Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Never thought those two concepts went together? Well, they do in Pennsylvania, at least enough to get past summary judgment, and it's a good case to consider for a hypothetical.
Brief version of the facts: Two seventeen-year-olds climbed atop a stopped train car and were severely burned by the 12,000-volt caternary wires; they asserted that they did not believe the wires were live.
Here's the opinion [PDF]. After some introductory material, the court first concludes that there's an issue of fact as to whether the defendant (Amtrak) acted wantonly:
In this case, the evidence presented by the plaintiffs makes it clear that catenary power lines present a grave danger to anyone who comes near them, that the parked and laddered freight car made it possible for individuals to come near the catenary line, and that the public in general is not likely to know about the dangers involved with the catenary lines. I find this evidence is sufficient to pose a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Amtrak’s actions were wanton in choosing to leave the freight cars under the energized lines for an extended period of time. A reasonable jury may conclude that Amtrak had sufficient warning of the possibility of the plaintiffs’ peril given the frequency of trespassers reported in the area, and the prolonged time the cars sat on the tracks. I will deny Amtrak’s motion for summary judgment on this issue.
The court then turns to the attractive nuisance doctrine, first concluding that the plaintiffs at least present an issue of fact precluding summary judgment as to whether the doctrine applies to them at all:
In this case, the plaintiffs were minors at the time of the accident. Although a plausible argument can be made as to why the court should set an arbitrary age limit on the applicability of § 339 given Pennsylvania’s negligence standard, no Pennsylvania court prior to this proceeding has so acted. I find that it would be an inappropriate reading of the case law, and an unprecedented legal jump not warranted at the summary judgment stage of a case, to bar plaintiffs’ use of § 339 as a matter of law. The plaintiffs have shown they were minors, or children in the eyes of the law, at the time of the trespass, and as such, the defendants have failed to meet their burden of proving that § 339 can not apply. A genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether the plaintiffs are children within the meaning of § 339.
The court then concludes that the plaintiffs could survive summary judgment on the remaining issues relating to attractive nuisance (including the plaintiffs' failure to appreciate the risk, interestingly).
In this case, the defendants have shown Birdwell saw the power lines above the train. Both plaintiffs, as seventeen year-olds, knew the dangers associated with power lines and wires. Both plaintiffs were old enough to realize that the power lines above the train were dangerous and knew to not come in contact with them. On the other hand, although both plaintiffs knew the risks involved in intermeddling with electricity, neither knew the risk associated with arcing, nor did they realize the electricity connected to the freight train remained on. The plaintiffs have presented some evidence that seventeen year-old males generally do not have fully mature brains, and as such can not fully control their impulses or appreciate some risks. . . . Viewing all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, I find that it is for a jury to decide whether the plaintiffs failed to appreciate the risks because of their youth. The combination of the plaintiffs medical reports regarding seventeen year-olds generally, and that the plaintiffs failed to realize the lines were energized meets the plaintiffs mere scintilla threshold. A genuine issue of material fact exists in this case as to whether the plaintiffs failed, because of their youth to recognize the risk of power lines directly overhead a train or whether such a danger is obvious to seventeen year-olds.
The court concludes with a section finding issues of fact as to whether the plaintiffs themselves acted wilfully or wantonly and in denying summary judgment on punitive damages.
The case is particularly interesting to juxtapose with cases relating to capability to be found negligent. In Pennsylvania, apparently one becomes presumptively capable of negligence at age 14.
[via WSJ Law Blog.]