Phelps v. Herbert – ATV Crash and Duty of Care

It was the celebration of a young man about to embark on the rest of his life. But for one young woman, it marked her last day. A guest at a graduation party crashed an all-terrain vehicle with her on the back.atvred

Her parents subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging premises liability on behalf of the graduate’s parents, who had thrown the party. However, a district judge ruled a claim of premises liability wasn’t appropriate for an incident that occurred off-site and did not stem from a dangerous condition in the property. The Rhode Island Supreme Court, in its review of Phelps v. Herbert, affirmed.

Our Cape Coral ATV injury lawyers recognize the primary issue in cases of alleged negligence such as this is the determination of duty of care. That is, what duty of care did the property owners owe the decedent?

There is no legal formula for making this determination, which means it must be weighed by a judge on a case-by-case basis.

In the plaintiff’s appeal of the district court’s decision, it was argued the homeowners/party hosts had a duty to ensure reasonable care for the safety of guests, including the decedent. The plaintiff asserted this duty was breached when the homeowners served alcohol to guests and subsequently witnessed the ATV rider operate the vehicle on their property, and yet failed to do anything to prevent him from endangering other guests.

The court noted there have been instances (specifically, the 2003 ruling in Volpe v. Gallagher), in which a landowner has been held liable for injuries that occur off premises if he or she allows a dangerous condition or activity to occur on their land. In the Volpe case, the decedent was killed on his own property by the mentally ill son of the defendant neighbor, with whom the son lived and in whose home he stored handguns and ammunition. The son fired a gun from his own property, and the bullet struck the neighbor. The subsequent wrongful death action held the defendant knew the son was mentally ill, prone to hallucinations and potentially violent, and yet allowed him to keep guns and ammunition on her property, thus creating an unreasonable risk of harm to others.

There are also exceptions made in cases where hosts provide alcohol to minors, therefore imposing a duty on the landowner to take reasonable steps to shield guests from injury.

However, the court held in this case, there was no such duty of care owed by the defendant because, unlike the Volpe case, there was no danger emanating from the property to an innocent, unknowing party. In fact, the court had indicated the decision in Volpe would likely have been different had the gunman traveled to the neighbor’s property to fire the weapon.

Here, the mere presence of an ATV on one’s property doesn’t create an inherently dangerous condition per the principles of premises liability.

There was no indication, the court found, that the homeowners could have controlled the guest’s actions in a way that could have prevented the death. The decedent was an adult, she requested a ride on the ATV, she declined to wear a helmet and then voluntarily left the property on the ATV with an adult rider who had consumed alcohol.

This is not to say the decedent’s family could not successfully obtain compensation from the operator of the vehicle. The outcome may also have been different if one or either of the parties were minors, in which case social host liability laws could be applicable.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports hundreds of deaths occur as a result of reckless ATV operation every year. It’s important in cases like this for injured parties and their surviving families to carefully consider what legal options may be most worthy of pursuit.

If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Phelps v. Herbert, June 27, 2014, Rhode Island Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Fiery Fort Myers Car Accident Claims Three Teens, June 18, 2014, Cape Coral Personal Injury Lawyer Blog