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Behrendt v. Gulf Underwriters Insurance Co

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendant manufactured pressurized tanks under strict manufacturing requirements. One of the requirements was to put a hole in any scrapped materials to make the materials non-pressurized. As company policy, Defendant allowed its employees to use non-pressurized scrapped materials for their own personal use. Defendant’s employee fixed a hole in a scrapped tank and gave it to Plaintiff to use for his oil-change business. Years later, the tank exploded. As a result, Plaintiff was injured.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    If there is a lack of a foreseeable risk of harm to a person, a defendant will not be considered in breach of his or her duty of ordinary care owed to another.

    Facts.

    Silvan Industries, Inc. (Defendant) manufactured tanks to be used under pressure, which were subject to strict manufacturing codes. Defendant allowed its employees to use company materials, like scrap materials, to make items for their own personal use. Due to the strict manufacturing codes, Defendant made sure to cut holes in the scrapped materials in order for them to be unusable under pressure. Defendant’s employee used a scrapped material to modify a tank used by Kenneth Behrendt (Plaintiff) in his car oil-change business. Because Defendant makes sure to cut holes in the scrapped materials, Defendant’s employee decided to fix the hole in the tank that he gave to Plaintiff; this allowed the tank to be used under pressure in order for oil to quickly get sucked from a vehicle into the tank. Years later, the tank exploded. This caused Plaintiff to suffer injuries and to file a lawsuit against Defendant. At trial, Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. After Plaintiff appealed, the court of appeals affirmed that the trial court’s decision. The court of appeals held that Defendant did not owe Plaintiff a duty of care. In addition, it was unforeseeable that a scrapped non-pressurized tank would be fixed to become pressurized and subsequently explode and cause Plaintiff’s injuries. Then, the Wisconsin Supreme Court granted certiorari.

    Issue.

    If there is a lack of a foreseeable risk of harm to a person, will a defendant be considered in breach of his or her duty of ordinary care owed to another?

    Held.

    No. In this case, Defendant owed a duty of ordinary care to take precautions in order for scrapped tanks to be incapable of being pressurized. Defendant exercised this duty by cutting holes into scrapped tanks. It was not foreseeable that Defendant’s employee would modify a scrapped tank to become pressurized again and to be used by Plaintiff. It was not foreseeable that such an act would cause Plaintiff’s injuries. As such, the court of appeals’ judgment is affirmed.

    Discussion.

    If there is a lack of a foreseeable risk of harm to a person, a defendant will not be considered in breach of his or her duty of ordinary care owed to another. Although Defendant owes a duty of care to ensure that its policies and procedures governing its employees will not cause injuries to others, Defendant cannot be held responsible for such an unforeseeable occurrence. Defendant exercised its duty of care by taking precautions to ensure that such scrapped tanks cannot be used under pressure.  


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