Unpublished Disposition, 937 F.2d 613 (9th Cir. 1991)

Annotate this Case
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit - 937 F.2d 613 (9th Cir. 1991)

Leland SEYLER, Alieene Seyler, Plaintiff-Appellant,v.UNITED STATES of America, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 90-35418.

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.

Submitted Nov. 7, 1990.* Decided July 12, 1991.

Before TANG, O'SCANNLAIN and LEAVY, Circuit Judges.


MEMORANDUM** 

Leland Seyler appeals from a judgment in favor of the United States in this action brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Seyler was severely injured in a motorcycle accident on the Coeur d'Alene Indian reservation near Plummer, Idaho. Seyler contends that the government's negligent design and signing of a road on the reservation rendered the government liable for his serious injuries.

The accident occurred on a July afternoon in 1981. Seyler was a passenger on a motorcycle driven by his friend Steve Filkins, an off-duty police officer with the tribe, who had recently purchased the cycle. The two were speeding down Agency Road 11 on the reservation when they approached a curve, at which point Filkins slowed to make the leftward turn. Filkins was unable to lean the motorcycle into the curve. The motorcycle and the two men flew off the road and came to rest some 135 feet off of the paved roadway. Seyler was rendered a paraplegic.

After a four-day bench trial, the district court held that the United States was not liable for Seyler's injuries. Applying Idaho law, see 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b), the district court concluded that the government was "negligent" in failing to post a warning sign near the accident curve. However, the court also concluded that the government's "negligence" was not a factual cause of the accident.

* Seyler's main challenge is to the court's conclusion regarding causation. Seyler argues that the court erred in concluding that the government's failure to post a warning sign or lowered speed limit did not cause the accident in which he was injured. We review causation determinations under the "clearly erroneous" standard of review. See Armstrong v. United States, 756 F.2d 1407, 1409 (9th Cir. 1985).

The "factual causation" element of a negligence cause of action under Idaho law requires that there be a causal connection between the defendant's conduct and the resulting injuries for liability to obtain. See Alegria v. Payonk, 101 Idaho 617, 619, 619 P.2d 135, 137 (1980) (listing elements of negligence). For causation to be established, the conduct of the defendant must be a "substantial factor" in bringing about the plaintiff's injury. Munson v. State of Idaho, 96 Idaho 529, 531, 531 P.2d 1174, 1176 (1975).1 

The district court reached the following conclusion:

The government's failure to install, maintain and replace traffic control devices as required, and in accordance with the [Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices] was not a factual cause of the accident. Filkins was familiar with the stretch of Agency Road 11 in the vicinity of [the accident curve], ... and exceeded what he thought to be the posted speed limit on Agency Road 11.

Conclusion of Law 14. Implicit in the conclusion is the court's determination that Filkins simply would have ignored any traffic signs warning of the curve and advising him to slow to 25 miles per hour.

Although this is a difficult question, we cannot say that the district court clearly erred in concluding that Filkins was sufficiently familiar with the region that his behavior likely would not have been impacted by warning signs. Filkins had resided on the reservation from time to time. Filkins was a police officer employed by the tribe, charged with traffic patrol on the reservation, who knew well the layout of the road and whose police station was a very short distance from the accident curve. The entire "big loop" is only about 2100 feet long. These factors support the district court's conclusion that Filkins's familiarity with the hazard rendered meaningless the government's failure to post warning or speed limit signs.2 

Filkins testified that he would not have taken the curve at 50 miles per hour had there been a sign informing him of a 25-mile-per-hour limit. The district court was not required to credit this testimony. Filkins admitted that he drove the straightaway approaching the curve at 60-65 miles per hour, despite the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit. The entire purpose of the brief trip on that particular route was to show off Filkins's new (to him) motorcycle.

II

Seyler asserts that the district court failed to specify adequately in its conclusions of law that the government was required to post a regulatory speed limit of 25 miles per hour or an advisory speed sign. Seyler implies that the district court's causation conclusions might have been affected by a misunderstanding that the government was under a duty simply to warn of the curve's existence, rather than of the need for a sharply reduced speed.

The district court's conclusions of law note that the government's duty was to "install, maintain and replace traffic control devices as required, and in accordance with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD)," and that the government had "the additional duty to post a curve or turn sign in accordance with Section 2C-4" of the MUTCD. Under Idaho law,

the government's failure to install, maintain and replace traffic control devices as required and in accordance with the [MUTCD], and its failure to post a turn sign near [the] curve ... in accordance with Section 2C-4 of the MUTCD constitutes negligence.

Conclusion of Law 9 (emphasis added). Although the district court made specific reference only to section 2C-4, which does not require the posting of an advisory speed limit sign, it is clear that the district court recognized MUTCD requirements in addition to section 2C-4.

The district court did not give any indication that he rejected the testimony submitted by Seyler's witnesses on the MUTCD requirement of speed zone signs. Further, the district court specifically found that the undisputed "reasonable safe speed" of the curve was 25 miles per hour, that the maximum speed at which the curve could be negotiated was 48 miles per hour, that the speed limit was 55 miles per hour, and that a government engineering study had resulted in plans for an advisory speed placard near the curve.

Although the district court could have made a more specific conclusion on the requirements of the MUTCD, we do not perceive error.

III

Seyler also challenges the district court's finding that he (Seyler) was leaning the wrong way when Filkins attempted to lean into the accident curve. We review a finding of fact for clear error. Armstrong, 756 F.2d at 1409. The evidence supporting this finding included Filkins's original impression that Seyler was leaning incorrectly because he could not get the motorcycle to lean into the turn, and the physical evidence of the crash consistent with the motorcycle leaving the road while upright. Seyler did not testify at trial, and thus did not take the best opportunity available to rebut this evidence. Although the evidence is not overwhelming, we cannot say that the district court clearly erred in arriving at this finding.3 

IV

This is a difficult case. A tragic accident resulted in severe and permanent injuries. The government clearly breached its duty to all travelers to post adequate warning signs before a curve so sharp that it in fact could not be negotiated at the posted speed limit. Nonetheless, such circumstances do not give rise to government liability automatically. The district court found that under the circumstances, the required warnings would not have made a difference. We find no clear error.

AFFIRMED.

 **

This disposition is not appropriate for publication and may not be cited to or by the courts of this circuit except as provided by Ninth Circuit R. 36-3

 *

The panel unanimously finds this case suitable for submission on the record and briefs and without oral argument. Fed. R. App. P. 34(a), Ninth Circuit R. 34-4

 1

The definition of "substantial," in this context, is necessarily imprecise. The conduct "need not be the sole factor, or even the primary factor." Fouche v. Chrysler Motors Corp., 107 Idaho 701, 704, 692 P.2d 345, 348 (1984); see also Hilden v. Ball, 117 Idaho 314, 319, 787 P.2d 1122, 1127 (1989) (Bistline, J., dissenting) ("Substantial connotes a degree of more than trivial or slight.")

 2

See, e.g., Cordeiro v. Burns, 7 Haw.App. 463, 467-69, 776 P.2d 411, 415-16 (driver's familiarity with road was one factor justifying a grant of summary judgment to government defendants despite government's failure to post signs warning of curve), cert. dismissed and remanded, 70 Haw. 664, 796 P.2d 501 (1989). See generally Munson, 96 Idaho at 532, 531 P.2d at 1177 (failure to post warning signs will not be the "cause" of accident where the driver was already on notice of the hazard)

 3

It is also worth noting that the district court did not expressly conclude that any improper leaning was a factual cause of the accident. It is unclear whether the finding would support a finding of negligence for Seyler, for improperly leaning, or for Filkins, who admitted that he did not instruct Seyler on how to behave as a passenger on a motorcycle. In any event, the court simply concluded that Filkins's and Seyler's conduct would not have been influenced by warning signs