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Contributory Negligence: Why in North Carolina a Green Light is not enough.

Have you ever driven through a green light in North Carolina?  Ever wondered how in North Carolina you can have the green light and someone can run a red light, severly injure you, and still not recover for your injuries?  North Carolina is one of a handfull of states that clinges to the antiquated notion of contributory negligence as a complete bar to recovery for negligence.  In other words if by your own actions you contribute one percent and the defendant is 99% at fault you still cannot recover in North Carolina for your injuries.   This is not new law.  In 1955 the Supreme Court of North Carolina looked at these issues in the Hyder case. Hyder v. Asheville Storage Battery Co., 242 N.C. 553,  89 S.E.2d 124 (1955).  In Hyder, the Court looked at what duties are owed regardless of whether you have a legal right to enter an intersection.   "Unquestionably it is the duty of the driver of an automobile approaching a street intersection, when faced with a municipally maintained traffic signal showing red, to stop before entering. It is also true that if faced with a green light the driver is warranted in moving into the intersection unless the circumstances are such as to indicate caution to one of reasonable prudence. Notwithstanding the driver is faced with green light, however, the duty rests upon him to maintain a reasonable and proper lookout for other vehicles in or approaching the intersection." Hyder v. Asheville Storage Battery Co., 242 N.C. 553, 556, 89 S.E.2d 124, 127-28 (1955).   The Court went on to state: 'The fact that the operator of a motor vehicle may have a green light facing him as he approaches and enters an intersection where traffic is regulated by automatic traffic control signals does not relieve him of his legal duty to maintain a proper lookout, to keep his vehicle under reasonable control".  Hyder v. Asheville Storage Battery Co., 242 N.C. 553, 557, 89 S.E.2d 124, 128 (1955).   The Court was clearly concerned about people automatially relying on the then very unreliable traffic control devices.  Although our deices have improved with technology, human error or the lack of the same is still an issue.  Even in 2011 we are still having courts in North Carolina trying to decide where the bright line is to absolve someone of responsibility for the negligence of others.   In the Bass case, the Court of Appeals, in an unpublished decision did a good job tracing the evolution of the need or lack thereof for contributory negligence.   "The fact that the operator of a motor vehicle may have a green light facing him as he approaches and enters an intersection where traffic is regulated by automatic traffic control signals does not relieve him of his legal duty to maintain a proper lookout, to keep his vehicle under reasonable control...." Bass v. Lee, 255 N.C. 73, 79, 120 S.E.2d 570, 573 (1961) (quoting Funeral Service v. Charlotte Coach Lines, 248 N.C. 146, 102 S.E.2d 816 (quoting Cox v. Freight Lines, 236 N.C. 72, 72 S.E.2d 25); citing Williams v. Funeral Home, 248 N.C. 524, 103 S.E.2d 714; Shoe v. Hood, 251 N.C. 719, 112 S.E.2d 543). However, "in the absence of anything which gives or should give him notice to the contrary, a motorist has the right to assume and to act on the assumption that another motorist will observe the rules of the road and stop in obedience to a traffic signal." Strathopoulos v. Shook, 251 N.C. 33, 36-37, 110 S.E.2d 452, 455 (1959) (quoting Cox, supra). Thus, the mere fact that plaintiff failed to observe traffic conditions east of the intersection is insufficient to establish that plaintiff was contributorily negligent as a matter of law, since "[w]hether such failure to look was a proximate cause of the collision depended upon whether, if he had looked, what he would or should have seen was sufficient to put him on notice, at a time when plaintiff could by the exercise of due care have avoided the collision, that defendant would not stop in obedience to the red light." Id. at 37, 110 S.E.2d 452, 110 S.E.2d at 455 (citing Currin v. Williams, 248 N.C. 32, 102 S.E.2d 455). As a result, the Supreme Court and this Court have held that evidence tending to show that a driver who entered an intersection in reliance on a green light while traveling at about 15 to 20 miles per hour and collided with a driver who entered the intersection against a red light while traveling at 35 to 40 miles per hour and who was approximately 100 feet from the intersection at the time that the plaintiff entered the intersection, Id. at 37, 102 S.E.2d 455, 110 S.E.2d at 456; that a driver who entered an intersection in reliance on a green light while looking ahead into the intersection rather than "sideways" and traveling at about 15 to 20 miles per hour collided with a driver who entered the intersection against a red light, Currin, 248 N.C. at 35, 102 S.E.2d at 457-58; that a driver who entered an intersection in reliance on a green light, after looking both right and left without seeing anything, and collided with another vehicle that entered the intersection at 35 to 40 miles per hour, Wright v. Pegram, 244 N.C. 45, 48-49, 92 S.E.2d 416, 419 (1956); and that a driver who entered an intersection in reliance on a green light without looking to his left, particularly given that his view was blocked by a school bus, and collided with another vehicle, Seaman v. McQueen, 51 N.C.App. 500, 504-05, 277 S.E.2d 118, 120-21 (1981), does not establish the existence of contributory negligence as a matter of law. See also Cicogna v. Holder, 345 N.C. 488, 489-90, 480 S.E.2d 636, 637 (1997) (stating that the issue of contributory negligence should not have been submitted to the jury when "[t] he only evidence presented was that the plaintiff had the green light and was struck by the defendant, who violated the red light."). Instead, the appellate courts in this jurisdiction have simply held that such evidence is sufficient to support the submission of a contributory negligence issue to the jury, with the jury given the responsibility for determining whether any contributory negligence on the part of the plaintiff barred his or her recovery. Bass, 255 N.C. 73, 120 S.E.2d 570 (holding that evidence tending to show that a driver who entered an intersection when the controlling traffic signal was green and made no effort to avoid a collision despite being warned that another driver had "run" a red light and was about to collide with his vehicle supported the submission of a contributory negligence issue to the jury).  After a careful examination of the relevant authorities, we have not been able to find any reported decision concluding that a driver who entered an intersection at a time when the light was green was contributorily negligent as a matter of law.  Bass v. Alvarado, 713 S.E.2d 251 (N.C. Ct. App. 2011)   Therefore, in North Carolina, you should continue to use caution while driving, and if you enter an intersection, don't forget... until we change our laws, you don't have an absolute right to enter... use good common sense and w  

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