Most law students encounter Summers v. Tice in their introductory Torts courses. If you are (or were) among these students, you probably recall the basic facts: two negligent hunters, two simultaneous (or nearly so) shotgun discharges, one injured companion (shot in the right eye [necessitating its removal] and upper lip), only one culprit, but no way for the plaintiff to tell who shot him. Given these circumstances, the Summers court flipped the burden to each of the two defendants to exonerate himself, rather than allowing the plaintiff to founder on the shoals of but-for causation and the preponderance standard of proof.
The California Supreme Court’s opinion in Summers is pretty short, and I’ve long been curious about the defenses that the defendants (Harold Tice and Ernest Simonson) raised in this case. So I went to the California State Archives a while back and read through the case file.
An interesting story emerged. Whereas Simonson did not put on a very aggressive defense at trial, Tice did. Simonson conceded that both he and Tice had fired shots that could have caused Summers’ injury. Tice, by contrast, testified that Simonson, and Simonson alone, had shot the plaintiff, and that in fact Tice had not fired his gun for minutes prior to the fateful blast. To the same effect, Tice produced two deputy sheriffs as witnesses. These men testified that when they interviewed Simonson shortly after the accident, Simonson had told them that he was “the one” who had fired the shot (though on cross-examination, one of the deputies hedged a bit on this point).
Moreover, Tice argued that but for the plaintiff’s own negligence, he could have identified his assailant. Specifically, Tice testified that he had been using No. 6 shot, whereas Simonson had been using No. 7½ shot. The two pellets are of slightly different size, and capable of distinction. Summers himself testified that, although the shot had been given to him after its removal, he could not find it when he looked for the pellets at his home. These facts, if accepted, place a very different spin on the case. One could no longer say that the defendants were in a better position than the plaintiff was to identify who fired the injurious shot, which of course was a key ingredient to the Summers decision.
Unfortunately for Tice, he apparently did not strike the trial judge (it was a bench trial) as a particularly persuasive witness. The judge made findings of fact that “the defendants, and each of them, were guilty of gross negligence in firing a gun in the general direction of the plaintiff”; that Tice’s testimony that he had not fired his gun for minutes prior to the accident was untrue; and that both defendants were using No. 7½ shot.
These findings of fact paved the way for the California Supreme Court’s decision above, following a short-lived reversal by the Court of Appeal.
The lesson, if there is one: Credibility matters.