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Lawskills.com Georgia Caselaw
AMERICAN EMPLOYERS INSURANCE COMPANY v. JOHNS et al.
45439.
Declaratory judgment. Glynn Superior Court. Before Judge Flexer.
EVANS, Judge.
1. Where the servant is given wide authority in the maintenance and use of the master's automobiles which are placed in his custody and possession and where no specific direction is given that he not use an automobile in a certain manner or at a certain time, his use of the same, although no express permission is granted, will be presumed to be with implied permission.
2. In ruling on whether or not opening statements of counsel are authorized by the facts of the case the trial judge is vested with a broad discretion, and his ruling therein will not be disturbed unless it appears that his discretion was manifestly abused.
3. Since the jury would be entitled to consider all the facts and circumstances, it was not error, on cross examination, to ask the master if he would have objected if the servant had wanted to run an errand and use the automobile while awaiting the direction of the master.
4. A charge that the implied consent which might arise as a matter of law from the facts and circumstances surrounding the use of the automobile by the driver would be as effective as express consent was not erroneous under the evidence.
This action for declaratory judgment arose as follows: Mrs. Walter H. Stewart owned an automobile, and same was customarily driven by Zonnie L. Adkins, who was the employee of Mrs. Stewart and her husband, Walter H. Stewart.
This automobile was insured against liability by American Employers Insurance Company.
At the time in question, Adkins, the employee, was driving the automobile, while neither of his employers was present therein. A collision occurred and James L. Johns was injured. Johns was carrying uninsured motorists liability insurance. It then became important to determine whether Adkins was using the vehicle with permission of the "named insured" which would have meant that he was insured by American Employers Insurance Company, but if not, then Johns' uninsured motorists liability insurer, to wit, American Mutual Fire Insurance Company, would have been the insurer.
Johns filed suit against Adkins. American Employers Insurance Company filed defensive pleading for the defendant, but reserved its rights under the policy, and promptly thereafter filed this suit for declaratory judgment in order to determine the rights and obligations of the parties, and specifically, whether it was obliged to defend the lawsuit against Adkins. Johns alone filed an answer to the suit for declaratory judgment, but shortly thereafter American Mutual Fire Insurance Co. intervened so as to protect its rights, as the uninsured motorists insurer of Johns, and to have it determined what obligation it had, if any, in the premises.
The court stated in its final order that "at a pre-trial conference counsel for all parties agreed that there was no factual issue of express consent but only the factual issue of 'implied consent'. . ." and "the following should be submitted to a jury . . . Did Zonnie Adkins on September 28, 1968, under all the facts and circumstances disclosed by the evidence, have implied permission to operate the 1968 Cadillac owned by the Stewarts?" On the trial of this issue the jury returned an affirmative answer, and, as a result thereof, judgment was entered, based on the verdict, finding defendant Adkins had the implied consent of Mr. and Mrs. Stewart to operate the insured Stewart automobile at the time of the collision, and declaring that coverage was afforded Adkins under the circumstances.
The plaintiff, American Employers Insurance Company, filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, based on its motion for directed verdict made at the close of the evidence; and, in the alternative, a motion for new trial based on alleged errors in the proceedings before the jury. Error is enumerated on the denial of the motions for directed verdict, judgment notwithstanding the verdict, new trial, for mistrial when counsel for appellee, Johns, made certain alleged prejudicial remarks in his opening statement to the jury, and on the admission in evidence of certain illegal testimony and certain erroneous charges to the jury.
1. The first question we have for decision is whether or not the evidence was sufficient to authorize the affirmative answer by the jury that the defendant Adkins had the implied consent of the defendants, Mr. and Mrs. Walter H. Stewart, to operate the 1968 Cadillac at the time of the collision. The evidence is clear that Adkins was employed by the Stewarts to care for Mr. Stewart, who was an invalid and unable to drive an automobile. Thus Adkins had the custody and possession of this vehicle to carry Mr. Stewart wherever he wanted to go, as a passenger. The transcript shows that Adkins, on other occasions, had been allowed to use another car of the Stewarts for his personal use. In fact, a smaller car was used by him in driving to and from work. There was no direct testimony that he could not use the Cadillac (the insured car) for his own personal use, although the smaller car was used by him to drive home and return to work every day of his employment. Of course, if Adkins had been specifically forbidden to use the Cadillac for his own personal use, there could be no implied consent. See Hodges v. Ocean Accident &c. Corp., 66 Ga. App. 431, 435 (18 SE2d 28); Ditmyer v. American Liberty Ins. Co., 117 Ga. App. 512 (160 SE2d 844). While he was told which car he could use when going alone on an errand for the Stewarts, and in driving to and from work, yet be was given the keys to the Cadillac so he could transport Mr. Stewart, and on this date, to take him to the Elks Club. Never in the conversation about the use of the Cadillac was he advised to return at any certain time to pick up Mr. Stewart. In answer to a specific question, Mr. Stewart replied that he would have no objection if Adkins had wanted to run an errand during the time that Mr. Stewart was at the Elks Club. The jury was entitled to consider all of the facts and circumstances, including the relationship of the parties surrounding the use of the automobiles in arriving at whether or not a reasonable man would have inferred from such circumstances that permission was implied. It cannot be disputed that Adkins was charged with responsibility of maintaining the automobiles, that he did drive the two other automobiles of the Stewarts for his personal needs, and the mere fact that be failed to comply with the technicality of asking permission of Mr. Stewart on this specific occasion to use the automobile in question, did not prevent the jury determining that he had the implied permission of the owners on this occasion. It was quite obvious that a jury question was presented as to what reasonably could have been in Adkins' mind from the past course of events and as to the implied consent to use the automobile. The jury, as the impartial arbiter of the facts, made the determination of what could reasonably be inferred therefrom where there was no specific prohibition against Adkins driving the insured car.
We find no similar cases in Georgia based on these facts where the driver, having the custody and control of a vehicle with no specific direction not to use the vehicle, but given broad authority to drive other vehicles, becomes an additional insured under the permissive use clause of the policy. Clearly at all times here, the master-servant relationship existed, although the servant had wide permission to do as he pleased generally, but being at the beck and call of the master. Thus, at all times the Cadillac was in his possession and control, and only if specific instructions were given to him forbidding him to drive the car on personal missions could it be said he was driving the car without implied permission. The court did not err in refusing to direct the verdict in favor of the plaintiff, or in refusing to grant the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict; and there was no error in denying the motion for new trial based on the general grounds alone.
"Trial courts 'should not restrain counsel so long as their arguments are kept within reasonable and proper bounds, and they should also be careful not to usurp the functions of the jury in accepting or in disregarding what the counsel have to say' in their arguments to the jury. Western & A. R. Co. v. Morrison, 102 Ga. 319, 324 (29 SE 104, 40 LRA 84, 66 ASR 173). See Purvis v. Atlanta Northern Ry. Co., 145 Ga. 517 (2) (89 SE 571)." Waits v. Hardy, 214 Ga. 41, supra, p. 44. While discretion was exercised at the trial court level, we have serious doubts that any positive injury could have occurred, although here there was a pre-trial conference, and a single interrogatory was submitted to the jury, in which instance it was not required to pass on and did not necessarily need to know all the facts and pleadings in the case. However, counsel for Johns had the right to explain his presence in the case.
Further, the court instructed the jury: "You must disregard from your minds and from any consideration whatsoever as regards your functioning in this case the latter portion of the opening statement that Mr. Alaimo gave to you because it got into an area that you gentlemen are not concerned with. You are concerned with in this case, and this is a case for declaratory judgment, the plaintiff who brought the case has the legal right to do so, to ask for their rights and position and to interpret it by the court. The court will make such an interpretation, but your function in this case will be to pass upon, as will be explained to you further in the case and certainly in the charge by the court, one question after you have heard the evidence in this case that is, did Zonnie Adkins . . . under all the facts and circumstances disclosed by the evidence have implied permission to operate the 1968 Cadillac owned by the Stewarts? That is the only question you are to be concerned with."
After further colloquy and argument, the court instructed the jury: "Members of the jury, I re-affirm all previous instruction." Thus, conceding for the sake of argument that the alleged remarks were subject to objection, the court properly instructed the jury as to disregarding such remarks and as to the sole issue that the jury would be concerned with, and the court did not err in denying the motion for mistrial. See McCluskey v. American Oil Co., 225 Ga. 63 (165 SE2d 830), and cases cited therein at page 65. The Supreme Court in interpreting Code 81-1009 has held the trial judge has a broad discretion in handling such matters in order to avoid mistrials. The court did not err in denying the motions for mistrial.
3. On cross examination counsel for the intervenor insurance company asked the witness Stewart that if employee Adkins had ever wanted to leave and run a personal errand "would you have had any objection to his doing that," based on whether this would have called for a conclusion as to what the witness would have done under certain circumstances. The witness Stewart answered "No." The question and answer under consideration was whether or not Adkins had implied permission to operate the 1968 Cadillac automobile for his personal use. The jury was entitled to consider all the circumstances including the scienter, at the time the occurrence actually happened. See Hodges v. Ocean Accident &c. Corp., 66 Ga. App. 431, 435, supra. Since the opposing party is entitled to a thorough and sifting cross examination of the witness, both the question and the answer were proper in this instance. The court did not err in allowing the answer in evidence.
4. Error is enumerated in the charge of the court that if implied consent was given "it would be just as effective as express consent." The court charged further: "I charge you that implied consent might arise as a matter of law if relationships between the parties, the circumstances surrounding the use of the automobile by the driver, the acquiescence or lack of objection under circumstances signifying assent, and all other attendant facts, conduct or action by the parties would lead a reasonable man, under the circumstances, to believe he had the permission of the owner or person in control of the automobile to operate the same." The charge is not argumentative. It was apt, relevant and material, and based on the evidence submitted on the trial. The charge was not improper since there were facts and circumstances from which the jury would have been authorized to believe that Adkins could have had the impression that he had the authority to operate the vehicle for his own personal use.
Having considered each and every enumeration argued by the appellant and finding none with merit, the court did not err in denying the motion for new trial as amended.
Judgment affirmed. Hall, P. J., and Deen, J., concur.
Fendig, Dickey, Fendig & Whelchel, J. Thomas Whelchel, Alaimo & Taylor, Anthony A. Alaimo, for appellees.
Bennet, Gilbert, Gilbert & Whittle, Wallace E. Harrell, for appellant.
ARGUED JULY 9, 1970 -- DECIDED SEPTEMBER 14, 1970 -- REHEARING DENIED OCTOBER 7, 1970.
Friday May 22 16:29 EDT


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