Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Same Old Standard of Care Applies to Dangerous Activities

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the law states that anyone who provides, supplies, or uses an inherently dangerous instrumentality, such as high voltage electric current, acids, corrosives, gas lines, explosives, loaded handguns is required by law to use the highest degree of care possible to avoid injury to everyone who may lawfully come into its contact. Pa. Suggested Jury Instructions 3.02D. This suggests that Pennsylvania recognizes a separate standard of care, “extraordinary care”, for dangerous instrumentalities above and beyond “ordinary care.” The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has specifically rejected this application of the law.

An inherently dangerous activity is one that, though necessarily carries with it a danger, can be safely carried on by use of special skill and care i.e. the risk of serious harm results only if the work is carried on unskillfully or carelessly. Restatement of Torts s. 835.

The whole issue is whether there exists a higher standard of “extraordinary care” for the use of dangerous instrumentalities over and above the standard of “reasonable care” such that it would be error not to apply the requirement of a “high degree of care” in handling a dangerous instrumentality.

This exact issue came up in the case of Stewart v. Motts, 654 A.2d 535 (Pa. 1995). On July 15, 1987, Plaintiff, Jonathon Stewart, stopped at Defendant, Martin Motts' auto repair shop and offered to help Motts repair a car’s fuel tank. In an effort to start and move the car with the gasoline tank unattached, Stewart suggested and then began pouring gas into the car’s carburetor. Stewart instructed Motts to turn the ignition key at a given moment. The unfortunate result was that the car backfired, caused an explosion that severely burned Stewart’s upper body. After a two day trial, the jury found for the defendant Motts.

The issue on appeal concerned the common pleas court’s refusal to instruct the jury that gasoline is “a very dangerous substance.” The lower court felt that the standard negligence instruction was enough. Stewart appealed arguing that the trial court erred because Pennsylvania law applies an “extraordinary” or “heightened duty of care” to those employing a dangerous instrumentality like the handling of gasoline.

The Supreme Court of PA looked to the Restatement of Torts s. 298, which states: The care required is always reasonable care. The standard never varies, but the care which it is reasonable to require of the actor varies with the danger involved in his act and is proportionate to it. The greater the danger, the greater the care which must be exercised....

This comment goes on to say that where the reasonable character of an actor's conduct is in question “its utility is to be weighed against the magnitude of the risk which it involves.” Thus, if an act involves risk of death or bodily injury, “the highest attention and caution are required....” Therefore, the comment concludes, “those who deal with firearms, explosives, poisonous drugs or high tension electricity are required to exercise the closest attention and the most careful precautions ...”

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania went on to state “It depends upon, and echoes, the mistaken supposition that there is a ‘higher standard’ of ‘extraordinary care’, in contrast to a lesser standard of ‘reasonable care.’ …there is no such hierarchy of standards; to repeat: for a person who possesses a loaded firearm, ‘extraordinary care’ is ‘reasonable care.’

The Takeaway: Pennsylvania recognizes only one standard of care in negligence actions involving dangerous instrumentalities-the standard of reasonable care under the circumstances. Share this post :
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