Pennsylvania electrical injuries: high voltage line, railroad car and track, premises liability, punitive damages.
In March, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued an opinion in Klein v National Railroad Passenger Corp. [Amtrak], case no. 04-955.
Two boys had been skateboarding, and climbed on top of a laddered freight car owned by defendant Norfolk Southern Corporation (“Norfolk Southern”) while it was parked for the weekend on a tail track owned by Amtrak in Pennsylvania. Once on top of the railcar, the two boys were severely burned by arcing electricity from a high voltage catenary wire which ran along the tail track and above the cars.
The case against Amtrak was a premises liability claim, presented to the jury on two theories: (1) the duty of a landowner to a trespasser; and (2) whether the attractive nuisance doctrine applied.
Under Pennsylvania law, a landowner’s duty of care to one who enters upon the land depends upon whether that person is
- a trespasser (no permission),
- a licensee (permission to enter), or
- an invitee (invited for the benefit of the landowner).
The boys were trespassers on land owned by Amtrak, since no one had given them permission to go onto the track or climb up on the rail car to look around. The duty generally owed by a landowner to a trespasser is to refrain from willful or wanton misconduct.
Amtrak should have realized that pulling the laddered Norfolk Southern car under the energized catenary line, in a densely populated mixed residential-commercial-industrial area, was an unreasonable act in disregard of a known risk that would likely put someone in grave peril.
To prove “wanton misconduct” it was necessary for the plaintiffs to show that Amtrak knew of the risk that led to their injuries. The jury was given information hat Amtrak appreciated the specific risk of harm to persons like the injured boys:
- Evidence of pervasive graffiti in the area,
- Reports of other trespassers,
- The presence of numerous schools in the vicinity,
- The urban setting suggesting that pedestrian traffic was well known, and
- Amtrak’s long time awareness that teenage boys are inclined to climb parked boxcars.
Amtrak knew that trespassers were regularly on its tracks and that teenage boys were inclined to climb to the top of parked boxcars.
The presence of high voltage lines above a parked railroad car and the phenomenon of arcing electricity are not well known to the public. These dangers are not obvious and Amtrak provided evidence that the dangers are not obvious. Amtrak regularly educates, and re-educates, its experienced employees about the dangers of catenary wires. The dangers were under-appreciated so Amtrak provided on-going training to experienced employees.
Plaintiffs’ lawyer introduced a government report by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Highway Administration:
“Catenaries are the overhead wiring systems used to carry energy to electric locomotives. Catenary accidents may or may not involve trains. All of the catenary accidents in the sample data involved juveniles and all resulted in serious injury or death. Minor catenary accidents are rare because all of them result in severe electric shock, and there is a strong probability that a fall from the top of a boxcar will follow. While there may be a general awareness of danger associated with catenary systems as with power lines, few people outside the railroad industry are aware that the electrical potential is so great that shocks can result without actual contacting of the wire.”
Amtrak claimed that the plaintiffs’ accident was unforeseeable. Whether Amtrak had reason to know that the catenary wires posed an “unreasonable” risk of bodily harm and the question of foreseeability were questions for the jury. Evidence supported the finding that Amtrak was aware of that risk:
- Plaintiffs introduced evidence of Amtrak’s attorneys writing about similar accidents and anticipating that more accidents would occur again;
- There was evidence of the federal government warning railroads about such risks; and
- There was evidence of Amtrak’s renegotiating its liability agreement with Conrail to spread the risks of these boxcar catenary wire burn cases.
The jury heard testimony that neither plaintiff knew what catenary wires were or understood their risks, especially the risk of arcing. Their families had not discussed high voltage with the boys. Neither boy had been taught in school about catenary lines or high voltage.
The Jury awarded punitive damages that were upheld by the Judge. The opinion outlined the requirements for a punitive damages award under Pennsylvania law.
Pennsylvania has adopted Section 908 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts and accompanying comments regarding the imposition of punitive damages:
“Punitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant’s evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others, in assessing punitive damages, the trier of fact can properly consider the character of the defendant’s act, the nature and extent of the harm to the plaintiff, that the defendant caused or intended to cause and the wealth of the defendant. Restatement (Second) of Torts Section 908(2).”
Under the rule in the Restatement, punitive damages may be awarded when the defendant acted in an outrageous fashion due to either “the defendant’s evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others.” Martin v. Johns-Manville Corp., 508 Pa. 154, 494 A.2d 1088, 1096 (Pa. 1985) (rev’d on other grounds). In Hutchison v. Luddy, 582 Pa. 114, 870 A.2d 766, 770 (Pa. 2005), the Court found that punitive damages may be appropriately awarded only when the plaintiff has established that the defendant has acted in a fashion “so outrageous as to demonstrate willful, wanton or reckless conduct”).
A defendant acts recklessly when his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another and such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent. A showing of mere negligence, or even gross negligence, is not enough to prove that punitive damages should be awarded. SHV Coal, Inc. v. Continental Grain Co., 526 Pa. 489, 587 A.2d 702, 705 (Pa. 1991).
Under these cases the Court held that the evidence supported a punitive damages award.
The Judge was not impressed with the defendant companies’ argument that the jury verdict should be disregarded, and he wrote
“Norfolk Southern obviously finds it necessary and proper to educate regularly its experienced workforce in the danger of catenary wires. To argue that the general public, or in this case, two teenage boys, should fully appreciate the dangers of getting close to a catenary wire is ridiculous. The jury heard the evidence on continual training by Norfolk Southern and Amtrak. The jury saw this defense for what it was: an attempt to hold these plaintiffs, and the public, to a standard that neither defendant applied to its own experienced and educated employees.”
In the first 6 months of 2008, there were a few other reported cases of interest involving electrical accidents. Over the next few weeks these will be commented upon here.
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