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GILLESPIE v. BENTZ (12/01/60)

December 1, 1960

GILLESPIE
v.
BENTZ, APPELLANT.



Appeals, Nos. 179 and 180, March T., 1960, from judgments of Court of Common Pleas of McKean County, Feb. T., 1958, No. 154, in case of William Gillespie, administrator of estate of Emma Jane Gillespie, deceased v. William Bentz, also known as Bentz Furniture Store et al. Judgments affirmed.

COUNSEL

Murray R. Garber, with him Robert B. Apple, for appellants.

R. T. Mutzabaugh, for appellee.

Before Jones, C.j., Bell, Musmanno, Jones, Cohen, Bok and Eagen, JJ.

Author: Musmanno

[ 401 Pa. Page 590]

OPINION BY MR. JUSTICE MUSMANNO

The jury in this case awarded $10,000 to the children of, and $6,620 to the husband of, Emma Jane Gillespie, who was killed in an automobile accident. The defendant-appellants, William Bentz, Robert Bentz and Bentz Furniture Store moved for judgment n.o.v. and a new trial. The court below denied both motions and, from entry of judgment on the verdict, the defendants appealed.

Reading the record in the light most favorable to the verdict-winner, the following narrative of facts emerges from the evidence. On December 27, 1957, Robert Bentz, one of the defendants, was driving a Chevrolet furniture van in a southwardly direction on Route 68 between Kane and Marienville in Elk County. When he got to a point identified as Forest Hill Cemetery, and while ascending a steep grade in the road, the engine of his truck stalled. He tried to re-start it, but, failing in his endeavors, he instructed his helper, Joseph P. Skelly, to stand on the running board while he guided the truck, in reverse, down the cemetery hill he had been ascending. He had coasted in this fashion for some 375 feet when he arrived close to a sharp curve in the road, still on the hill, and here parked with the right front wheel of his vehicle on the berm to the right of the highway and the rest of the truck on the highway.

While this was happening, William Gillespie and his wife, Emma, were traveling in a Ford car from the north on the same road, mercifully unaware of the tragedy awaiting them on cemetery hill. Route 68, as it approaches the curve beyond which the Bentz van was halted, is lined with hemlock trees, which, rising from a steep bank, form a leafy curtain hiding what lies beyond the curve until one is practically within it.

[ 401 Pa. Page 591]

Accidents are rarely the result of one fortuitous event or circumstance. It is the uncanny converging of sometimes wholly unrelated conditions which fashion the snare in which the unsuspecting victim is trapped. A stalled truck, an acute curve and an obscuring hemlock grove might still not be enough to overcome the forces of caution and vigilance which normally accompany every driver at the wheel who naturally has no desire to visit harm upon others and certainly not to himself. However, just as Gillespie was coming out of the curve, a shaft of sunlight broke through the hemlock branches, striking him in the eyes and blotting out everything before him. He was proceeding at the time about 45 miles per hour. He at once lifted his foot from the gas pedal and reached up to pull down the sun visor. In the several seconds which transpired while doing these things, his car had come to within 30 feet of the halted truck which, to Gillespie, struggling to regain normal vision, seemed a "big black shape" ahead of him.

Gillespie knew he could not stop in time to avoid hitting the obstruction. He swerved to the left, tramping on the accelerator. His left front missed the truck but the right front smashed into the lowered tailgate which projected out beyond the body of the van. Mrs. Gillespie, sitting in the front seat with her husband, receiving the full impact of the collision, sustained grave injuries to her head from which she died minutes later.

The defendants argue that no negligence was proved against them and that Gillespie was guilty of contributory negligence. At the point of the collision the road was 19 1/2 feet wide. The width of the truck was 8 feet. If Bentz had moved his truck only several feet more off the road, as he could easily have done since the concrete ...


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