Justice Benjamin: Opinion in car wreck case went too far

By Nathan Bass | Dec 13, 2012

CHARLESTON – In a written concurrence released Dec. 7, Justice Brent Benjamin took issue with the advisory opinion style of the Supreme Court’s reversal and remand of a grant of summary judgment in a car accident case that resulted in the death of a teen.

“Essentially the majority sets forth, unnecessarily, a course by which the petitioner could be deemed responsible for the wrongful death of Samantha Nichole Dawn Staubs," Benjamin wrote.

“Prejudging foreseeability and intervening causation is simply not within the proper province of this Court at this point in the proceedings.”

The case involved a car accident which took the life of 14-year old Samantha Staubs and seriously injured her sister, 13-year old Jessica Staubs. Presiding was Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge David H. Sanders.

The two girls were passengers in a vehicle stolen and driven by another 14-year old girl who was intoxicated, according to court records.

18-year-old Jonathan Ray Marcus had driven Samantha and her friend Kelly, along with 26-year old Steven Woodward and his younger brother to a store where alcohol was purchased.

There was conflicting testimony as to how the girls ended up with the alcohol that Woodward purchased but it was “undisputed that [Marcus] did not exit the vehicle or purchase any alcohol.”

After the alcohol purchase, the two girls met up with several others girls, including Samantha’s sister Jessica and their friend Misty, at their friend Adrian’s house, where the alcohol was consumed.

There was testimony that later in the evening one of the girls may have called Marcus, along with several others, when trying to find a ride home.

According to court records, after being unable to find a ride, “Misty and Samantha left Adrian’s house stating they were going to steal a car.”

“They returned minutes later with a truck they stole from neighbor Mack Jenkins and retrieved Kelly and Jessica. Minutes later, with Misty at the wheel and Samantha an unsecured front passenger, the vehicle hit an embankment. Samantha was killed; Jessica sustained a head injury," the majority opinion says.

After a lawsuit alleging negligence was filed against Marcus by Lori Ann Staubs, the mother of the Staubs sisters, Sanders granted Mrs. Staubs’ motion for summary judgment.

The trial court made several findings, including “that by refusing to pick the girls up later in the evening at their request, he was guilty of common law negligence” and “that Misty’s actions in stealing the vehicle, driving without a license, and driving intoxicated were not intervening causes.”

On appeal, the state Supreme Court found “the trial court’s award of summary judgment improperly invaded the province of the fact-finder” on numerous issues raised by Marcus.

“A trial court is not permitted to 'try' a case under the auspices of summary judgment for reasons that are best demonstrated by the unfortunate convolution of issues presented herein," the majority opinion says.

The Court reversed the trial court and remanded the case back for further proceedings.

Benjamin, while agreeing with the result, disagreed with the style of the opinion.

“I write separately raising concern that the majority opinion, which reaches a satisfactory result in remanding this case for further development of the facts, has risen to the level of an advisory opinion," he wrote.

“This is apparent from phrases such as 'these factual issues notwithstanding, we do find that ample legal authority existed to form a potential basis of liability of petitioner,' and the 'proper management of the legal and factual issues presented.'

“While I agree with the result reached, I believe that the majority opinion goes beyond what is necessary and proper for this Court to do in deciding the issue before us.”

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