The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District recently rejected an invitation to recognize a common-law right-of-way rule for vehicles operating within a private parking lot. By operation of the fundamental principle that the law should impose tort liability on the party better able to alter their behavior to avoid harm, the court held concurrent duties of drivers to keep a careful lookout and to slow, stop, or swerve to avoid a collision better conform to Missouri’s principles of tort law.
Barth v. St. Jude Medical, Inc., involved an automobile collision on the parking lot of Mercy Hospital in St. Louis County. Defendant’s employee, who was backing out of a parking space, relied primarily upon her back-up camera because a vehicle parked to her right obscured her vision of any vehicles coming down the parking lane. Plaintiff, who was traveling down that parking lane, did not see defendant’s taillights or reverse lights. Defendant collided with the passenger side of plaintiff’s vehicle, causing plaintiff personal injury.
At trial, plaintiff tendered a disjunctive comparative-fault jury instruction which included the defendant’s failure to yield the right-of-way and an instruction defining the phrase “yield the right-of-way.” The trial court refused to submit these tendered instructions and instead submitted two comparative-fault instructions: one for assessing fault to plaintiff and the other to defendant with neither instruction hypothesizing a failure to yield the right-of-way. The jury returned a verdict for defendant.
On appeal, plaintiff asserted that the trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury on failure to yield the right-of-way. Plaintiff argued his proposed comparative fault instruction properly hypothesized a failure to yield the right-of-way under Missouri Approved Instruction 17.08, and his proposed definitional instruction was consistent with and required by the Notes on Use for that approved instruction.
The Court of Appeals found no error because the proposed definitional instruction, which it agreed was a necessary addition to any instruction hypothesizing a failure to yield the right-of-way on a public thoroughfare, did not pass muster. The Missouri pattern instructions provide eight different definitions for the phrase “yield the right-of-way.” All are patterned after statutory rules of the road, but notably, none of those statutory rules of road, applies to this case because the collision occurred on a private parking lot.
Plaintiff’s counsel argued that the statutory-based definitional instruction could be based upon a common-law right-of-way rule, even if the statutory rules did not apply. Toward this end, plaintiff proposed a definitional instruction hypothesizing “yield the right-of-way” in the context of this case means a driver backing out of a parking spot on a parking lot is required to yield to another vehicle approaching in the lane adjacent to the parking spot. As support, plaintiff cited to a statutory rule of the road setting out the definition of “yield the right-of-way” for when a vehicle enters a roadway from an alley, private road, or driveway. The court found, however, that since the statutory rules of the road did not apply to the private parking lot, it would have been error to submit a statutory right-of-way instruction for a private parking-lot accident.
Alternatively, plaintiff urged the court to recognize his proposed common-law right-of-way rule requiring vehicles backing out of parking spaces to yield to vehicles approaching in the traffic lane adjacent to the parking spot. The court declined to do so as such a rule would conflict with a fundamental principle of Missouri tort law: liability should be imposed on the party better able to alter his or her behavior to avoid the harm. Plaintiff’s proposed rule assumed that in every situation the party better able to avoid the harm is the party backing out of the parking space. This, however, may not always be the case. The court concluded that concurrent duties of the drivers to keep a careful lookout while in the parking lot and to slow, stop, or swerve to avoid a collision, consistent with the instruction the trial court gave in this case, conform to this basic principles of tort law. Any deviation from this basic principle under the circumstances of this case would have to come from the Missouri legislature.