Showing posts with label reasonableness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reasonableness. Show all posts

Monday, October 18, 2021

Accidental deaths on nonpublic stairways threaten public transit with tort liability in London, Boston

Canning Town Station in 2020
(photo by Ewan Munro CC BY-SA 2.0)
An English court last week exonerated the London Underground of liability in the death of a trespasser who fell down fire-escape stairs; meanwhile, in New England, investigation continues into the death of a Boston professor who fell from disused stairs in the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) system.

The facts of the cases differ, but both point to the obligation of aging transit systems to secure their physical infrastructure, even against risks to trespassers.

Bernard Ovu, a 35-year-old IT specialist for the UK Bar Council, fell, hit his head, and died in 2017.  On a meandering journey on a bitter-cold night, Ovu was returning home from a wedding; a post mortem test reported his blood-alcohol level at 0.176%.  At about 2 a.m. at the Canning Town Station, Ovu went through an emergency exit door, where an emergency stair led to a second door to the street.  Surveillance showed that Ovu reached the street-level exit door, but, for unknown reasons, did not push it open.

An image in the Ovu opinion depicts Canning Town Station.
The triangle marks the platform exit; the square marks street
access. Ovu fell at the circle.

Meanwhile, responding to a silent alarm, an Underground worker had secured the platform-level door.  Evidence showed that Underground policy required workers to sweep the area before re-securing the door, but no sweep was done.  Underground officials knew the emergency way was accessed occasionally, especially in late-night hours, by persons seeking to urinate or vomit.  Ovu could not reenter the platform and apparently believed himself trapped.  Seeking another exit, he fell on the stairs at 2:49 a.m. and died, possibly as a result of the combination of his injuries, intoxication, and the below-freezing temperature.

A professor in the Boston University School of Public Health, David K. Jones also was in a place where he should not have been.  The 40-year-old was out for a Saturday morning run in September when he took a staircase down from an overpass near the JFK Station.  The staircase was rusted and missing six steps: a gap through which Jones fell 20 feet to his death.  The staircase had been closed for 20 months and was fenced off at top and bottom; it is unknown how or why Jones entered it.  The MBTA removed the stairway days after the accident.

With investigation continuing in the Jones accident, the MBTA system has since suffered a bloody escalator accident and a pedestrian near-miss with debris falling from a stairway.  Commentators have thus linked the state of the transit system with the national debate over infrastructure financing.

The court in the Ovu matter ruled that Ovu was a trespasser in the emergency way and that the Underground had conducted itself reasonably relative to that status.  Despite the Underground's derogation of policy, Ovu had arrived in his predicament through his own misfeasance, and he was not in fact trapped.  It remains unclear whether Jones knowingly passed through secure fencing; if he did, then he was a trespasser on the rusty stairway from which he fell.  If that was the case, then Massachusetts law would not preclude liability, but would afford less latitude to a plaintiff than UK law.

Historically, common law was unforgiving of trespass.  The web of rules that evolved for the problem of landowner liability for dangerous conditions varied the liability rule depending on the status of the injured person.  At its simplest, distinctions were drawn in the three categories of public invitees, social guests ("licensees"), and trespassers.  The latter were owed little in the way of landowner duty, at most to refrain from the intentional or reckless infliction of harm.

Common law complexity has gradually given way to a unitary "reasonableness" standard, under which the status of the plaintiff is referred to the jury as a circumstance for its consideration.  When the Washington Supreme Court chose to retain the common law framework in 1986, it observed that only nine states had moved to the unitary standard—as well as England, by statute.  Today, half of states have adopted the unitary standard, and it is favored by the Third Restatement of Torts.

But among unitary-standard states, trespassers are not necessarily incorporated, reflecting a continuing vitality in their common law disfavor.  States, including Massachusetts, exclude trespassers from the unitary standard by a ratio better than two to one.  After some wrangling in the case law, the UK by statute incorporated trespassers into the unitary standard.

Thus, Ovu, even as a trespasser, was owed a duty of reasonable care.  A Massachusetts trespasser can prevail only upon proof of reckless or intentional wrongdoing.  If the estate and family of Jones seek liability from the MBTA, they will be far better off if the investigation uncovers a defect in how the stairway was secured.  If Jones made an innocent mistake of fact, then plaintiffs might hope to challenge his status as a trespasser and move him to within the unitary reasonableness standard.  That uncertainty might explain why there has not yet been report of a lawsuit in the Jones matter, while the Sept. 26 escalator accident yielded a suit by the first of October.

It happens that the Massachusetts Appeals Court heard a case about just such a mistake of fact in 2016.  In Bernier v. Smitty's Sports Pub, Inc., a pub patron in his 70s, Ronald Leger, was killed when he fell down a dark basement stairwell with uneven steps.  Leger mistook a door marked "Employees Only" for the entrance to the men's room.  He had been drinking, but had been to the pub and used the restroom before.  The door usually was locked, and there was no evidence that a patron had made the same mistake before.

The trial court in Bernier ruled Leger not a trespasser.  The adequacy of the marking on the unlocked door, at the pertinent time at which Leger stood before it, was incorporated into the question of negligence for the jury's consideration.  The jury awarded the plaintiffs 80% recovery after reduction for Leger's own negligence in making the mistake.

On appeal, the court affirmed.  The status of a visitor on land, trespasser or otherwise, was properly a question of law for the trial court, the Appeals Court opined.  The jury verdict was sufficiently supported by the evidence.  One could imagine a similar analysis in the Jones matter.

The English case is Ovu v. London Underground (Q.B. Oct. 13, 2021).  Master Victoria McCloud authored the opinion.  HT @ Gordon Exall, Civil Litigation Brief, via Private Law TheoryWells, Anderson, & Race, LLC, Denver, Colo., prepared a 50-state survey of landowner liability regimes in the United States in 2015 for the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Time travel would warp tort law, attorney imagines

Austin Beast AB (Pixabay)
Tired of earthbound law constrained by the arrow of time?  Attorney, comedian, and comic book fan Adam J. Adler writes an enjoyable column on law for the aptly named Escapist online magazine.  Recently he tackled the implications of time travel in tort law.  Back in August, he considered transporter accident liability.


Time travel in a Groundhog Day-like scenario, Adler observes, would change the moral expectations of the objective reasonable person as he or she acquires additional knowledge about cause and effect through multiple iterations of the timeline.  In the end, Adler offers a theory on why we haven't yet met time travelers.  Check it out, and remember to suspend your disbelief and enjoy.

The article is Adam J. Adler, Time Travel Torts: How Law Gets Dicey When Dealing with Groundhog Day, The Escapist, Oct. 4, 2020.  

And speaking of time travel, Star Trek: Discovery season 3 premiered last night.  Here's the season trailer, if you can stand the excitement!


Friday, September 13, 2019

Appeals court rejects landowner liability for 'open and obvious' danger of backyard zipline

The same day the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided the Boston Globe case this week, the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for the defendants against a landowner liability claim in which a six-year-old was injured on a backyard zipline.

A backyard zipline with a child safety seat. (Larry Koester CC BY 2.0.)
A handy defendant had installed the backyard zipline himself.  Six-year-old Aaron was visiting with his father to pick up Aaron's older brother from a sleepover.  The father aided Aaron in trying out the zipline, but after giving the boy some freedom, Aaron lost his grip, fell, and suffered compound fractures to his arm, requiring multiple surgeries.

Plaintiffs sued in landowner liability, alleging an unreasonably dangerous condition, as the zipline lacked a safety seat that could have prevented such an accident.  Defendants answered that the danger of the zipline, including the lack of a safety seat, was open and obvious, so negated the landowner's duty.

The court agreed that the condition was open and obvious, which somewhat negates the duty of a landowner, because it is the open-and-obvious nature of the hazard that makes it unforeseeable that the guest would fail to exercise reasonable care.  Plaintiffs argued that the condition was not open and obvious to the perception of a six-year-old.  The court held that when the child is under adult supervision, it is the perception of the adult, not that of the child, that controls.

However, the court held that an open and obvious condition does not necessarily negate a duty to abate an unreasonably dangerous condition "when the owner knows or has reason to know that visitors might nonetheless proceed to encounter the danger for a variety of reasons, including being distracted, forgetful, or even negligent, or deciding that the benefits of encountering the condition outweigh the risks."  Still, the court found the record "devoid of evidence that the zip line was unreasonably dangerous, or that the defendants facilitated an 'improper' or 'highly dangerous use' ...."

The conclusion is sound, but the reasoning highlights a problem with persistent common law doctrines that revolve around "open and obvious danger."  There is a tendency for litigants and courts to indulge "open and obvious" as a magical incantation that changes the rules of the match, such as here, to negate a duty of care.  Yet as the court observes, the doctrine does not necessarily negate the duty of care.  This approach gets legal duty analysis tied up in a web of factual intricacy that is not what policy-driven landowner duty is supposed to be about.

Harry Potter magic duel 095/365 (Louish Pixel CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Rather than indulging in a tennis match between duty, no duty, and duty again!, the courts should recognize that "open and obvious" is a factual circumstance, so goes to the standard of reasonable care exercised in warning about the danger or abating it.  That's where this case winds up anyway.  And just because it's a reasonableness analysis doesn't mean the court cannot, as here, dispose of the case in pretrial summary judgment when ordinary minds could not differ on the outcome.

I teach landowner negligence (page 25), or premises liability, with "open and obvious" as a matter of evidence rather than a sort-of defense, and I think that's the cleaner doctrine.  But I always have to warn students to watch out, in any given jurisdiction, that a judge might be entranced when counsel waves her wand and utters the spell, "Openanobvius!"

The case is LaForce v. Dyckman, No. 18-P-1234 (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 9, 2019).  Sullivan, Massing, and Lemire, JJ., were on the panel.