Court of Appeal of the State of California - 20 Cal. App. 3d 528
In Hammontree v. Jenner (1971), the California Court of Appeal dealt with a case involving a shop owner and a driver who crashed into her shop because of an epileptic seizure. The shop owner, Maxine Hammontree, and her husband sued Thomas Jenner for personal injuries and property damage caused by the accident. Jenner, who had a history of epilepsy and was under medical supervision, argued that he became unconscious during a seizure and lost control of his car.
Hammontree initially sued under negligence and absolute liability theories, but later dropped the negligence claim. The jury sided with Jenner on the absolute liability claim, and Hammontree appealed. The appellate court supported the decision for Jenner, ruling that a driver suddenly becoming unconscious due to illness was a matter of negligence, not absolute liability. The court rejected Hammontree's argument that Jenner should be held strictly liable for driving despite knowing his medical condition could make him unconscious.
The court distinguished cases involving strict liability for defective products, animals, or abnormally dangerous activities, as those dealt with inherent risks regardless of fault or care. Imposing strict liability on drivers with medical conditions, the court reasoned, would be unfair and impractical, as it would discourage them from seeking treatment and limit their mobility and livelihood.
This case highlights the principles and limitations of strict liability in tort law: it's not applicable to every situation with potential harm, but only when unreasonable risks can't be eliminated with care. The case also demonstrates how courts balance parties' and society's interests in deciding whether to apply strict liability or negligence as the standard of liability.
The plaintiffs are appealing a trial court's judgment in favor of the defendant in a personal injury and property damage case resulting from a car accident. The defendant claimed that he lost control of his car due to an epileptic seizure, which caused him to become unconscious. The trial court correctly refused to give an instruction on absolute liability, as liability for injury resulting from an accident during that time rests on principles of negligence. However, the plaintiffs withdrew their claim of negligence during the trial and objected to the giving of any instructions on negligence, electing to stand solely on the theory of absolute liability. The appellants are challenging established law in California that holds a driver liable for injuries caused by an accident resulting from a physical condition that renders them unconscious. They argue that liability should be based on strict liability in tort, similar to the principles imposed on manufacturers, retailers, and distributors of products that cause injury to consumers due to defects.
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