In this 2-1, unpublished decision (Kelly, dissenting), the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of Defendant Jeffrey Knapp’s motion for summary disposition, in which Knapp sought dismissal of Plaintiff Estate of Omari Bell’s (“the Estate”) wrongful death action against him. The Court of Appeals held that a question of fact existed as to whether Knapp was negligent in running over Bell, a pedestrian. Knapp testified that he did not see Bell walking on the freeway before crashing into him, but the Court noted that his testimony was subject to a credibility determination by the jury, especially considering two other motorists did observe Bell walking in the freeway and called 9-1-1 before Knapp crashed into him.
Omari Bell was walking on the freeway, in dark clothing, when Jeffrey Knapp crashed into him. Bell died as a result of his injuries, and after the crash, Knapp told police that he did not see Bell at all prior to impact. Knapp also testified that he was not distracted prior to impact; that he was not speeding prior to impact; and that, because it was dark outside and there was poor lighting on that stretch of the highway, he could not have seen Bell prior to impact. Based on these facts, Knapp moved for summary disposition in Bell’s Estate’s wrongful death action against him. In opposition to the motion, however, the Estate noted that two other motorists had been able to see and avoid Bell walking on the freeway, as evidenced by their calling 9-1-1 to report as much. The trial court ultimately determined that a question of fact existed regarding Knapp’s negligence and denied Knapp’s motion.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of Knapp’s motion, holding that a question of fact existed regarding Knapp’s negligence and Bell’s comparative negligence, making summary disposition improper. The Court noted that drivers have a common law duty ‘to notice persons in the street, [to] use reasonable and ordinary care not to run down pedestrians on the highway, [and] [to] obey statutes governing the use of automobiles[.]’ In this case, a question of fact existed as to whether Knapp violated his duty, especially considering the fact that two other drivers did see Bell and did not crash into him. Moreover, since Knapp’s testimony was the only evidence suggesting that he could not, in fact, had observed Bell prior to the crash, it was improper to grant summary disposition in his favor because his testimony was subject to a credibility determination by the jury.
“In the present case, at common-law, defendant had a duty to look out for pedestrians such as the decedent. Because this duty was established, the trier of fact was required to determine if defendant breached the duty of reasonable care owed under the circumstances. Although the decedent had passed and could not dispute defendant’s testimony, the testimony offered by defendant was still subject to a credibility determination. It was certainly curious that two other individuals described a person in all black clothing walking on or near the shoulder of the freeway and called 911 to express their concerns. The decedent was visible to these two individuals. Yet, defendant testified that he never saw the decedent, and the first sight of the decedent was when the contact occurred. Whether defendant was looking at the roadway, as he testified, or was distracted by his phone, tiredness, or some other factor presented a credibility determination for the trier of fact.”
Next, the Court held that a question of fact existed as to the sudden emergency doctrine, which Knapp argued applied because Bell’s sudden appearance in the roadway rendered Knapp incapable of avoiding crashing into him. The Court noted, however, that the sudden emergency doctrine does not apply where the emergency is one of the defendant’s own making, and that, in this case, there was a question as to whether the sudden emergency of Knapp not seeing Bell before the collision was the result of Knapp not paying proper attention to the roadway.
“In the present case, plaintiff raised both common-law and statutory violations. Further, defendant testified that he never saw the decedent, and he became aware of the decedent when the accident occurred. He did not take evasive action before or after the accident but was forced to pull over because of the condition of his vehicle. Moreover, the application of the doctrine is contingent on a sudden emergency that occurs not as a result of defendant’s “own making.” If defendant was distracted and not paying attention to the roadway, an issue that presents a credibility determination, then a sudden emergency not of the defendant’s own making failed to transpire. Under the circumstances, defendant failed to demonstrate entitlement to summary disposition in light of this doctrine.”
Lastly, the Court held that the fact that all the police officers who investigated the crash—all of whom determined that Bell caused the accident and that Knapp was not at fault, and who likened the collision to that of a “deer jumping in front of a vehicle—“did not remove the issue from the jury.” The Court noted that the officers “did not have an independent basis to verify [Knapp’s] assertions,” and that Knapp’s assertions, therefore, were subject to a credibility determination.
Judge Kelly dissented, noting that there was no evidence to support the Estate’s “hypothetical scenarios in which [Knapp] may have been distracted,” and arguing that summary disposition should therefore have been granted in Knapp’s favor.