engaged in those professions or trades that require special skills, the majority noted.
Cavallino argued that the superior knowledge rule and the profession or trade principle did not apply to him, so the instruction erroneously created a higher standard of care.
The majority was not persuaded, concluding that both the superior knowledge rule and the profession or trade principle applied to Cavallino as a professional truck driver.
Thus, the jury instruction did not misstate the law, the majority concluded. In addition, the majority concluded that the instruction was not prejudicially misleading
“Read as a whole, the message conveyed by the jury instructions was clear: The standard of ordinary care applies to both the plaintiff and the defendant. Ordinary care is the care a reasonable person would exercise under the circumstances.”
Chief Justice Roggensack concluded that the “circuit court’s special skills instruction was erroneous because it incorrectly stated the law,” but the error was harmless.
It was an incorrect statement of the law to say that Cavallino had a “duty to use the degree of care, skill, and judgment which reasonable semi truck drivers would exercise in the same or similar circumstances,’” the chief justice explained.
“It establishes a semi-truck driver standard of care that required Cavallino to use skills in addition to those required of Dakter while both were using a public highway.”
The chief justice said application of the superior knowledge and skills doctrine didn’t apply because both Cavallino and Dakter was using the same “venue,” the roadway.
“The circumstances of ordinary care are not modified according to the type of vehicle operator, but rather, uniformly reflect the nature of the shared venue, a public roadway,” wrote Roggensack, distinguishing the venues in which other professionals operate.
She noted that a person with a regular driver’s license would not be held to a special skills standard if they rented a large moving truck or a truck with a large trailer.
Despite her conclusion, Chief Justice Roggensack concluded that the error was harmless because the jurors “would have been as likely to reach the same conclusion” if presented with accurate statements about the standard of ordinary care.
Finally, Justice Annette Ziegler wrote a separate concurrence, joined by Justice Michael Gableman. Ziegler concluded that the jury instruction was not erroneous, and even if it was, the error was harmless. She wrote separately to clarify two points.
First, she noted that the instruction was correct because Cavallino was driving a semi-truck requiring the special knowledge and skills to operate that vehicle. But the instruction would be incorrect if Cavallino was driving a regular passenger vehicle.
Second, Ziegler wrote “to clarify that certain treatises that the majority opinion cites are overly broad and do not dictate the law in Wisconsin.”