THE EAGLE HAS LANDED
When the elder Mr. Eagle volunteered to help trim a tree at his church, his son Ralph tagged along. It seems that Ralphie was anxious to help Daddy.
Ah, the brashness of youth! The lad (he was 50 years old, but he still lived with mom and dad, so he was unquestionably a kid, albeit a big one), shouldered the three septuagenarians out of the way and climbed the ladder himself. Well, one thing led to another, and the group of tree-trimming amateurs lost control of a limb. The limb fell, the 70-year old man holding the ladder jumped out of the way to avoid being hit, and the falling limb knocked the ladder out of the way. Ralphie fell off the ladder and he landed — hard.
Having his eye on the collection plate, the litigious Eaglet sued the Church, the other retirees and, of course, his own father (with whom he resided) for negligence. He claimed that the volunteers were acting as agents of the church, making the church liable.
The trial court would have none of this, and threw the case out. The Court of Appeals agreed, finding that as volunteers, the tree trimming crewmembers owed each other reasonable care at most. And it wasn’t reasonable to believe the man holding the ladder would stand and take a hit when the limb fell. There wasn’t evidence that any of the trimmers were negligent, so the Church couldn’t be liable.
As for premises liability, the Court said, the evidence showed Eagle had volunteered to help three old men do something dangerous: he should have seen it coming. In reading the decision, one gets the impression that neither the trial court nor the appellate panel thought much of the young Eagle, who horned in on the volunteer effort, ignored his father’s request that he not participate, and then — after getting hurt — suing everyone involved.
Eagle v. Owens, Case No. C-060446 (Ct.App. Hamilton Co., 2007). A small church needed some tree trimming performed. During a Sunday service, the pastor had asked for volunteers to perform the tree-trimming task. The church typically relied on volunteers for landscaping work, including potentially dangerous work such as trimming trees. Merida and Owens volunteered for the task. Both had performed similar tasks for the church on several occasions in the past without incident.
Before leaving the church that day, the two volunteers stood by the tree to examine what had to be done. When Eagle’s father walked by, they recruited him to help them. Eagle’s father was a deacon of the church, an unpaid, rotating position that required him to make decisions for the church’s benefit with the four other deacons. Ultimately, the three men, all over the age of 70, agreed to meet the next morning to perform the task.
When the elder Eagle arrived the next day, he brought his 50-year old son with him. The son thought the other volunteers were too old, so he took over trimming from a ladder perch. Before the younger Eagle began sawing, his father insisted on changing the position of the rope around the limb. Merida remembered telling Eagle’s father that he did not like the change, but he claimed that he deferred to him because he was a deacon. The limb did not fall cleanly, and its branches knocked over the ladder the younger Eagle was standing on. One of the men who had been holding the ladder ran to avoid being struck by the limb. Eagle fell and was injured.
He sued everyone who was there, as well as the church, alleging that they had “carelessly and negligently caused a tree limb to fall and strike” him. He also alleged that his father, Owens, and Merida were acting as agents or employees of the church when the accident occurred, and that the church was responsible for the acts of its agents. The individual defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis that Eagle had assumed the risk of any injury by participating in such an inherently dangerous activity. The church moved for summary judgment on the respondeat superior claim, arguing that it could not be liable where the individual defendants were not negligent and were not agents of the church, and where Eagle had assumed the risk.
The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants without giving any reasons or issuing a decision. The younger Eagle appealed.
Held: The young Eagle’s wings were clipped. The Court agreed with the trial court’s dismissal, holding that as nonprofessional volunteers, the defendants at most owed Eagle a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances. Eagle did not present any testimony, expert or otherwise, to demonstrate how his father’s, Merida’s, or Owens’ conduct fell below a standard of reasonable care. No one foresaw that the branches on the limb would strike Eagle after breaking off from the trunk, and no one expected Owens to hold the ladder if it swayed while Eagle was on it, because it was obvious that he was physically unable to do so. And if he had stayed to steady the ladder, he likely would have been struck and injured by a large limb.
The Court held that the duty of reasonable care did not require such a foolish act of bravery, despite Eagle’s assertion that he would have steadied the ladder and suffered the blow of the limb if the roles had been reversed. To establish a claim against the church under the doctrine of respondeat superior, the record must demonstrate that a principal-agent relationship existed, and that the tortious conduct was committed by the agent while in the scope of his agency.
Here, the Court said, it did not need to determine whether reasonable minds could have concluded that any of the three men were agents of the church and whether Eagle was injured by acts taken within the scope of that agency, because the individual defendants did not act tortiously towards Eagle in carrying out the task. Where there is no actionable conduct by an agent, there can be no vicarious liability for the principal. Finally, on the claim of premises liability, the Court held that in determining the duty the church owed to Eagle, it had to focus on Eagle’s status as a participant in the tree-trimming task, because his injury resulted from his participation in this task and not from his status as a person present on the church’s property in general.
It was undisputed that Eagle was warned of the danger; that the church had always used volunteers, including Merida and Owens, to perform similar tree-trimming tasks in the past; and that these volunteers had performed in the past without incident. Eagle did not present any testimony from a tree-trimming professional to attack the church’s decision to use these same volunteers to remove this limb. The Court concluded that reasonable minds could come to but one conclusion, and that conclusion was that the church did not breach a duty of care owed to Eagle.
– Tom Root