Case of the Day – Thursday, January 26, 2017

DUTY

lee140501Robert E. Lee adjured us all to “do your duty in all things. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less.” Today’s case is about duty, which as far as we’re concerned is more the basis for determining legal liability than a moral concept.

In Kentucky, the Commonwealth (that’s what they call themselves, and who are we to dispute it?) is liable when it has notice of a defect in a highway. The defect in this case was a hole in the pavement, located at the curb end of a parking space. The Department of Highways people inspected that stretch of urban street regularly, but always by driving by. That area of town was teeming with commerce, so the parking spaces were always full and the hole went unseen.

When Mary Maiden fell by stepping in the hole, she sued. The Board of Claims, Kentucky’s tribunal for hearing claims against the Commonwealth, figured that the DOH employees had done all they could do to inspect the street. Thus, it found that DOH wasn’t on notice of the hole.

But the Court of Appeals reversed. In a two-to-one decision, it decided that a drive-by inspection that couldn’t see the whole street wasn’t a reasonable inspection. The case is interesting to us because the Court contrasted this situation to the decision in Commonwealth v. Callebs, a case we’ll look at tomorrow. There, when a tree in the right-of-way fell on a driver, the court found that requiring a “walkaround” inspection was unreasonable.

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A maiden … but not Ms. Maiden

But Ms. Maiden’s Court said that Callebs was different: it placed an unreasonable demand on the DOH to require it to inspect every tree in a rural setting. Besides, to have seen the defect in the tree that fell on Mr. Callebs, the DOH workers would have to gone behind the tree onto private property in order to see the defect.

This case — and the one we’ll consider next — together illustrate the “touchy-feely” nature of some determinations of what is and is not “reasonable.”

Commonwealth v. Maiden, 411 S.W.2d 312 (Ct.App. Ky. 1966). Mary Maiden fell and was hurt when she stepped into a hole in Cumberland Avenue in Middlesboro. This being America, she sued.

Unfortunately for the Commonwealth, not every hole in the street is this obvious.

Unfortunately for the Commonwealth, not every hole in the street is quite this obvious.

The Kentucky Department of Highways had agreed to maintain the street as a part of the state road system. The block in which the accident occurred is in a busy commercial area with diagonal parking on both sides of the street which is usually full during business hours. The hole was about 24 inches long, 9 inches wide and 3 inches deep and was located almost entirely at the back end of a parking space, substantially concealed from view when a car occupied the space. It had been there for some six months.

It was the statutory duty of the DOH to inspect all state-maintained roads. A foreman inspected Cumberland Avenue at least every two weeks by driving along the street in a pick-up truck during business hours. It would have been impossible to see the hole in question if there had been a car parked there, and no DOH employee had ever made a ‘walk-around’ inspection, looking under the parked cars along the street. The Board of Claims rejected Ms. Maiden’s claim, but the trial court reversed the decision, entering judgment for Mrs. Maiden. The DOH appealed.

Held: The judgment for Ms. Maiden was upheld.

The Court said the law in Kentucky is that if a defect in a highway existed for such a period of time that the authorities, by exercise of ordinary care and diligence, should have discovered it, notice will be imputed. A “drive-along” inspection of a busy city street during business hours when parking areas normally were fully occupied – so that defects in the parking spaces cannot be seen – is not a reasonable inspection. Thus, the law assumed that the Department knew of the defect which caused her fall.

Kentucky, of course, is famous for unexpected holes, like the one that swallowed eight vintage Corvettes at a Bowling Green museum earlier this year.

Kentucky, of course, is famous for unexpected holes, like the one that swallowed eight vintage Corvettes at a Bowling Green museum in early 2014.

The Court acknowledged that while the burden of inspection may be a serious problem to the DOH, it was not too great a burden to require an inspection of streets in commercial areas to be made in ‘off’ hours when the parking spaces are not occupied. The Court distinguished the facts from the Callebs case (which we’ll look at tomorrow). In Callebs, the Court had held that DOH did not have a duty to make a ‘walk-around’ inspection of trees along the edge of the right of way. That defect, however, was not in the street itself but rather in the side of the road, and the area was a rural one with light travel rather than an urban one with heavy traffic. Besides, the Court observed, an effective inspection of the trees would have required the use of a considerable amount of time, whereas in this case, an effective inspection would not have involved more time but only the selection of a different hour in which to make it.

One judge dissented, arguing that there was really no distinction between this case and the Callebs case. A lone dissent, however, is an interesting footnote and little more.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

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