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Kleckner v. United States

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division

July 19, 2019




         This 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).


         The 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 the case.


         On May 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[1] until they collided is the subject of this dispute.

         Before 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.

         Defendant's 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.

         Exhibit 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 relevant area.

         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.)

         Mr. 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.

         Mr. 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.[2] 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.

         Mr. 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.)

         Mr. 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 100.)

         Defendant 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.)

         Dr. 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.

         As is 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. at 137.)

         With 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 ...

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