May Evidence of Precautions Taken After An Accident Be Interpreted As Confession of Past Negligence ?
In Hodges v. Percival, 132 Ill. 53, 23 N.E. 423 (1890), the plaintiff was injured when an elevator fell in a building owned by the defendant.
The defendant claimed error in the admission of testimony that an air-cushion was put in the elevator shaft after the accident.
The court found that the admission of this evidence was error, although it did not require a reversal in that case.
We quote the supreme court's opinion at length, because its analysis applies with equal force today:
"Evidence of precautions taken after an accident is apt to be interpreted by a jury as an admission of negligence.
The question of negligence should be determined by what occurred before and at the time of the accident, and not by what is done after it.
New measures or new devices adopted after an accident do not necessarily imply that all previous devices or measures were insufficient.
A person operating a passenger elevator is bound to avail himself of all new inventions and improvements known to him, which will contribute materially to the safety of his passengers, whenever the utility of such improvements has been thoroughly tested and demonstrated, and their adoption is within his power, so as to be reasonably practicable.
For this reason it was proper to show that a valuable device for securing safety was known to the defendant, and its use neglected by him, before the accident; but it would seem unjust that he could not take additional precautions after the accident without having his acts construed into an admission of prior negligence.
Persons to whose negligence accidents may be attributed will hesitate about adopting such changes as will prevent the recurrence of similar accidents, if they are thereby to be charged with an admission of their responsibility for the past.
The happening of an accident may inspire a party with greater diligence to prevent a repetition of a similar occurrence, but the exercise of such increased diligence ought not necessarily to be regarded as tantamount to a confession of past neglect." Hodges, 132 Ill. at 56-57, 23 N.E. at 424.