A MATTER OF LAW
Relatively few lawsuits ever make it to trial. Most often, they are resolved by motions to dismiss – the plaintiff has made some wacky claim that, even if fully believed, would not lead to a judgment – or the undisputed evidence shows that the plaintiff cannot possibly win.
Example 1: My neighbor to the southwest has some very tall oak trees. I sue her because the leaves are falling and the wind is carrying some of them (it seems like all of them) into my yard. She would file a motion to dismiss, arguing that even if everything I say in the lawsuit is true, I am entitled to no damages, because the law does not make her liable for where the wind may carry her falling leaves.
Example 2: I sue my neighbor, claiming that she has used her Turboblast 3000 blower to push all of her leaves into my yard. If that is true, the law would call it a trespass and I could recover the cost of hauling the leaves away. But she provides affidavits of various nosy neighbors and members of her garden club, who state they watched her pile her leaves in the street (where the city wants them put), and the wind later blew the piles into my yard. All I have is my assertion that she has a Turboblast 3000 blower, and the leaves are in my yard. There, the court would grant her summary judgment, because no reasonable jury could find any evidence that she, and not the wind, was the culprit.
As Mark Twain was reputed to have once said, nothing spoils a good story like the arrival of an eyewitness.
When no reasonable jury could find evidence enough to believe one side of a lawsuit, we say the other side is entitled to judgment in its favor “as a matter of law.”
In today’s case, the federal district court has to pick through a motion for partial summary judgment – where the plaintiff asks for judgment that resolves some (but not everything) of what it would have to prove at trial. The court splits the baby down the middle, finding the tree trimming company had a duty to little Jimmy, who was burned by a live wire while he was playing on a swing set, but leaving for a jury the question of whether the duty was breached.
Marland v. Asplundh Tree Expert Co., Case No. 1:14-cv-40 (D.Utah, Dec. 14, 2016), 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173156, 2016 WL 7240139. Since 1997, Asplundh Tree Expert Co. has contracted with Bountiful City Light and Power to provide power line clearance services. Under that contract, Asplundh’s responsibility is limited to providing line clearance so as to prevent interruption of service by trees or tree limbs coming into contact with the lines or other electrical equipment.”
Under the agreement, Asplundh had the right and duty to remove dead, defective or fast-growing trees located so as to be a hazard to BCLP’s lines whenever “practical and permissible.” Any removal required written permission from the property owner and BCLP. Under the agreement, BCLP would provide Asplundh with an area in which to work, called a feeder. Asplundh was then responsible for clearing the lines along that feeder. This would include determining what trees needed to be trimmed or removed, obtaining the necessary approvals, then doing the actual trimming or removing.
On an early fall day in 2005, Asplundh trimmed a large Siberian Elm at Lyle Henderson’s home in Bountiful. Asplundh trimmed the tree but did not remove it and did not recommend to BCLP that it be removed. About 21 months later, a limb from the tree fell onto a power line, knocking the line into a neighboring backyard and onto a swing set where a child, Jimmy Marland (not his real name) was playing. Jimmy was seriously burned. After that mishap, BCLP got Lyle’s permission to remove the tree.
Jimmy’s parents sued on the child’s behalf, claiming Asplundh was negligent in not removing the tree. They asked for summary judgment in their favor on the issues of whether Asplundh owed Jimmy a duty, and whether he breached the duty.
Held: Scott and Jennifer were granted summary judgment on whether the duty, but not on the breach.
Summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and party asking for summary judgment is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In considering whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, a court must determine whether a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party in the face of all the evidence presented.
To establish a claim of negligence, the Marlands had to show that Asplundh owed Jimmy a duty, (2) that Asplundh breached that duty, (3) that the breach of duty was the proximate cause of Jimmy’s injury, and (4) that Jimmy in fact suffered injuries. Here, the Marlands sought partial summary judgment, focused on the first two elements only, duty and breach.
Whether Asplundh owed Jimmy a duty of care is a legal issue for the court to decide, but if there is a duty, whether Asplundh breached it is a question of fact for the jury to decide. “Accordingly,” the court said, “summary judgment is inappropriate unless the applicable standard of care is fixed by law and reasonable minds could reach but one conclusion as to the defendant’s negligence under the circumstances.”
The Marlands argued that Asplundh’s duty arose under the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 324A, which had been adopted by the Utah Supreme Court. Section 324A holds that when someone agrees to render services for someone else, and when he or she should recognize the service is necessary for the protection of a third person, he or she is liable to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care in performing the service, if (a) his or her failure to exercise reasonable care increases the risk of such harm, or (b) he or she has agreed to perform a duty owed to the third person, or (c) the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other party or the third person upon the services being performed.
Here, the Court held, there was evidence that Asplundh has agreed to provide services to BCLP which Asplundh should have recognized was necessary to protect third parties like Jimmy. Utah law imposes on utility companies like BCLP the highest degree of care to prevent people from coming in contact with high-voltage electricity. Line clearance is necessary, not only to prevent interruption of service, but also to prevent injuries that might result if tree limbs come into contact with electrical wires. Therefore, the court said, Asplundh would be liable to Jimmy for physical harm resulting from its failure to exercise reasonable care if at least one of three subsections in the Restatement are met:
The Court found evidence that subsections (b) and (c) applied. BCLP had a duty to prevent harm to others from its power lines and it delegated part of that duty — line clearance — to Asplundh. Because Asplundh was performing line clearance on the particular feeder, BCLP did not do so itself. Therefore, BCLP relied upon Asplundh to conduct line maintenance so it would not have to. Based upon these facts, the Court said, “there is evidence that Asplundh owed Plaintiffs a duty of care.”
The Marlands argued that “Asplundh breached its duty of care by not removing or recommending to have removed the subject tree in 2005.” Their expert witness provided an affidavit contending Asplundh had a duty to suggest removal of the Siberian Elm if the tree was accessible and posed a hazard based on its type, size, and proximity to the power lines. The court agreed that the affidavit stated an applicable standard of care, but even so, summary judgment was not appropriate.
The problem was that before Asplundh could remove a tree, it was required to seek BCLP’s and the homeowner’s permission. The Court agreed that the undisputed evidence showed that BCLP would have given permission to remove the tree, because BCLP always gave permission when removal was recommended. But while Lyle Henderson, the homeowner, testified that on other occasions he gave “carte blanche permission” to the utility to trim the tree, there was evidence that he had refused permission to remove or even trim the subject tree in the past and was reluctant to remove the tree even after this accident. Based upon these disputed facts, the court said, the Marlands could not show, “as a matter of law, that removal of the tree would have been permitted by Mr. Henderson.”
Based on the conflicting evidence, the court said, the Marlands had failed to show “as a matter of law” that Asplundh would have received permission from the homeowner to remove the tree “and, therefore, have failed to demonstrate as a matter of law that Asplundh breached its duty of care.” Additionally, the court hints without elaboration, “even if Plaintiffs could demonstrate permissibility, various disputes exist concerning whether removal was required under the relevant standard of care.”
Note: The case went to trial. On February 21, 2017, a jury found Asplundh at fault and awarded Jimmy $3.4 million in damages.
– Tom Root