Showing posts with label slip and fall. Show all posts
Showing posts with label slip and fall. 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.