Appeal from judgment of Court of Common Pleas No. 6 of Philadelphia County, Dec. T., 1958, No. 1175, in case of Viola C. Woodland, administratrix of estate of Edward W. Helm, deceased, also known as Edward W. Hellem, deceased v. The Philadelphia Transportation Company.
Edward Leach, with him Hy Mayerson and Louis Kassarich, for appellant.
James Conwell Welsh, for appellee.
Musmanno, Jones, Eagen, O'Brien and Roberts, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Musmanno. Mr. Justice Roberts concurs in the result. Mr. Justice Jones dissents. Mr. Chief Justice Bell and Mr. Justice Cohen took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
Viola C. Woodland, administratrix of the Estate of Edward W. Helm, sued in trespass the Philadelphia Transportation Company to recover damages for the death of Edward Helm, resulting from a collision between the automobile which he was driving and a bus belonging to the defendant company.
At the trial the Coroner (now known as Medical Examiner) of Philadelphia County was called by the plaintiff to prove the cause of death. He testified that that cause was "crushing comminuted fractures of the skull, contusions and lacerations of the brain, a number of other fractures, contusions and lacerations of the spinal cord and of the lungs, as well as a number of other injuries."
The trial court then asked: "These would have caused death in all probability or weren't you able to
say?" The witness replied: "that when there are multiple injuries of this type . . . together with other factors sufficient to cause death, I do not specify specifically one thing."
The only purpose for the appearance of the Coroner, so far as the plaintiff's case was concerned, was to show that the traffic victim had died of injuries and not of old age, illness or some other non-traumatic infirmity. In one of those rare moments of heedlessness which perhaps sometimes assails the best of attorneys, plaintiff's counsel asked what were the other factors, whereupon the Coroner volunteered: "the other factors, together with the alcoholism would have been sufficient to cause death."
The question was unwisely put and the answer was improperly given because, obviously, crushing comminuted fractures of the skull, plus lacerations of the brain and the spinal cord, would have been enough to kill a Samson. Indeed, the Coroner's Death Certificate declared that Helm came to his death because of "multiple injuries." The trial judge also stated that "these would have caused death in all probability."
But this contretemps at the very threshold of the trial was to lead down the corridor of improprieties to more serious irregularities in trial procedure. Taking up the cross-examination of the Coroner, defendant's counsel proceeded to conduct a seminar on the subject of alcoholics and alcoholism, although, as already stated, the death certificate made no mention of alcohol in any way. He asked the witness about his answer on alcoholism and the witness replied: "A. My statement was that the conclusion as to the death was multiple injuries and that I did not specify that the injuries to the skull and the brain were the ...