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MITCHELL v. STOLZE (11/17/53)

November 17, 1953

MITCHELL, ADMR.,
v.
STOLZE, APPELLANT



Appeal, No. 156, March T., 1953, from judgment of Court of Common Pleas of Washington County, May T., 1952, No. 93, in case of John W. Mitchell, Admr., etc., v. Hildred Knight Stolze. Judgment affirmed

COUNSEL

Palmer J. McCloskey, Jr., with him McCloskey, Patrono & McCloskey, for appellant.

John J. Moschetta, with him Howard F. Carson, for appellee.

Before Stern, C.j., Stearne, Jones, Bell, Chidsey, Musmanno and Arnold, JJ.

Author: Musmanno

[ 375 Pa. Page 297]

OPINION BY MR. JUSTICE MUSMANNO

On November 1, 1951, at about 5 p.m., two automobiles travelling on Pennsylvania State Highway Route No. 71 in Washington County, collided with each other so violently as to inflict death on the operator of one car (Helen c. Mitchell) and injuries on the operator of the other (Hildred Knight Stolze). No one, except the two operators themselves, witnessed the actual impact so that, when the administrator of the estate of Mrs. Helen C. Mitchell sued Hildred Knight Stolze for damages in both a wrongful death

[ 375 Pa. Page 298]

    and survival action, the defendant maintained there could be no recovery since ocular evidence to describe, visualize and reconstruct the details of the accident, was missing.*fn*

This defense, however, is not valid. Circumstantial evidence when it is planted squarely on the bedrock of natural laws, inevitable sequence and undeviating effect can be and is as convincing as the story of an eye witness. If circumstantial evidence can and often does persuade juries in criminal cases to render verdicts which deprive defendants of liberty and sometimes life, as indeed it can and does equally as affectively exonerate defendants accused of crime, why should it be regarded as any less reliable in civil cases? The worth of circumstantial evidence in civil cases is no longer a matter of academic debate or forensic argument. In Tucker v. Pettsburg, C., C. & St. L. Ry., Co., 227 Pa. 66, we said: "Accidents in which life is lost not infrequently occur unwitnessed. Such fact in itself does not operate to protect one whose negligence can be shown from the general situation and circumstances to have been the operative cause. When these are such as to satisfy reasonable and well-balanced minds that the accident resulted from the negligence of the party charged, liability attaches."

Five minutes after the crash between the Mitchell and the Stolze cars, a Shelby V. Ghrist arrived at the scene of the accident. The testified at the trial that he found both cars on the southern side of the highway with only the rear left fender of the Stolze car partly projecting over the center of the highway. Since the geographical physics of the accident indisputably establish that the Mitchell car was travelling eastwardly

[ 375 Pa. Page 299]

    and the Stolze car was travelling westwardly, the fact that both cars came to rest on that portion of the road assigned to eastwardly-moving traffic proclaims prima faciedly that the Stolze car was violating the law of the road at the time of the impact. As stated by Mr. Justice ALLEN M. STEARNE in Buchanan et al. v. Belusko, 361 Pa. 465, 467, "We are not required... to determine whether negligence may be inferred from attending circumstances. Driving on the wrong side of the streets in ...


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