Evidence: it’s rather useful

I once saw an Articled Clerk appearing for a plaintiff in a mention before the Melbourne Magistrates Court.  The Magistrate asked her “what’s the estimated duration of the hearing?”

AC: “I don’t have instructions on that, Your Honour”

Court: “Well, how many witnesses do you intend to call?”

AC: “We don’t propose to call any, your honour” [presumably the actual strategy was to negotiate at the door of the court]

Court (looking curious): “ok … how do you propose to prove your case if the defendant exercises its right not to call any witnesses?

A recent appeal out of California suggests how such a scenario might play out.

evidence
Image from here

You don’t expect to come out of a yoga class injured. Relaxed maybe. Even chilled out. But not injured. It isn’t work out that way for Ms Webster. During a yoga class on 11 October 2014 her position was twice adjusted by the instructor. She alleged that these adjustments injured her neck. She sued the school operators alleging negligence.

The defendant sought summary dismissal of the claim which was granted: Webster v Claremont Yoga (L.A. Co. Sup. Ct, Nieto J, 3 October 2016, unreported).  The plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeal noted the need for expert evidence in cases of professional negligence, unless a matter lay within a jury’s common experience.   The only expert evidence available in this case was supplied by the defendant.  It said that he had observed the relevant standard of care.

Plaintiff argues that an expert’s testimony is not determinative, even when uncontradicted, because a jury may reject it. … But even if a jury rejected Simons’s opinion, plaintiff would still have the burden affirmatively to establish the applicable standard of care and a breach thereof, which she cannot do without an expert. In the absence of an expert, she could not show a triable issue of material fact, and defendants were entitled to summary judgment.

The court went on to consider the plaintiff’s doctor’s notes, which recorded complaints of  injury which she associated with yoga.  These were not considered sufficient to raise a causation issue for a jury to resolve.

Webster v Claremont Yoga (Calif. Ct of Apeal, 31 July 2018)

Obscuring the drivers’ vision

Recently I shared a decision from the Coroners Court where a tree shading a streetlight contributed to a road death.  A recent case from Kansas has taken a different approach to the obligations of owners of trees.

It was mid-afternoon on 14 September 2011, and Darren Manley was driving north on Anderson Road in Labette County, Kansas.  At the same time a truck driven by John Patton was being driven west on the intersecting County Road 20000.  Trees growing on land adjoining the intersection obscured the drivers’ view of each other.  Manley was killed in the resulting collision.

Labette
Rural road, Labette County, KS (Image from here)

Mr Manley’s estate sued the owners of the land where the trees grew.  It was alleged that they had wrongfully caused his death by allowing the trees to obstruct the vision of passing motorists.  The owners sought summary dismissal of the claim which was granted by Labette County District Court.  The plaintiff’s appeal to the Court of Appeals was also dismissed: Manley v Hallbauer, 387 P. 3d 185 (2016).  They further appealed to the Supreme Court of Kansas.

The Supreme Court rejected the appeal, finding that the landowners had no duty of care.  It noted that any duty of care would need to be consistent with public policy.  Kansas common law reflected a public policy not to impose tort liability on persons in the position of the landowners in this case.

As our primary policy consideration, this court adheres to precedent “‘unless clearly convinced that the rule was originally erroneous or is no longer sound because of changing conditions and that more good than harm will come by departing from precedent.'” …. Manley does not persuade us to abandon the traditional rule that a landowner owes no duty in the circumstances of this case. We conclude the determination of the existence of duty is better resolved by following our precedent that embraces the traditional rule, especially because of the public policy that underlies that rule.

The Court duly concluded that “a landowner whose property abuts a rural intersection owes no duty to passing drivers to trim or remove trees or other vegetation on the property”.

Manley v Hallbauer (Supreme Court of Kansas, 10 August 2018)

Who owns the mosquitoes?

The Body Shop used to sell bags saying something like “if you think you’re too small to be noticed, go to bed when there’s a mosquito in the room”.  Apparently they were right.

William Nami was a railway worker whose job was to work in a team operating a ‘tamper’ (a machine for repairing railway lines). Sometimes he worked inside the machine’s poorly-sealed cabin, and sometimes outside. Unfortunately, the area in which he worked was mosquito-infested town of Sweeny in Brazoria County, Texas.  The railway’s right of way was narrow and weed-strewn and sometimes had pools of water.  In late September 2008 Nami was diagnosed with West Nile virus and suffered significant ill effects.  He sued his employer under §51 of the the Federal Employees Liability Act:

Every common carrier by railroad  … shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier … for such injury … resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees of such carrier.

He alleged that the employer had failed to provide a safe workplace.  A jury at trial found tat the employer had been negligent and awarded damages: Nami v Union Pacific Railroad Co. (267th District Court, Koetter J, 2012, unreported).  The employer’s appeal to the Court of Appeals was rejected: Union Pacific Railroad Co v Nami 499 SW 3d 452 (Tex. Ct App., 2014).

Mosquito Day
Image from here

Union Pacific appealed to the Supreme Court of Texas.  The Supreme Court noted that insects are considered to be wild animals (ferae naturae) and

… under the doctrine of ferae naturae, a property owner owes an invitee no duty of care to protect him from wild animals indigenous to the area unless he reduces the animals to his possession, attracts the animals to the property, or knows of an unreasonable risk and neither mitigates the risk nor warns the invitee. … The same rule applies to an employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace.

In this case the employer had done nothing to increase (and could have done nothing to decrease) the risk of mosquitoes to Mr Nami.  Accordingly negligence was not made out.

Union Pacific Railroad Co v Nami, 498 SW 3d 890 (Tex., 2016)

Postscript – The Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear Nami’s appeal: Nami v Union Pacific Railroad Co., 137 S.Ct. 2118 (2017).