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O’Guin v. Bingham County

    Brief Fact Summary. Shaun and Alex O’Guin (P) were killed while playing in a county landfill in Bingham County.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. If a plaintiff needs to recover damages for a statutory violation pleading a theory of negligence as obvious violation of the statute or as being contrary to ordinary care, the plaintiff must belong to the class sought to be protected by the statute and the harm suffered by the plaintiff must be of the type the statute was intended to protect.

     

    Facts. The two children, Shaun and Alex O’Guin, had lunch at their school and then left through the unlocked back gate of the school premises. After crossing a private field, they entered the landfill operated by Bingham County, which was closed on that day,  and without attendants present. A wall  collapsed on them, killing them both. The trial court granted the County’s motion for summary judgment. The O’Guin family appealed the verdict.

    Issue. If a plaintiff needs to recover damages for a statutory violation pleading a theory of negligence as obvious violation of the statute or as being contrary to ordinary care, must the plaintiff belong to the class sought to be protected by the statute, and did he suffer harm of the type the statute was intended to protect against?

    Held. (Trout, J.) Yes. If a plaintiff needs to recover damages for a statutory violation pleading a theory of negligence as obvious violation of the statute or as being contrary to ordinary care, the plaintiff must belong to the class sought to be protected by the statute and the harm suffered by the plaintiff must be of the type the statute was intended to protect. A proven statutory violation replaces the ordinary or common law standard of care. The first two aspects of a negligence claim, that is, duty and breach of duty, are established if a statutory violation is proved. But another four elements are required to enable the replacement of the common law standard of care by the statutory standard of care. The elements are: (1) The statute must clearly state the standard of care. (2) The statute must be designed to prevent the specific type of injury suffered by the plaintiff. (3) The plaintiff must be part of the class sought to be protected by the statute. (4) The violation of the statute must be a near cause of injury. In the present case, the Idaho regulation, Section 39-7401(2) defined the purpose of the waste-management program of the state as being designed to, among other things, ensure health of humans and of the environment in the state of Idaho. Another state regulation makes reference to 40 C.F.R. Section 258, the Federal Code of Regulations, which requires landfill operators to control public access using appropriate artificial or natural barriers to protect human health. Still another rule makes it mandatory to fence or otherwise block off access to a landfill when no attendant is on duty. Thus the operators of solid-waste landfills need to block off not only those who would dump waste illegally, but also the public, with the legislative intent being to protect human health and safety. The children in the present case fell into the very harm the statute was designed to protect against. They were also part of the very class sought to be protected by the statute. The regulations were meant to ensure controlled access only to the landfill, and barriers to entry if no authorized personnel were on duty. Thus the only point of dispute relates to whether the statutory violation was the proximate cause of the children’s deaths. The trial court decided to set aside the statutory standard of care and to treat the children as trespassers for the purposes of the case. This was an error. In this case, once the statute establishes the negligence criteria were satisfied, the statutory standard applies rather than the common law duty applicable to trespassers. The verdict is vacated and the case remanded.

    Dissent. (Eismann, J.) The majority opinion treats the regulations cited by the court as designed to prevent the type of harm which occurred in the case of the O’Guin children. This is not the case, neither were the regulations meant to prevent injury specifically to trespassers. Instead, their aim was to prevent injury to human health in general by prohibiting illegal dumping or salvaging operations. The scope of the statute envisaged public health and not public safety. Thus the landfill owners are not required to prevent the entry of trespassing children who may injure themselves, under the existing laws.

    Concurrence. N/A

    Discussion. The case here involved replacing a negligence standard of reasonable care with a statutory standard. The decision was made complex by this standard. The majority and dissent opinion clearly shows a marked difference over the scope of protection designed to be provided by the landfill regulations. The majority took a broad view of the protection of human health spoken of in the regulation, deciding that it provided a basis for the suit filed by the O’Guin children. The dissent took a narrow view, alleging that the statute was meant to cover only public health in the matter of illegal dumping and salvaging, and not to prevent injury to trespassers. Thus, in common law, the landfill owners could not be found liable for any negligence as they owed no duty of care to trespassers. However, both opinions did not cite the legislative history of the statutes and regulations involved, which would have furnished a fuller picture of the intent of these laws.


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