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Coffin v. Doherty

Court of Appeals of Iowa

November 21, 2018

REBECCA COFFIN, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
BRENNA CHRISTINE DOHERTY, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Paul D. Scott, Judge.

         Brenna Doherty appeals the district court decision granting a new trial based on an erroneously given jury instruction. AFFIRMED.

          Stephen E. Doohen of Whitfield & Eddy, PLC, Des Moines, for appellant.

          Bruce J. Toenjes of Nelson & Toenjes, Shell Rock, for appellee.

          Heard by Tabor, P.J., and Mullins and Bower, JJ.

          BOWER, JUDGE

         Brenna Doherty appeals an order for new trial granted to Rebecca Coffin following a jury verdict finding Doherty was not at fault for an automobile accident. The district court granted a new trial, finding it had committed reversible error by submitting an instruction on the legal excuse of sudden emergency. Reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Doherty, we find the instruction was not supported by the evidence. We affirm the district court's order for a new trial.

         I. Background Facts & Proceedings

         On April 18, 2014, a four-vehicle automobile accident occurred on Interstate 35 near Ankeny. The front vehicle, driven by Coffin, was braking and slowing to a stop after noticing emergency lights and some brake lights ahead. Coffin saw a vehicle approaching from behind very quickly as she applied her brakes. She was struck from behind by a vehicle driven by Rebecca Ruther, went into a spin, and then was clipped by a vehicle driven by Cody Dobson.[1] Doherty was driving immediately behind Ruther and veered to the left but hit the back end of Ruther's vehicle.[2]

         A question of fact of who struck first went to the jury-whether the vehicle driven by Doherty struck Ruther before or after Ruther's vehicle hit Coffin. Coffin makes no claim Doherty's vehicle hit her vehicle directly. Doherty testified she swerved toward the median after seeing Ruther's vehicle strike Coffin and come to a "dead stop" with no brake lights visible until after the collision. Doherty "clipped" Ruther as she swerved. Doherty testified she did not swerve farther left because she was afraid of rolling her vehicle on the slope of the median.

         Doherty's vehicle sustained only cosmetic damage to the front passenger side. Ruther's vehicle sustained significant front driver side damage and rear bumper damage. Coffin's vehicle sustained damage to the rear bumper, undercarriage, and rear door, with additional damage to the front bumper. Dobson's vehicle sustained minor damage, but was drivable.

         Doherty was issued a citation for violation of Iowa Code section 321.285 (2014), failure to stop in assured clear distance. She appeared and pleaded guilty to the citation on May 5, 2014. Doherty's insurance carrier informed Coffin via letters dated April 28 and June 5, 2014, that their investigation indicated Ruther was the party at fault for Coffin's damages.

         On April 5, 2016, Coffin filed suit against Doherty, alleging Doherty was negligent in causing the accident and the negligence caused injuries and damages. Instructions regarding legal excuse and sudden emergency were among the directions provided to the jury following a two-day trial. The jury returned a unanimous verdict finding Doherty was not at fault.[3] On April 12, the court entered judgment in favor of Doherty and dismissed the case.

         On April 26, Coffin filed a motion for new trial, claiming the court should not have included jury instructions relating to legal excuse, sudden emergency, and other grounds. The court heard arguments on July 7, and on August 7 entered a written order granting the motion for new trial. The court stated "A stop in traffic is not an uncommon or unforeseen event on the traveled roadway and, therefore, is not a sudden emergency," finding it was an error of law under Beyer v. Todd, 601 N.W.2d 35 (Iowa 1999), to ...


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