United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
FINDINGS OF FACT, CONCLUSIONS OF LAW, AND
A. ROBERTS, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
civil action came on for a bench trial on May 13, 2019. The
parties unanimously consented to trial, disposition, and
judgment by a United States Magistrate Judge with appeal to
the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
Section 636(c)(1). The case was originally referred to then
Chief Magistrate Judge Williams. (Doc. 9.) It was
subsequently referred to me. At the request of the parties, I
bifurcated trial into a liability phase and a damages phase.
(Doc. 19.) The trial on liability proceeded on May 13, 2019.
I submit the following Findings of Fact and Conclusions of
Law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a)(1).
parties have stipulated that the following facts are true and
undisputed: On May 3, 2014, in the early afternoon, there was
a vehicle accident involving Brian Kleckner and Lanny Smith.
Directly before the accident, Brian Kleckner was driving his
motorcycle behind Lanny Smith's vehicle on Highway 64
between Sabula and Miles, Iowa. The accident occurred when
Lanny Smith turned left toward his driveway, which was on the
left-hand side of the road. After Lanny Smith began his left
turn, Brian Kleckner collided with the side of Lanny
Smith's vehicle. Prior to the collision Kleckner had
switched lanes in an attempt to pass Lanny Smith's
vehicle. At the time of the accident Lanny Smith was working
as a rural postal carrier for the United States Postal
Service. The stipulations are contained in the final pretrial
order. (Doc. 22.) I find all of the foregoing to be facts of
FURTHER FINDINGS OF FACT
3, 2014, Mr. Kleckner was traveling west on Iowa State
Highway 64 on his 1978 Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Mr.
Kleckner is an experienced motorcycle driver. He normally
drives at a leisurely pace, typically under the speed limit.
At the location of the collision, the posted limit is 55
miles per hour. He was on his way to meet friends in nearby
Miles, Iowa. He had no set meeting time and was in no
particular hurry when he encountered Mr. Smith's vehicle
also pointed westbound, but on the right shoulder near a
mailbox. What happened from the time Mr. Kleckner saw Mr.
Smith's modified Chevrolet Aveo until they collided is the
subject of this dispute.
the collision, Mr. Smith was engaged in delivering mail on
his rural postal route. Mr. Smith calculated he had delivered
mail on this route more than 8000 times since 1988 without
having been responsible for any accident, even though the
quirks of the route, the poor roads and the hilly terrain
make it one of the more hazardous routes in the postal
system. Mr. Smith had been personally involved in the
provision of safety training within the postal system.
Exhibit I depicts the scene of the accident as viewed from
the east. Mailbox 57618 marks the location where Mr. Smith
was delivering mail when Mr. Kleckner first saw him. This
mailbox belongs to Ruby Brauthower and was referred to
throughout the trial as “Ruby's mailbox.” The
next mailbox, 57309, happened to be Mr. Smith's personal
mailbox. This coincidence is significant. Mr. Smith reaches
the halfway point of his route about mid-day at his residence
and stops there for lunch. Although he owns a mailbox, Mr.
Smith has no reason to deliver mail to it. Instead, he was
turning left into his driveway on the south side of Highway
64 to take his lunch break at the time of the collision. In
fact, the aftermath of the collision left both vehicles at
the end of Mr. Smith's driveway, near the shoulder of the
south side of the road.
I also depicts the double yellow line that signifies a
no-passing zone that extends from some point east of where
Mr. Kleckner first saw Mr. Smith's vehicle to some point
west of Mr. Smith's driveway. The westbound no-passing
zone was necessitated by the hill that crests just to the
west of Mr. Smith's driveway. In other words, westbound
vehicles are prohibited from passing in this area because
they are unable to see approaching vehicles in the eastbound
lane. Exhibit M contains as-built elevations and a plan view
prepared by the Iowa Department of Transportation of the
parties dispute what happened immediately before the
collision. Mr. Kleckner testified that when he first saw Mr.
Smith's vehicle, “[Mr. Smith] was pulled off to the
right, sitting by a black mailbox.” (Tr. at 18.)
“[Mr. Smith] started proceeding forward. Half on the
road, half off the road. He come up to the next
mailbox.” (Id.) Mr. Kleckner testified he
recognized the vehicle as a mail delivery vehicle. He also
testified that it had its right turn signal on continually.
(Id. at 18-19.) Mr. Kleckner testified “[Mr.
Smith] proceeded to another mailbox, and then he hit his
brakelights. I assumed that he was pulling over to that
mailbox.” (Id. at 19.)
Kleckner testified that he saw no oncoming traffic and
proceeded to go around Mr. Smith's vehicle by crossing
the double yellow line to the far (i.e., south) side of the
eastbound lane. Mr. Kleckner believes he was traveling
45-miles-per-hour before starting to pass, but had slowed to
35-to-40-miles-per-hour as he commenced to pass Mr. Smith.
Mr. Kleckner testified he saw Mr. Smith's brakelights as
Mr. Smith continued to slow down to stop. Mr. Kleckner
believed he was halfway or three quarters of the way around
Mr. Smith when Mr. Smith turned to the left. Mr. Kleckner
claims he tried to go left to avoid the accident because
going right would have made him hit the rear of Mr.
Smith's vehicle. (Tr. at 21.) Mr. Kleckner said he did
not use his brakes because he was on gravel and would have
lost control of his vehicle. Instead, he believed it was
safer to downshift and he did so.
Kleckner collided with the driver's side of Mr.
Smith's vehicle. The vehicles came to rest parallel to
one another in the entrance of Mr. Smith's driveway on
the south side of the road. (Exs. R, S.) Mr. Kleckner
contends that immediately after the accident, Mr. Smith
approached the injured Mr. Kleckner and expressed his
consternation that drivers assume he would drive to his own
mailbox. Mr. Kleckner did not know Mr. Smith at the
time and, presumably, had no reason to know Mr. Smith's
residence was the next stop on his route. Mr. Kleckner
testified Mr. Smith did not have his left turn signal on and
would not have passed him if he had seen his left turn
signal. The distance from Ruby's mailbox where Mr.
Kleckner first saw Mr. Smith to Mr. Smith's mailbox is
approximately .2 miles.
Smith describes the events differently. Mr. Smith was exact
in his descriptions of the accident, as well as in his
description of his habits and practices on his mail route,
and his safety consciousness. He described his actions from
the time he placed mail in Ruby's box,
While signaling right at her box, I made her delivery. And in
separating my delivery duties from my driving duties, I'm
done with my delivery duty at her box when I know what the
next delivery will be. In this case, it's always the next
delivery will be my mail, which is there at the bottom of the
tub. Then I looked to the west, see if it's clear coming
from that direction. And then I looked through the windows
over my left shoulder to see what is coming in this curve
where it occurs off to the southeast. And when it's clear
from both directions, I signal left and come out and take
full possession of that lane of travel. I travel on the
gravel only in an approach to a mailbox, and I'm
certainly not approaching a mailbox here. I'm approaching
my dinner site. So this entire distance from Ruby's to
Lanny Smith's dinner site, it will be a left-hand turn
signal, and it will be a vehicle - Whether it's obvious
to anyone it's a rural carrier vehicle or not, it will be
a mail delivery vehicle that's traveling in the full lane
of highway, not on the gravel.
(Tr. at 69:20 - 70:19.)
Smith described his vehicle as having “crisp blinkers,
” by which he means the turn signal stays on until the
turn is completed and the steering wheel is straightened.
(Tr. at 71.) Mr. Smith testified that his left turn signal
was on his entire journey from Ruby's mailbox to where
the accident occurred. In fact, when law enforcement officers
were investigating the accident, they inspected his lights.
When he turned his key on, the left turn signal was still
blinking. (Tr. at 72.) Mr. Smith testified that he believed
he did not see Mr. Kleckner who “was hidden in that
door post between the back window and the straight side
window and that our speeds were matched.” (Tr. at 74.)
In any event, Mr. Smith did not see Mr. Kleckner either in
his rearview mirror or when he turned his head to look. Mr.
Smith estimated that his speed got up to
35-to-40-miles-per-hour. (Tr. at 90.) He slowed to make his
turn into his driveway. (Tr. at 97.) Mr. Smith testified that
quite often, before this accident and thereafter, he had been
passed at his mailbox with his left turn signal on. (Tr. at
offered deposition transcripts of two people who live in the
general vicinity, Allan Milder and Roy Rathje. (Exs. B, C.)
Neither person witnessed the accident or Mr. Smith's
driving on the day of the accident. Mr. Milder testified that
on the portion of Mr. Smith's route between Ruby's
house and his own, he has seen Mr. Smith drive wholly on the
roadway and not on the shoulder. (Ex. B at 6.) Mr. Rathje
testified that whenever he saw Mr. Smith driving between
Ruby's house and his own, Mr. Smith would be driving on
the highway. (Ex. C at 7.)
Alan Lynch was called by Defendant to testify as an accident
reconstructionist. Dr. Lynch is a registered professional
engineer in the State of Iowa, has a Ph.D. in the field of
mechanical engineering, and has significant experience in the
area of motor vehicle accident reconstruction as set forth in
Defendant's Exhibit Q. After describing his
investigation, including viewing the scene of the accident,
inspecting the vehicles, and reviewing pertinent records, he
offered his opinions regarding the cause of the collision.
First, Mr. Kleckner's motorcycle crossed the double
yellow no passing zone line and, second, Mr. Kleckner failed
to maintain control of his vehicle. Dr. Lynch relied on two
provisions of the Iowa Civil Jury Instructions. First, Iowa
Civil Jury Instruction 600.19 which is based on Iowa Code
Section 321.304 provides,
No vehicle shall overtake and pass another vehicle, or at any
other time be driven to the left side of the road under the
following conditions: . . . 3, Where official signs are in
place directing that traffic keep to the right, or
distinctive centerline or off-centerline is marked which
directs traffic as declared in the sign manual adopted by the
Department of Transportation.
clear from the record, Mr. Kleckner now admits that he
crossed the double yellow no-passing zone line and was
attempting to pass in violation of Iowa Code Section 321.304.
Dr. Lynch opined that as while passing Mr. Smith, Mr.
Kleckner would not have had adequate visibility to see
vehicles approaching in the westbound lane beyond the crest
of the hill. This was clearly demonstrated using the Iowa
Department of Transportation elevations shown in Exhibit M
and the minimum passing sight distances paving marking
standards shown in Defendant's Exhibit K. In essence, Dr.
Lynch's testimony confirmed the necessity of a no-passing
zone in this area because of a blind spot for westbound
drivers created by the hill crest. Dr. Lynch also measured
the distance from Ruby's mailbox to the centerline of Mr.
Smith's driveway to be 986 feet or about 0.2 miles. (Tr.
respect to his conclusion that Mr. Kleckner failed to
maintain control of his motorcycle, Dr. Lynch found it
significant that the damage marks on Mr. Smith vehicle were
all behind the driver's seat which indicated that first
impact occurred at the driver's side rear door panel.
(Tr. at 140.) Dr. Lynch opined that “[a]ny time there
is a rear impact, vehicles behind the driver are expected and
always anticipated to maintain control of their
vehicle.” (Tr. at 144.) Dr. Lynch relied on Iowa Civil
Jury Instruction 600.7, which is based on Matuska v.
Bryant, 150 N.W.2d 716 (Iowa 1967), and provides,
“A driver must have his or her vehicle ...