Court Rejects General Duty of Care

For most people on a day to day basis, there is no duty of care owed to other people. Some people do have a duty, such as doctors who have a duty to their patients, or landlords who have a duty to their tenants. In a recent case, the Maine Supreme Court weighed if people owe a duty to others if action could prevent further harm.* So while you may be considered a hero if you save someones life who is in danger, you do not have a legal obligation (unless you put that person in the danger).

Steven Cilley, 54, of Princeton, sued Jennifer Lane, of Princeton, over the death of Cilley’s son. Joshua Cilley died on Jan. 31, 2005, at age 27 in the Calais Regional Hospital emergency room of a gunshot wound to the abdomen from a .22-caliber bullet. He was shot while in Lane’s trailer, according to court documents.

Lane, described as the younger man’s on-again, off-again lover, allegedly sat with him for at least 15 minutes after he was shot before attempting to seek medical assistance. Steven Cilley said earlier this year that the doctor who treated his injured son told him Joshua Cilley could have been saved if he had arrived at the hospital five minutes earlier.

“Because Cilley was a trespasser at the time of the incident, Lane’s only duty to him was to refrain from wanton, willful, or reckless behavior,” Justice Ellen Gorman wrote for the court. “Lane’s failure to contact emergency assistance for Cilley immediately after she heard the pop [of the gunshot] does not rise to the level of wanton, willful, or reckless behavior because Lane did not create the danger to Cilley, nor commit any act that led to his initial injury.”

via Bangor Daily News.

* I have not read the full case so I don’t know how the issue was exactly presented to the court.

Updated: The case indicates: The Estate contends that Lane owed Cilley a duty of care because he was a social guest in her home, and in the alternative has asked us to recognize a new common law duty: the affirmative duty to seek emergency assistance through reasonable means.

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DOT Not Immune from Lawsuit

The Maine Supreme Court is allowing a negligence lawsuit against the State Department of Transportation to go forward.   The plaintiff, John Jorgensen, suffered serious permanent injuries after crashing his car in a work zone.  The DOT had closed one lane, but Jorgensen reentered that lane because there were no barricades indicating it was still closed, and subsequently crashed into a parked truck.

In a unanimous ruling, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said the state can claim immunity when a complaint involves employees making policy decisions with relatively broad implications.

But in this case, the court ruled that immunity doesn’t extend to ”on-the-ground decisions” such as where to place barricades or cones or to park vehicles in repair zones, said Berney Kubetz, the Jorgensens’ attorney.

via Maine Wire – wbztv.com.

Maine is a “comparative negligence”  state, meaning that if the plaintiff is found to be more negligent than the defendant, than he or she cannot recover.  So in this case, the state will been to show that Jorgensen’s negligence in driving back into the closed lane was greater than the negligence of the DOT workers in failing to put enough cones and barriers to indicate that the lane was still closed.

Manufacturer’s Duty to Warn

CASE NOTE: Brown v. Crown Equipment Corporation

By Elliott Teel

One question before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in this case was whether or not Maine imposes a duty on manufacturers to warn of problems with their product after it has been sold.

The facts of the case show that the manufacturer of forklifts, Crown Equipment, became aware of a design defect that had caused serious injury and even death in several cases. In response to this problem, the company produced a kit in 1995 that prevented injuries from occurring. Essentially the company simply had a piece of metal designed that needed to be added to it’s forklifts in order to prevent injuries. However, despite producing the item that would have prevented further injuries and death, they failed to make sure that they were actually used, or even properly inform the forklift owners of the problem.

Robert Brown was operating one of these forklifts while working for a tanning company. The forklift had been purchased second-hand, however Crown still was aware of the use of the particular forklift, and had even “performed an evaluation” on it. So despite knowing that use of the forklift could result in deadly accidents, and knowing that this particular forklift had not had the corrective work done to it, Crown made no effort to have the modification done to the forklift.  In August of 2006, Mr. Brown was killed while operating the forklift after suffering the exact injury Crown was aware had occurred over fifty times already.

The Court in Maine found that Crown had a duty to warn of the defect in their forklifts.  Their failure to adequately address the problem through a recall or  proper notification to the forklift owners violated that duty, and they were found liable for Mr. Brown’s death.  The Court noted however that they were not adopting a broader, absolute rule about the duty to warn, but only on the facts of this case.

Product Liability Case

The Press Herald reports here on the case Brown v. Crown Equipment Corporation, where the State Supreme Court confirmed that there is a post-sale duty to warn, even to secondary, (i.e., used product purchasers) of defects in a product.  The facts of the case as reported show that the tragic death of Thomas Brown should have been prevented by Crown, and they inexcusably let a known problem go unresolved.

See my summary of the case here.