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Stewart v. Motts


    Citation. Stewart v. Motts, 539 Pa. 596 (Pa. Feb. 15, 1995)

    Brief Fact Summary. John Stewart (Appellant) suffered burns after an accident in Motts’ (Appellee) auto body shop after the automobile on which they were jointly working ignited. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed a judgment in favor of Appellee in Appellant’s negligence action seeking damages for personal injuries. Appellant sought review.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The standard of reasonable care applies to all negligence actions, i.e., the reasonable person must exercise care in proportion to the danger involved in his act, and that he or she must exercise such care not only for his own safety and the protection of his property but also to avoid serious injury to others.

    Facts. Plaintiff stopped at Defendant’s auto repair shop to assist in repairing a car’s fuel tank. The tank was unattached, and Plaintiff suggested pouring gasoline into the carburetor in an attempt to start the vehicle. The car backfired, and in the ensuing explosion Plaintiff suffered severe burns. At trial, Plaintiff requested a jury instruction directing the application of a standard of a “high degree” of care in instances of elevated danger. The judge declined, the jury found for Defendant and Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue. Does there exist a higher standard of “extraordinary care” for the use of dangerous instrumentalities over and above the usual standard of “reasonable care” to be applied in negligence actions?

    Held. No. The court reaffirmed the principle that that there is only one standard, that of “reasonable care” to be applied uniformly in negligence actions.

    Discussion. In any action for negligence, a plaintiff must establish that four elements are met: duty, breach, causation, and harm. The Defendant must owe a duty to plaintiff, breach that duty and, as a result, the plaintiff must suffer harm. The defendant’s actions must be the proximate, or legal, cause of the injury suffered.
    The standard of care is the level of conduct demanded of a person so as to avoid liability for negligence. Failure to meet this standard is characterized as breach of duty.
    As a general rule, adults must ordinarily act with reasonable care, i.e., as a reasonable person would under like or similar circumstances. Children are expected to act with the degree of reasonable care as would a child of similar age, intelligence and experience. However, when a child is engaged in an adult activity, it is certain that the child is expected to act as a reasonable adult engaged in the same activity.
    Professionals (i.e., physicians, attorneys, etc.) are expected to exercise the degree of care appropriate to the standards of other professionals in that, or similar, community.
    The court in Stewart stated concisely: “[The law] recognizes only one standard of care in negligence actions involving dangerous instrumentalities-the standard of reasonable care under the circumstances. It is well established by its case law that the reasonable man must exercise care in proportion to the danger involved in his act.” Thus, the trial judge’s declining to instruct the jury to apply a separate standard was proper and the appellate court accordingly affirmed the trial court’s ruling.


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