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Bigbee v. Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co.

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Plaintiff was gravely injured after being hit by an automobile while standing in a phone booth owned by Defendant. Plaintiff sued Defendant for a negligence claim alleging that Defendant was negligent in placement of phone booth. Trial court granted Defendant’s motion of summary judgment. Plaintiff appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    When a defendant fails to protect a plaintiff from a foreseeable harm from a third party, the defendant may be held liable for negligence.

    Facts.

    Charles Bigbee (Plaintiff) was struck by a car while standing in a phone booth owed by Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company (Defendant). Plaintiff sued Defendant asserting that Defendant was negligent when it decided to place the phone close to a busy roadway where drivers would speed. Defendant argued that there was no duty of care to Plaintiff because there was no way to foresee a car leaving the roadway and striking the phone booth while a person was inside. Trial court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss. Plaintiff appealed and argued that the determination of whether there was a foreseeable harm was a question for the trier of fact.

    Issue.

    Whether a defendant may be held liable for negligence when defendant fails to protect a plaintiff from a foreseeable harm of a third party.

    Held.

    Yes.  A defendant may be held liable for negligence when failing to protect a plaintiff from a foreseeable harm of a third party. The jury will decide if the harm was foreseeable. When there is no room for a reasonable difference in making the determination that the harm was foreseeable then foreseeability may be established without the jury deciding.  Fast traffic and inebriated drivers are expected on the roadways. It is foreseeable that these drivers might lose control of their vehicles and crash into objects near the street. Based on these facts, a jury could reasonably determine that a car crashing into the phone booth was a foreseeable harm because the phone booth was placed so close to the street without proper protection. Therefore, the question of whether the Plaintiff’s harm was foreseeable should have been a question for a jury. The trial court erred to grant Defendant summary judgement and the issue was reversed and remanded.

    Dissent.

    (Kroninger, J.) The Court’s majority was wrong in determining that foreseeability could not be decided as a matter of law in this case. In determining the foreseeability of a risk of harm, several factors must be weighed to establish if the Defendant owed a duty of care to Plaintiff. There are cases where there is no duty to a plaintiff for some foreseeable risks. In this case, the risk of harm to pedestrians who used the phone booth was a foreseeable harm of vehicle traffic. Placing the phone both fifteen feet away from the curb was safer than placing the booth on the sidewalk. Phone booths have a history of being placed next to streets and highways for the convenience of the public. Negligence liability is imposed only when the risk of harm is unreasonable and in this case, the benefits of having the phone booth is its location outweighed the foreseeable risks.



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