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Yania v. Bigan

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff appealed a judgment from the Somerset County Court of Common Pleas (Pennsylvania) that sustained John Bigan’s (Defendant) demurrer. It dismissed her wrongful death and survival actions against Defendant, which arose from the death of the Plaintiff’s husband, Joseph Yania (Yania).

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A possessor of land becomes subject to liability to a business invitee for any physical harm caused by any artificial or natural condition upon the land: (1) if, but only if, the owner knew or could have discovered the condition which, if known to him he should have realized involved an unreasonable risk of harm to the business invitee; (2) if the owner had no reason to believe the business invitee would discover the condition or realize the risk of harm; and (3) if he invited or permitted the business invitee to enter upon the land without exercising reasonable care to make the condition reasonably safe or give adequate warning to enable him to avoid the harm.

    Facts. Defendant was engaged in a coal strip-mining operation, whereby trenches were dug in order to remove coal deposits. One trench contained several feet of water, and Defendant had placed a pump in the trench to remove the water. Defendant asked Yania, the operator of another coal strip-mining operation, to assist him in starting the pump. According to Plaintiff, Defendant taunted and urged Yania to jump into the water. Yania jumped into the water and drowned.
    The Plaintiff initiated wrongful death and survival actions against Defendant, alleging that Defendant taunted her husband, failed to warn him of the danger, and failed to rescue him.
    The trial court sustained Defendant’s demurrer and dismissed Plaintiff’s actions. On appeal, the court affirmed, holding that Yania was a reasonable and prudent adult and performed an act, which he knew or should have known, was perilous. Justice Benjamin R. Jones held that it was the performance of that act and not defendant’s conduct which caused Yania’s death.

    Issue. Did the trial court err in ruling in favor of Defendant?

    Held. No. The trial court properly ruled for Defendant. Although Defendant enticed Yania to perform a dangerous act, it was the performance of that act that caused Yania’s death, not the enticement.

    Discussion. On appeal, the court stated that the “only inference deductible from the facts alleged in the compliant is that Bigan, by the employment of cajolery and inveiglement, caused such a mental impact on Yania that the latter was deprived of his volition and freedom of choice and placed under a compulsion to jump into the water.”
    The appellate court reasoned that had Yania been a child of tender years or a person mentally deficient then it is conceivable that taunting and enticement could constitute actionable negligence if it resulted in harm. However, to contend that such conduct directed to an adult in full possession of all his mental faculties constitutes negligence is without merit.
    * The fact that Defendant saw Yania in a position of peril in the water, imposed upon him a moral duty, not a legal duty. The court held that absent a legal responsibility to rescue Yania for placing him in the perilous position, there was no duty of rescue.


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