Statutory Violations as Negligence Per Se Restatement (3d) on Torts § 14 (2010)
An actor is negligent if, without excuse, the actor violates a statute that is designed to protect against the type of accident the actor’s conduct causes, and if the accident victim is within the class of persons the statute is designed to protect.
Definition. Negligence per se is a doctrine with an evidentiary and a substantive effect that pertains to one party’s use of the other party’s alleged violation of a statute to prove the defendant’s breach of their duty of care. The rationale behind the doctrine is that in some cases the legislature may be deemed to have specified the appropriate standard of care and this may be “borrowed” for the factfinders assessing the standard of care in a given case. Negligence per se applies to statutes but it is usually also extended to municipal ordinances and administrative regulations, so the term “the law” in part (2) of the formulation below should be construed broadly.
Because negligence per se could be considered as removing the question of breach from the jury’s determination—substituting the legislature’s judgment for the jury’s, effectively—the doctrine requires careful determinations of whether it will apply at all and if it does apply, what effect it will have on the jury’s decision making.
Before the doctrine can be applied (usually by the jury), the judge determines the applicability of the alleged violation, with a two-pronged inquiry. First, the violation must be proven by the plaintiff. This is not necessarily the difficult part of the test: there may be visual evidence available from a speed camera or closed-circuit video; documentary evidence that someone furnished a minor with liquor; or other modes of easily proving the statute’s violation, in addition to more expensive means of proof including calling eyewitnesses. Still, the plaintiff cannot take this step for granted. Second, the statute’s applicability for purposes of determining breach requires a four-part test. Only if all four requirements ((2)a-d, below) are met will negligence per se apply. Concretely, then, this means that negligence per se may be applied:
(1) when a civil statute or ordinance is violated, and
Exam tip: When facing a negligence per se scenario, be sure to methodically check off each of these requirements! On a test, it may be just a few points lost for failure to do so. In court, the entire case might live or die based on one of these elements.
*1 Kevin McCarthy brings claims of negligence and negligence per se against Weathervane Seafoods, arising from injuries he sustained when he fell from a ladder while attempting to climb to the roof of a Weathervane restaurant to repair a leak. Weathervane moves for summary judgment, contending that the negligence claim fails because Weathervane owed no duty to McCarthy and the negligence per se claim fails due to a lack of a statutory basis for the claim. McCarthy objects to the motion.
Weathervane Seafoods operates several restaurants in New Hampshire, including a restaurant located at 174 Daniel Webster Highway in Nashua. During the events at issue in this case, McCarthy was self-employed as a heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration technician doing business as Maxair. McCarthy was approved to provide service to the HVAC units at Weathervane restaurants, including the Nashua restaurant, and had provided service on several occasions before the accident that is the basis for this case.
On June 13, 2010, Jennifer Burgess, Assistant Manager at the Nashua Weathervane restaurant, asked McCarthy to inspect and repair a leak in the roof of the restaurant. McCarthy inspected the leak from the kitchen area and then decided he would have to go up on the roof. McCarthy had been told previously that there was a ladder chained to a pipe behind the restaurant, which was used to access the roof. McCarthy found the ladder, unchained it, and extended it up the side of the restaurant. Burgess watched McCarthy set and climb the ladder. As McCarthy got near the top of the ladder, the bottom slipped out, and he fell. McCarthy was badly injured in the fall. [***]
Weathervane moves for summary judgment on the grounds that McCarthy cannot prove his negligence claim because Weathervane did not owe him a duty to protect against an open and obvious danger and because Weathervane did not know nor should it have known of the slippery condition where the ladder was located. Weathervane also contends that McCarthy failed to state a negligence per se claim. McCarthy objects, arguing that Weathervane breached its duty of reasonable care and duty to warn and that his negligence per se claim is based, properly, on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) regulations and New Hampshire regulations.
*2 “To recover for negligence, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant had a duty, that he breached that duty, and that the breach proximately caused injury to the plaintiff.” [c] “Whether a duty exists in a particular case is a question of law.” [c] [***] In his negligence count, McCarthy alleges that Weathervane “failed to provide a safe and secure restaurant, ladder, rear exterior of the restaurant or roof of the restaurant.” More specifically, McCarthy alleges that Weathervane “allowed a hazardous condition to exist in the area where the ladder had been placed causing the ladder to slide out from under Mr. McCarthy.” Weathervane challenges the claim to the extent that McCarthy alleges negligence because the ladder with which he was provided was too short. In response, McCarthy defends his negligence claim on the ground that Weathervane was negligent because the area where the ladder was placed was slippery due to grease build-up.
McCarthy alleges, in part, that Weathervane failed to provide a safe and secure ladder because the ladder was too short to provide safe access to the roof. Weathervane contends, in support of summary judgment, that even if the ladder it provided was too short, that defect was open and obvious. A landowner does not have a duty to warn or instruct of a dangerous condition on the premises if it is open and obvious. [c]
In objecting to summary judgment, McCarthy does not respond to Weathervane’s argument that the alleged defect in the ladder was open and obvious. Instead, McCarthy focuses on the slippery condition of the area where the ladder was located. Because McCarthy does not pursue a claim that Weathervane was negligent for providing a ladder that was too short, Weathervane is entitled to summary judgment on that part of the negligence claim.
2. Condition of the Back Dock Area
“A premises owner owes a duty to entrants to use ordinary care to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition, to warn entrants of dangerous conditions and to take reasonable precautions to protect them against foreseeable dangers arising out of the arrangements or use of the premises.” [c] “[A] premises owner is subject to liability for harm caused to entrants on the premises if the harm results either from: (1) the owner’s failure to carry out his activities with reasonable care; or (2) the owner’s failure to remedy or give warning of a dangerous condition of which he knows or in the exercise of reasonable care should know.” [c]
*3 [***] [Employees testified that] during the frying operations at the restaurant, the cooks skim debris out of the frying oil and put it into an empty cardboard box. When necessary, one of the cooks takes the box out to the dumpster behind the restaurant. The grease in the boxes drips onto the pavement behind the restaurant, known as the back dock area, on the way to the dumpster. The restaurant managers discussed the problem of grease buildup in the back dock area, and the grease problem had to be addressed daily. [***] [C]ompany policy required the back dock area to be kept clean from grease and oil and not to be slippery. [***] [G]rease from the fryers was permanently on the pavement in the back dock area. [***] [A]nother employee testified that they had used a power washer with degreaser to clean the back dock area until the power washer broke, two months before McCarthy’s accident. Weathervane did not replace the power washer, so the employees used a less powerful hose without degreaser to try to clean the area.
The Weathervane regional manager testified that he checked the back dock area at the Nashua restaurant regularly. He said that he was checking for cleanliness, trash, and to be sure that it was grease-free. He stated that grease in the back dock area was a safety concern. The regional manager testified that when grease built up in the area, the employees were supposed to clean it or, if necessary, hire someone who could clean it. He also testified that he had reviewed comments in forms from the Nashua Weathervane about grease buildup in the back dock area.
After the fall, McCarthy was treated by EMTs from the Rockingham Regional Ambulance service. One EMT who was kneeling next to McCarthy to provide treatment noticed when he stood up that the knees of his pants and tips of his shoes were coated with a significant amount of grease. He said that the grease smelled like fish and required several washings to remove.
McCarthy’s evidence of grease on the pavement in the back dock area where he attempted to use the ladder to access the roof demonstrates at least a disputed issue of fact as to whether Weathervane knew or should have known that the grease that accumulated there was a safety issue. Although Weathervane states that McCarthy inspected the area where he put the ladder, the evidence cited in support of that statement was not provided in the record. In contrast, McCarthy provided his interrogatory answer in which he stated that after falling he noticed the pavement was covered with grease and that he could not have seen the grease before climbing the ladder because it was lightly raining which caused all of the pavement to appear to be wet.
*4 Therefore, Weathervane has not shown that it is entitled to summary judgment on McCarthy’s negligence claim based on the slippery condition of the back dock area.
B. Negligence Per Se
In Count II of his complaint, McCarthy alleges negligence per se, stating that Weathervane “is responsible for operating the restaurant in compliance with Federal and State labor laws and regulations” and “[i]n particular, Weathervane Seafoods is responsible for complying with OSHA regulations and New Hampshire state laws pertaining to ladder safety.” McCarthy further alleges that “the Weathervane Seafoods failed to comply with OSHA and New Hampshire state laws pertaining to ladder safety. See e.g. RSA 277:2.” McCarthy continues by alleging that Weathervane allowed “an unsafe and non OSHA or New Hampshire compliant ladder to be used to access the roof of the restaurant.”
Under the negligence per se doctrine, the standard of conduct is provided by statute. [c] The negligence per se doctrine applies if “the injured person is a member of the class intended by the legislature to be protected, and … [if] the harm is of the kind which the statute was intended to prevent.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). In addition, “[a]n implicit element of this test is whether the type of duty to which the statute speaks is similar to the type of duty on which the cause of action is based.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).
Weathervane contends that McCarthy’s negligence per se claim fails because the New Hampshire statute cited, Revised Statutes Annotated (“RSA”) § 277:2, is inapposite to the circumstances in this case, because OSHA regulations cannot provide the basis for a negligence per se claim, and because McCarthy cannot add new grounds for the claim in response to a motion for summary judgment. In response, McCarthy contends that he cited RSA 277:2 only as an example of a statute pertaining to the ladder provided by Weathervane, cites New Hampshire Labor regulations as the basis for his claim, and argues that OSHA regulations can support a negligence per se claim. [***]
1. RSA 277:2.
RSA chapter 277 governs employment by “the state or any of its political subdivisions.” RSA 277:1–b, II. RSA 277:2, which requires, among other things, that the state or a political subdivision acting as an employer provide proper protection to employees who are using a ladder to make repairs, does not apply to Weathervane, which is not the state or one of its political subdivisions. Therefore, to the extent McCarthy’s negligence per se claim is based on RSA 277:2, Weathervane is entitled to summary judgment.
2. State Regulations
*5 McCarthy argues in his objection to summary judgment that certain New Hampshire labor regulations pertaining to ladders are the basis for his negligence per se claim. McCarthy also argues that Weathervane was negligent per se because the buildup of grease in the back loading area violated certain sections of the International Building Code and International Property Maintenance Code, incorporated into New Hampshire law by RSA 155–A:2. Weathervane responds that McCarthy cannot identify new grounds for his claim for purposes of avoiding summary judgment.
[***] In this case, McCarthy alleges that Weathervane’s failure to adhere to New Hampshire’s laws pertaining to ladder safety constituted negligence per se. In his objection, McCarthy identifies New Hampshire Code of Administrative Rules, Labor 1403.30, and contends that the ladder provided by Weathervane was too short, in violation of the regulation. McCarthy also represents that he identified Labor 1403.30 as a basis for his negligence per se claim in discovery provided to Weathervane. Given McCarthy’s pleadings and the disclosure of Labor 1403.30, specifically, in discovery, that part of McCarthy’s negligence per se claim is not a new claim for purposes of summary judgment.
McCarthy also asserts in his objection that his negligence per se claim is based on the slippery condition of the back area where the ladder was located and contends that the slippery condition violated Section 116 of the International Building Code and Section 302.1 of the International Property Maintenance Code. McCarthy did not allege the slippery condition in his complaint as a basis for his negligence per se claim and did not reference the International Building Code or the International Property Maintenance Code. [***] *6 Because McCarthy did not allege the factual basis for negligence per se based on slippery conditions or either Code that he now cites, those grounds for his negligence per se claim were not part of his complaint. McCarthy cannot raise a new claim in his objection to summary judgment.
3. OSHA Violations
[***] The New Hampshire Supreme Court has not decided whether a violation of an OSHA regulation could support a state law claim for negligence per se. [***] [However T]he First Circuit has held that a state law negligence per se claim cannot be based on a violation of an OSHA regulation. Weathervane is entitled to summary judgment on McCarthy’s negligence per se claim to the extent it is based on an OSHA violation.
Weathervane also argues that even if an OSHA violation could support a negligence per se claim, OSHA regulations apply to employers and therefore do not apply in the circumstances of this case where McCarthy was an independent contractor. [c] That issue need not be resolved in light of the First Circuit’s holding in Elliot that OSHA violations cannot be the basis for state law negligence per se claims.
*7 For the foregoing reasons, the defendant’s motion for summary judgment (document no. 10) is granted to the extent that the plaintiff’s negligence claim is based on a theory that the ladder provided was too short and to the extent the negligence per se claim is based on RSA 277:2, violation of the International Building Code or the International Property Maintenance Code due to a slippery condition, and OSHA regulations. The motion is otherwise denied.
The plaintiff’s remaining claims are:
(1) negligence based on the alleged slippery condition of the area where the ladder was located, and
Note 1. McCarthy’s claim survives based only on the basis of the grease buildup even though the ladder was unlawfully short. Does it seem overly technical to insist on using negligence per se in this fashion, or does it seem consistent with the various hurdles and limitations created to guide its proper use?
Note 2. A few months later, a subsequent ruling for the defendant granted summary judgment on the negligence per se claim relating to Weathervane’s alleged violation of New Hampshire Administrative Code Labor 1403.30. It ruled that this statute did not apply to independent contractors such as McCarthy providing services to private entities such as Weathervane, thus leaving only the common law premises liability negligence claim against Weathervane for its slippery conditions. McCarthy v. Weathervane Seafoods, No. 10-CV-395-JD, 2011 WL 4007406, at *1 (D.N.H. Sept. 8, 2011)
It matters (descriptively) what statute or regulation was violated, as McCarthy makes clear. If the work of determining breach of duty is to be taken from the jury and prescribed by statute, there ought to be normative justifications for that divestiture of jury authority, such as careful alignment with legislative purpose and scope. But should it? Does parsing the statutes in this way make determinations of negligence overly formalist and risk diminishing the substantive justice of the outcome? Put another way, should the statute that sets standards for government buildings not apply in this case involving a privately owned building simply because statute’s applicability is limited to government-owned buildings? And why should OSHA standards be rendered irrelevant because a case involves an independent contractor rather than an employee — should the level or kind of conduct required in a negligence action vary depending on whether the injured person is an employee or a contractor?”
Which of tort law’s purposes are served by adhering to the technicalities associated with these rules? What incentives do such rules create?
Effect. Remember when analyzing negligence per se to pay close attention to the applicability and effect of any statutory violation but always remember to check whether the plaintiff can succeed by reverting to common law negligence in the alternative. Depending on the jurisdiction (and possibly the activity at issue), the effect of using a statute in this way can vary. In some instances, a plaintiff may use the proven violation of a statute simply as admissible evidence for the jury to consider as it evaluates whether the defendant breached their duty of care. This is known as an “evidence of negligence” regime. In other cases, a proven statutory violation can be treated as conclusive of negligence: if the plaintiff can prove that the defendant violated a statute, that evidence will also suffice to satisfy the plaintiff’s burden on the element of breach, and the plaintiff will then need to be able to prove that that statutory violation caused the harm of which plaintiff complains. Can you see the difference in these two possible effects?
Appellant Melanne Civic sued appellees Signature Collision Centers, LLC and H.P. West End, LLC, alleging that their negligence was responsible for injuries she suffered in a fall. A jury found that Signature and H.P. West End had been negligent, but that Ms. Civic’s contributory negligence barred her from recovering. Ms. Civic argues on appeal primarily that the trial court erroneously declined to instruct the jury on the issue of per se negligence. We affirm.
Except as indicated, the following facts appear to be undisputed. In February 2013, Ms. Civic fell on a “handicap ramp” while walking out of an automobile-repair shop operated by Signature and owned by H.P. West End. Ms. Civic testified that she fell because of an unmarked vertical and horizontal gap between a landing and the ramp. Ms. Civic introduced expert testimony that the vertical component of the gap was two to three inches and that the gap was inconsistent with the requirements of the District of Columbia Building Code. According to Ms. Civic’s expert, the gap was unsafe and contrary to applicable standards of care. The defense elicited testimony that Ms. Civic had previously gone in and out of the repair shop, that she did not recall whether she was using the handrail when she fell, and that she was carrying a boot and a cell phone when she fell.
Ms. Civic asked the trial court to instruct the jury that if the jury found that Signature and H.P. West End violated D.C. Building Code § 1003.6, then the jury was required to find that Signature and H.P. West End were negligent. At the time of the incident at issue, § 1003.6 required among other things that a path of egress consist of a “continuous unobstructed path of vertical and horizontal egress travel.”
The trial court declined to give the requested instruction. The trial court did, however, give an instruction that if the jury found that Signature and H.P. West End violated § 1003.6, the jury could consider that violation as evidence of negligence. Relatedly, the trial court instructed the jury, over Ms. Civic’s objection, that if the jury found that Ms. Civic’s negligence was a proximate cause of her injuries, the jury could not find Signature and H.P. West End liable.
Ms. Civic’s principal challenge is to the jury instructions. Whether the jury *530 instructions were accurate is a question of law that we decide de novo. [c] We find no error.
“In the District of Columbia, a plaintiff in a negligence action generally cannot recover when [the plaintiff] is found contributorily negligent.” [c] That bar on recovery does not apply, however, if the plaintiff can show that the defendant’s conduct violated a statute or regulation intended to give “classes of persons likely to be careless … greater protection than that which might be afforded at common law.” [c] We have often referred to the latter principle as the doctrine of “negligence per se.” [c] A plaintiff may rely on that doctrine only if the plaintiff “is a member of the class to be protected by the statute.” [c]
To the extent that § 1003.6 is viewed as merely part of the general Building Code, we do not see any basis upon which to conclude that § 1003.6 was intended to provide a class of unusually vulnerable persons with heightened protections. [***] The trial court thus correctly declined to instruct the jury on per se negligence in the circumstances of this case.
We do wish to clarify two points. First, there is some indication that § 1003.6 may relate to fire-code provisions or might be understood as directed at providing protections for persons with disabilities. The current case does not involve a plaintiff with a disability or who was fleeing from or responding to a fire or other emergency, and we express no view about the applicability of the doctrine of per se negligence in such cases. Second, the broad language in [earlier] cases [c] should not be understood to categorically foreclose the possibility that a provision in a building or housing code could provide a predicate for an instruction as to per se negligence. To the contrary, this court has held that, in at least some circumstances, provisions of the Housing Code would provide a predicate for application of the principle of per se negligence. See Scoggins v. Jude, 419 A.2d 999, 1005-06 (D.C. 1980) (policy underlying Housing Code generally precludes landlord from relying on contributory negligence based on theory that tenants or guests should not have remained in premises or should have repaired premises themselves).
Ms. Civic’s arguments do not persuade us that the trial court in this case was required to give an instruction on per se negligence. First, Ms. Civic relies on the following language from our decision in *531 Ceco Corp. v. Coleman, 441 A.2d 940, 946 (D.C. 1982) (internal quotation marks omitted):
Considered in isolation, that language would seem to make the doctrine of per se negligence applicable to all statutes or regulations that have a public-safety purpose. As we have already explained, however, supra at 530, the analysis in and holdings of our prior and subsequent cases make clear that the doctrine is not so sweeping, at least in the context of contributory negligence. Rather, we have found statutes or regulations to be a basis for lifting the contributory-negligence bar when those statutes or regulations were directed at “protect[ing] persons from their own negligence.” [c]
Second, Ms. Civic relies heavily on our decision in Scoggins, 419 A.2d 999. Specifically, Ms. Civic reads that decision as standing for the proposition that violations of the Housing Code are generally per se negligent, thus lifting the contributory-negligence bar, unless the plaintiff engaged in “unreasonable conduct which may have added to a dangerous condition.” Id. at 1006. [***]
[W]e do not share Ms. Civic’s interpretation of Scoggins. Scoggins held that, in general, “the Housing Regulations impose only a duty of reasonable care upon owners of rental property.” 419 A.2d at 1005. We thus further held that contributory negligence is generally a defense to a claim of negligence resting on a violation of the Housing Regulations. Id. (“[I]f there is sufficient evidence tending to show a tenant (or a tenant’s guest), by act or omission, unreasonably increased the exposure he or she otherwise would have had to danger created by a landlord’s failure to comply with the Housing Regulations, the jury should be allowed to consider whether there was contributory negligence. No public policy would be frustrated.”) (citation omitted).
We identified an exception to the latter principle, however: landlords generally are not permitted to base a claim of contributory negligence on the conduct of a tenant or guest in simply using the premises or failing to themselves repair the premises, because such defense would “undermine the public policy implicit in the Housing Regulations.” Id. at 1004-05. Applying these principles, we held that the trial court properly declined to instruct the jury on the theory that the tenant and guest in the case were contributorily negligent by simply remaining in and moving about the apartment even though there was a crack in the apartment’s ceiling. Id. at 1005-06. Finally, we held that the jury ought to have been allowed to consider whether the tenant was contributorily negligent by hanging plants in the ceiling (or failing to remove the plants), which may have caused the apartment’s ceiling to collapse. Id. at 1006. On the last point, we explained that
In contrast with the policy permitting a tenant to remain in a substandard living room and to take reasonable steps to protect his or her property–for which there is no reasonable alternative–there is no public policy that would suggest *532 barring the landlord from alleging a tenant’s contributory negligence through unreasonable conduct which may have added to a dangerous condition. Id.
In sum, Scoggins is entirely consistent with our conclusion in this case that violations of the Building Code generally do not amount to per se negligence barring the defense of contributory negligence. [***]
Finally, Ms. Civic relies on a second provision – American National Standards Institute (ANSI) A117.1 –that apparently sets additional requirements for safe walkways. According to Ms. Civic, that provision was adopted as part of the District’s Building Code, and the trial court erroneously barred Ms. Civic’s expert from testifying to the jury about the provision. To the extent that Ms. Civic’s argument is directed at the idea that the jury was erroneously deprived of information that would have been relevant to whether Signature and H.P. West End were negligent, any error was harmless, because the jury in any event found that Signature and H.P. West End were negligent. See, e.g., Knight v. Georgetown Univ., 725 A.2d 472, 479 n.7 (D.C. 1999) (error harmless where court could say with fair assurance that error did not substantially sway jury’s verdict). It is not clear whether Ms. Civic is also relying on ANSI A117.1 as a basis upon which the trial court ought to have instructed the jury about per se negligence. If so, ANSI A117.1 would not have provided such a basis in the circumstances of this case, for the reasons stated above with respect to § 1003.6 of the Building Code.
For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the Superior Court is affirmed.
Note 1. What is the difference between what Civic sought in a jury instruction and what the trial court instructed? Why does it matter?
Note 2. Statutes and regulations are increasingly incorporating by reference the standards produced by standard-setting organizations, such as the American National Standards Institute (“ANSI”) mentioned in Civic. Some industry standards are considered as custom evidence even if not incorporated by reference (as seen in Trimarco v. Klein). These standards raise difficult questions for courts. For instance, should standards not incorporated be given more weight than mere custom, given the rigor of the standard-setting process? Should standards incorporated by reference be treated like statutes, even though the details are not worked through via a legislative or regulatory process? Courts have treated some privately generated standards with skepticism. See Bernard Bell, Engineering Rules: Chronicling the Development of A Third Way, YALE NOTICE & COMMENT (Oct. 2, 2019), at footnote 12 and accompanying text, reviewing Joanne Yates and Craig N. Murphy, Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting Since 1880 (John Hopkins University Press 2019) (quoting Rossell v. Volkswagen, 147 Ariz. 160, 166, 709 P.2d 517, 524 (1985), cert. denied, Volkswagen of America v. Rossell, 476 U.S. 1108 (1986))
Recent scholarship provides an intriguing account of the rise of standardization and its importance in an increasingly global market, especially given the safety, interoperability and performance issues that have driven its rise.
Given growing concerns over labor and supply chains as well as the environmental costs of manufacturing, the legal, regulatory and ethical questions involved in standardization will likely only continue to become more pressing. Despite the concerns that self-regulation can raise—the fox guarding the henhouse, and so on—there is value in private standard-setting organizations. For one thing, they are capable of being “far more nimble in adapting to technological change” and thus “regularly revise their standards in light of technological advances.” Id. at footnote 15 and accompanying text.
Note 3. In your study of defenses to negligence claims in Module 4, you will learn about defenses based on the plaintiff’s conduct. A handful of jurisdictions, including D.C., follow “contributory negligence,” which bars plaintiffs from recovery when they are at fault. Various doctrines limit what might otherwise a fairly harsh rule for plaintiffs, including negligence per se in some instances. Contributory negligence imposes deliberate constraints on plaintiffs while negligence per se attempts to protect and facilitate recovery for plaintiffs under particular circumstances, which is why it can sometimes be used to mitigate the otherwise harsh result of contributory negligence. In attempting to balance these competing policy aims, does the court get it right in Civic, in your view?
Note 4. The Civic Court distinguishes between statutes like the general building code (which protect the general public) and statutes aimed at providing “a class of unusually vulnerable persons with heightened protections.” When statutes exist to protect the vulnerable, such as small children or workers whose safety depends on others, their violation in many jurisdictions will be treated as dispositive (or “per se negligence”). For instance, in Koenig v. Patrick Construction Corp., the plaintiff was a window cleaner hired by the defendant as an independent contractor. The defendant’s employees had instructed the plaintiff to use a 20-foot wooden ladder to reach the upper windows. The ladder lacked “safety shoes” to prevent slipping when the ladder was in use as well as the necessary notches to which such safety shoes attached, which were violations of the local labor law. The ladder slipped, causing the plaintiff to fall and sustain serious injuries. A jury found for the defendant after being instructed that they must determine whether the plaintiff had properly used the ladder and evaluate the plaintiff’s fault, if any. On appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed:
Since the plaintiff’s cause of action does not rest on negligence, contributory negligence does not constitute a defense. Indeed, the very purpose of the statute was to protect plaintiff’s intestate and others in like position from the consequences of their own negligence. It would be strange, therefore, if the same negligence could defeat the operation of the statute. [c]
The safe-ladder provision of section 240 comes squarely within this doctrine. By its force, certain safeguards have been legislatively commanded for the safety of those engaging in the work described. Instead of simply defining the general standard of care required and then providing that violation of that standard evidences negligence, the legislature imposed upon employers or those directing the particular work to be done, a flat and unvarying duty.
This the language of the section makes crystal clear: the employer or one directing the work ‘shall furnish’ or cause to be furnished equipment or devices ‘which shall be so constructed, placed and operated as to give proper protection’ to the one doing the work. (Emphasis supplied.) For breach of that duty, thus absolutely imposed, the wrongdoer is rendered liable without regard to his care or lack of it.
And, what the statute declares, its reason confirms. Workmen such as the present plaintiff, who ply their livelihoods on ladders and scaffolds, are scarcely in a position to protect themselves from accident. They usually have no choice but to work with the equipment at hand, though danger looms *319 large. The legislature recognized this and to guard against the known hazards of the occupation required the employer to safeguard the workers from injury caused by faulty or inadequate equipment. If the employer could avoid this duty by pointing to the concurrent negligence of the injured worker in using the equipment, the beneficial purpose of the statute might well be frustrated and nullified. That possibility we long ago perceived and provided for, declaring that ‘this statute is one for the protection of workmen from injury, and undoubtedly is to be construed as liberally as may be for the accomplishment of the purpose for which it was thus framed’. [c] Such an interpretation manifestly rules out contributory negligence as a defense to an action predicated upon violation of the statute to the injury of one in the protected class. [cc]
A different case would be before us if the injured person were a passerby or a workman struck by a falling ladder; as to them persons outside the class for whose special benefit the statute was designed a violation might do no more than evidence negligence. That, however, is not this case. Here, to recapitulate, we have an action based upon a statute whose cardinal purpose was to protect plaintiff and others in his calling, without reference to questions of negligence, from the occurrence of just such an accident as befell him. In spite of this, the trial court left the jury free to bring in a verdict against plaintiff if it found him guilty of contributory negligence. Such instructions were in open conflict with the purpose and aim of the statute, and, since they may have improperly influenced the result, there must be a new trial.
Koenig v. Patrick Const. Corp., 298 N.Y. 313, 315–16, 317, 318-319 (1948)
Read the statutory language below and see if you can parse the evidentiary differences and categorical distinctions the legislature has created.
RCWA 5.40.050 5.40.050. Breach of duty—Evidence of negligence—per se
A breach of a duty imposed by statute, ordinance, or administrative rule shall not be considered negligence per se, but may be considered by the trier of fact as evidence of negligence; however, any breach of duty as provided by statute, ordinance, or administrative rule relating to:
Note 1. Negligence Per Se: Different Evidentiary Impact. The Washington state legislature has distinguished among the types of negligence per se available based on certain activities or items, all related to safety or public health. What is the general effect of negligence per se in Washington state? What is the effect of negligence per se with respect to the areas specially enumerated above?
Chester v. Deep Roots Alderwood, LLC, Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1 (2016) (193 Wash. App. 147)
*150 Anna Chester suffered an adverse reaction after being tattooed with ink that appears to have been contaminated with bacteria when the tattoo artist received it from the distributor. Chester brought negligence claims against the tattoo artist and the tattoo parlor, arguing that they had a duty to use sterile ink. The trial court dismissed her claims on summary judgment and Chester appeals. We affirm, because neither the regulations governing the tattoo industry nor the common law imposes a duty to use sterile ink.
Bonnie Gillson, a tattoo artist, applied a tattoo to Anna Chester at Deep Roots Alderwood, LLC, a shop specializing in tattoos and body piercing. For the black portion of the tattoo, Gillson used One brand tattoo ink. One was a popular ink that Gillson had used for about a year and a half without problem. She ordered the ink from Kingpin Tattoo Supply, a distributor from whom she ordered many tattoo supplies.
A few weeks after applying Chester’s tattoo, Gillson learned that several of her clients were experiencing adverse reactions to the black ink portions of their tattoos. An investigation by King County Public Health traced the reactions to a particular bottle of One brand black tattoo ink. The investigation indicated that the ink had likely been contaminated during manufacture. Gillson contacted every client she tattooed during the period of time she used the contaminated bottle of ink. Most clients suffered only a minor skin irritation that did not require medical treatment.
Chester, however, suffered a serious reaction to the contaminated ink. She consulted a doctor who diagnosed a bacterial infection at the tattoo site and prescribed a course of antibiotics. The infection did not respond to the prescribed treatment. Chester’s kidney function declined rapidly. In the opinion of Chester’s doctor, the bacterial infection aggravated an underlying chronic kidney disease. Chester was eventually referred to an infectious disease *151 specialist, Dr. Warren L. Dinges. Dinges successfully treated the infection. But before the infection was brought under control Chester’s kidneys had failed, requiring her to begin dialysis.
Chester brought product liability and negligence claims against Gillson and Deep Roots. [***] Gillson and Deep Roots moved for summary judgment. Chester conceded dismissal of her product liability claims, but opposed the motion as to her negligence claims. The trial court found as a matter of law that Chester’s evidence failed to establish the essential elements of negligence and granted summary judgment for Gillson and Deep Roots. Chester appeals.
[***] *152 Chester first argues that the respondents were negligent per se because they violated a statutory duty of care. Chester relies on RCW 5.40.050(3), under which the breach of tattooing regulations related to the use of sterile needles is negligence per se. She asserts that WAC 246.145.050(1), which requires that tattoo artists use “sterile instruments and aseptic techniques at all times during a procedure,” imposes a duty to use sterile ink. […]
The legislature authorized the secretary of the Department of Health to regulate the tattoo industry and instructed the secretary to adopt rules “in accordance with nationally recognized professional standards.” RCW 70.54.340. The legislature further directed the secretary to “consider the standard precautions for infection control, as recommended by the United States centers for disease control.” RCW 70.54.340. In compliance with these directives, the secretary of health adopted chapter 246–145 WAC to regulate electrology, body art, body piercing, and tattooing.
WAC 246–145–050 details 24 “universal precautions” applicable to tattoo artists and body piercers. Three subsections include sterilization requirements. Artists must use *153 “sterile instruments and aseptic techniques at all times during a procedure.” WAC 246–145–050 (1). They must use only presterilized single-use disposable tattoo needles. WAC 246–145–050 (2). … The regulation includes two provisions concerning tattoo ink. Tattoo artists must use single-use ink containers for each client to prevent contaminating the unused portion of ink. WAC 246–145–050(15). Artists may not use inks that are banned or restricted by the FDA. WAC 246–145–050(18). The next regulation, WAC 246–145–060, details the requirements for “[s]terile procedures in body art, body piercing and tattooing.” The regulation … requires artists to reuse only instruments intended for multiple use that have been cleaned and sterilized between clients. WAC 246–145–060(1)(c). The regulation gives specific requirements for sterilizing and storing reusable instruments. WAC 246–145–060(1)(c)–(g). The regulation includes no requirements for ink.
There is no regulation that, by its plain language, creates a duty to use sterile ink. The regulatory scheme as a whole indicates that the secretary carefully considered sterilization as it applies to the tattoo industry. The regulations require that some items be obtained presterilized and that others be sterilized on site, according to detailed procedures. The secretary also considered tattoo ink and issued rules concerning what ink may be used and how ink must be dispensed.
*154 Considering the detail of the regulatory scheme, the specific requirements concerning sterilization, and the attention given to tattoo ink, it is not reasonable to conclude that the secretary intended to require the use of sterile ink but couched that duty within the requirement to use sterile instruments and aseptic techniques. We conclude that the plain language of the regulation is not ambiguous and the legislative intent is clear. There is not a regulatory requirement to use sterile ink.
Chester next argues that the definition section of RCW 70.54.330 is an independent basis for finding the respondents negligent per se. RCW 70.54.330(4) defines “tattooing” as an indelible mark “introduced by insertion of nontoxic dyes or pigments into or under the subcutaneous portion of the skin.” Chester contends that this section creates a duty to use only nontoxic ink and that the respondents breached this duty by using contaminated ink. The respondents argue that the section does not apply to the negligence per se statute, RCW 5.40.050(3). We agree with the respondents.
RCW 5.40.050 establishes negligence per se for the breach of a duty created by statute or rule relating to “(3) sterilization of needles and instruments used by persons engaged in the practice of body art, body piercing, tattooing, or electrology, or other precaution against the spread of disease, as required under RCW 70.54.350.” The referenced statute, RCW 70.54.350 states, “Any person who practices electrology or tattooing shall comply with the rules adopted by the department of health under RCW 70.54.340.” The negligence per se statute thus applies to the breach of any tattooing regulation having to do with precautions against the spread of disease. The definition of tattooing in RCW 70.54.330(4) is not such a regulation.
This reading is in harmony with other statutory and regulatory provisions defining tattooing. RCW 18.300.010, which became effective at the same time as the tattoo regulations, explicitly states that its definitions apply to *155 RCW 5.40.050, the negligence per se statute. The statute defines “tattooing” as “to pierce or puncture the human skin with a needle or other instrument for the purpose of implanting an indelible mark.” RCW 18.300.010(8). The regulations also use this definition. WAC 246–145–010(25). Neither the statutory nor the regulatory definition encompassed by the negligence per se statute includes the word “nontoxic.”
[***] We conclude that Chester has not shown the existence of a statutory duty to use sterile ink and we reject her claim of negligence per se.
Chester argues in the alternative that she established the elements of common law negligence. Chester asserts that even if the respondents owed only a duty of reasonable care, they breached that duty by not using sterile ink or confirming that the ink was not contaminated. Chester does not assert that sterile ink is the industry standard. But she argues that even if sterile ink is not routinely used, the risks associated with using contaminated ink far outweigh the burden of using sterile ink. She argues that the respondents thus breached a duty of reasonable care by failing to ensure the ink they used was sterile.
Chester relies on Helling v. Carey, 83 Wash.2d 514 (1974), in which the Supreme Court *156 quoted Judge Learned Hand and followed his cost-benefit analysis. Id. at 519. In Helling, a 32–year–old patient became partially blind due to undetected glaucoma. Id. at 516. The defendant ophthalmologists presented evidence that glaucoma is uncommon in young patients and the industry standard was to administer routine glaucoma tests after the age of 40. Id. But the court held that, given the severity of glaucoma and the availability of a simple and harmless test to detect the disease, the doctors breached a duty by failing to administer the test. Id. at 519.
Chester’s argument falls short because she glosses over the burden of using sterile ink. In Helling, it was undisputed that the ophthalmologists could easily administer a simple glaucoma test. Helling, 83 Wash.2d at 519. Chester asserts that using sterile ink is similarly easy as “Gillson can simply order sterile rather than non-sterile ink….” She further argues that the respondents had not only a duty to purchase ink advertised as sterile, but also a duty to ensure that ink was in fact sterile. However, Chester has not shown that sterile ink was widely available at the time in question, that claims of sterility were reliable, or that tattoo artists had the means to test ink for contamination and sterilize it on site.
Chester presented evidence that Intenze brand tattoo ink was advertised as sterile about the time that Gillson purchased the One brand ink. She also produced the article Microbial status and Product Labelling of 58 original tattoo inks (2011) as evidence of the association between tattoo ink and bacterial infection. The article reports on a study of 58 inks for sale in the European market. Concerning those inks claiming to be sterile, the authors found that none of the claims could be verified and some were demonstrably false. The authors found that Intenze black ink, advertised as sterile, contained a high level of bacterial contamination.
The record includes a further example of an unreliable claim of sterility. At some point prior to March 2012, *157 the One brand website claimed that its ink was sterile. An inspection determined that, although the manufacturer was having the ink treated with gamma radiation, the dosage of radiation was not sufficient to support the claim of sterility.
Chester has not shown that sterile ink was readily available or that claims of sterility were reliable. She offered no evidence that tattoo artists have the means to test ink for contamination or sterilize ink received from distributors. We conclude that Helling is distinguishable. Chester has not established that the respondents’ duty of reasonable care required them to use sterile ink.
Note 1. Common-Law Negligence as Fall-Back If Negligence Per Se Fails. A common mistake is to conclude that the plaintiff’s case will fail if the doctrine cannot be applied. Recall that this doctrine operates to ease the burden on the plaintiff, and to substitute, or supplement, the jury’s factfinding with guidance from the legislature in areas existing laws prescribe the conduct that is reasonable and lawful. Merely because a defendant has not been proven to violate a statute, or has violated a statute whose violation fails the four-part applicability analysis does not foreclose the plaintiff’s ability to attempt to prove common-law negligence by the defendant. In such cases, plaintiff will attempt to prove up the defendant’s breach as they ordinarily would (through relevant witness and expert testimony, custom evidence where relevant and available, and any other evidence that shows that defendant was careless in ways that caused the plaintiff’s injuries).
Note 2. What is the significance of the court’s treatment of Helling? Why didn’t Chester use custom evidence to prove her case? Does this outcome seem normatively correct or not? Why?
Note 3. Negligence Per Se in Tension with the Reasonable Person Standard. In some respects, the use of negligence per se to determine negligence seizes the question from the jury. (Where the doctrine is used merely to provide evidence of negligence, this is less the case; it merely operates to assist the jury, rather than to usurp its decisional authority.) Courts and commentators have sometimes wondered whether the doctrine should yield to common law standards and grant greater deference to the factfinder in light of tort law’s preference for fact-sensitive adjudication in most domains. One area in which courts have acted to limit the scope of negligence per se is in its impact on the reasonable person standard with respect to children, as the next case illustrates.
Bauman v. Crawford, Supreme Court of Washington (1985) (104 Wash.2d 241) En Banc
This appeal requires us to decide whether the negligence per se doctrine should be applicable to minors, or whether minors should instead be judged only by the special child’s standard of care in a civil negligence action. We hold that a minor’s violation of a statute does not constitute proof of negligence per se, but may, in proper cases, be introduced as evidence of a minor’s negligence. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals. Bauman v. Crawford, 38 Wash. App. 301 (1984).
On April 24, 1979, at approximately 9:30 p.m., the bicycle ridden by petitioner Donald Bauman collided with the automobile driven by respondent. Petitioner was 14 years 4 months old at that time. The collision occurred after dark on a public street in Seattle. Petitioner was riding his bicycle down a steep hill; as he reached the base of the hill, respondent turned left in front of petitioner and the collision resulted. Petitioner’s bicycle was equipped with reflectors, but had no headlight. Seattle Municipal Code *243 11.44.160 and RCW 46.61.780(1) each require a headlight on a bicycle operated after dark. In the collision, petitioner suffered a broken lower leg (tibia and fibula) which required three surgeries during the 6 weeks immediately following the accident. Overall, petitioner was hospitalized 10 days, had a cast for about 2 months, and required crutches to ambulate for several weeks after cast removal.
Petitioner, through his guardian ad litem, sued respondent for damages. Respondent’s answer alleged contributory negligence by petitioner as an affirmative defense.
The trial court instructed the jury that violation of an ordinance is negligence per se. The court also instructed the jury that the standard of ordinary care for a child is the care that a reasonably careful child of the same age, intelligence, maturity, training and experience would exercise under similar circumstances. The jury rendered a verdict of $8,000 for petitioner, reduced by 95 percent for petitioner’s contributory negligence. Thus, the final verdict was $400 for petitioner.
Petitioner contends it was reversible error for the court to instruct on negligence per se because he is a minor. He further contends that it was reversible error for the court to give the negligence per se instruction in combination with the special child’s standard of care instruction because these instructions are contradictory to one another. Petitioner argued to the Court of Appeals, and now urges before this court, that negligence per se is inapplicable to minors under all circumstances. He urges that the special child’s standard of care is the proper standard to be applied to a minor, notwithstanding violation of a statute or ordinance.
The Court of Appeals, relying on Everest v. Riecken, 30 Wash.2d 683 (1948), declined to hold that the negligence per se doctrine is inapplicable to minors. In Everest, this court held that a 15-year-old bicyclist was negligent per se for riding his bicycle after dark without a light, in violation of law. There, this court declined to hold *244 that the child’s minority excused him from the operation of the negligence per se doctrine, but did so with no discussion of the policies underlying the negligence per se doctrine or the child’s standard of care. After careful reconsideration of those policies, we have determined that the policies underlying the doctrine of negligence per se clash with the policies underlying the special child’s standard of care. We therefore overturn the Everest case to the extent that it is incompatible with our holding today.
In Washington, a child under 6 years old cannot be held to be contributorially [sic] negligent. Graving v. Dorn, 63 Wash.2d 236 (1963). Conversely, a 17 or 18-year-old of normal capacity may be treated as an adult in all cases. Dingwall v. McKerricher, 75 Wash.2d 352 (1969). Accordingly, the decision in this case applies only to minors 6 to 16 years of age. Generally, contributory negligence of minors in this age group is a question for the trier of fact. Graving v. Dorn, supra.
Washington has long recognized the special standard of care applicable to children: a child’s conduct is measured by the conduct of a reasonably careful child of the same age, intelligence, maturity, training and experience. Robinson v. Lindsay, 92 Wash.2d 410, 412 (1979); Roth v. Union Depot Co., 13 Wash. 525 (1896). The rationale for the special child’s standard of care is that a child is lacking in the judgment, discretion, and experience of an adult; thus, the child’s standard of care allows for the normal incapacities and indiscretions of youth. [cc] Most significantly, the child’s standard was created because public policy dictates that it would be unfair to predicate legal fault upon a standard most children are incapable of meeting. Thus, the fact of minority is not what lowers the standard; rather, the child’s immaturity of judgment and lack of capacity to appreciate dangers justifies a special child’s standard. *245 [***]
A primary rationale for the negligence per se doctrine is that the Legislature has determined the standard of conduct expected of an ordinary, reasonable person; if one violates a statute, he is no longer a reasonably prudent person. [cc] Negligence per se exists when a statute or ordinance is violated, and that law is designed to (a) protect a class of persons which includes the person whose interest is invaded, (b) protect the particular interest which is invaded, (c) protect against the kind of harm which resulted, and (d) protect that interest against the particular hazard from which the harm results. [c]
A majority of courts in states which apply the negligence per se doctrine to adults have recognized a fundamental conflict between that doctrine and the special child’s standard of care. See Finch v. Christensen, 84 S.D. 420 (1969) (negligence per se inapplicable to 11-year-old bicyclist riding at night without a light [cc]. Scholarly commentary also overwhelmingly supports the view that negligence per se is inapplicable to children. See 37 Tex. L. Rev. 255 (1958); 26 S. Cal. L. Rev. 335 (1953); Annot., Child’s Violation of Statute or Ordinance as Affecting Question of His Negligence or Contributory Negligence, 174 A.L.R. 1170 (1948); Mertz, The Infant and Negligence Per Se in Pennsylvania, 51 Dick. L. Rev. 79 (1946); 3 Vand. L. Rev. 145 (1949).
The majority rule is based upon the policy considerations underlying each doctrine. These courts and commentators recognize that application of negligence per se to children abrogates the special standard of care for children; such *246 abrogation violates the public policy inherent in the special child’s standard. These courts and commentators also recognize that refusal to consider a child’s minority in effect substitutes a standard of strict liability for the criterion of the reasonable child.
Conversely, the minority of courts willing to impose negligence per se on children do so, for the most part, without discussion of the policy considerations underlying the two doctrines at issue here. Often, a mechanistic statutory construction is applied to foreclose any consideration of the child’s maturity level, experience, age, or intelligence. These courts reason that if the legislature did not specifically exclude children from the requirements of the statute, then all persons, including children, are required to behave in accordance with that statute. See Sagor v. Joseph Burnett Co., 122 Conn. 447 (1937) (no exception to negligence per se doctrine for children; the terms of the statute are clear and precise); D’Ambrosio v. Philadelphia, 354 Pa. 403 (1946) (the law applies equally to adults and children unless it specifically excludes children).
Similarly, the Court of Appeals in the present case was persuaded that the Washington Legislature intended that children be held negligent per se for violation of the statute involved in this case. In 1965 the Legislature repealed RCW 46.47.090 which specifically stated that no child under 16 shall be held to be negligent per se for any violation of the statute. [***] The Court of Appeals interprets this deletion from the statute as proof that the Legislature intends that negligence per se be applied whenever the statute is violated by a child. [***] The legislative history of the repealed provision is *247 unavailable, so it is impossible to ascertain the actual legislative intent. It is significant, however, that the entire motor vehicle code was being revised at the time this provision was repealed. Thus, the Legislature did not single out this statute for special treatment, but merely changed it as part of an overall revamping of the code. Furthermore, negligence per se and the child’s standard of care are both court-created doctrines. Accordingly, we presume the Legislature, by its change, intended to return to the courts the decision whether to apply negligence per se to minors under 16 years of age.
A significant number of the courts which decline to apply negligence per se to minors have determined that violation of a statute by a minor may be introduced as evidence of negligence, as long as the jury is clearly instructed that the minor’s behavior is ultimately to be judged by the special child’s standard of care. [cc]
We agree with these courts that allowing a statutory violation to be introduced simply as one factor to be considered by the trier of fact is an equitable resolution of the dilemma created by a minor’s violation of law. We therefore remand for a new trial on the issue of liability under proper instructions. At that trial the jury must be instructed as to the special child’s standard of care. The jury may then be instructed that violation of a relevant statute may be considered *248 as evidence of negligence only if the jury finds that a reasonable child of the same age, intelligence, maturity and experience as petitioner would not have acted in violation of the statute under the same circumstances.
[***] [W]e hold that our ruling today, which exempts minors from the operation of the negligence per se doctrine, shall apply prospectively. However, the rule shall also apply to any case already tried where the issue of the doctrine’s application to a minor was preserved for appeal.
BRACHTENBACH, Justice (concurring).
I concur in the rationale and result of the majority but I am convinced that in the appropriate case this court should reexamine the entire theory of negligence per se arising from the alleged violation of a statute, an ordinance or an administrative regulation. This court has long been committed to the rule that violation of a positive statute constitutes negligence per se. In Engelker v. Seattle Elec. Co., 50 Wash. 196 (1908), the court noted that some jurisdictions follow the rule that a violation of a statute is mere evidence of negligence but it adopted the doctrine “that a thing which is done in violation of positive law is in itself negligence.” Engelker, at 199. This rule has been applied to violations of statutes, ordinances and regulations, Cook v. Seidenverg, 36 Wash.2d 256 (1950) [***] The Restatement (Second) of Torts § 286 (1965) adopted the test of the relevancy of the statute to the tortious action. Where the relevancy test is met and where there exists prima facie a discernible causal connection between the violation of the statute and the injury, the jury is properly advised that the violation amounts to negligence per se and proximate cause then *250 becomes the sole issue of fact to be resolved by the trier of fact. [***]
The rule, however, has not been applied with relentless indifference to actual fault. A violation of statute has been held not to constitute negligence per se where the violation is due to some cause beyond the violator’s control, and which reasonable prudence could not have guarded against [c]; where the violation is due to an emergency [c]; where the violation is merely technical; where the violation is perpetuated out of necessity [c]; or where the violator is not given notice that his actions were in violation of the law [c].
[***] This 77-year-old doctrine has been the subject of exceptions almost since its adoption. Perhaps it is time we stopped selectively placing the negligence question within “rational judicial control” and place it, in all cases, in the rational control of the trier of fact, where it belongs.
The finding of negligence is normally a task for the trier of fact. Through the application of the negligence per se doctrine we have taken that task away from the jury and the court now decides when a violation of statute constitutes negligence. It is evident from the numerous exceptions to the doctrine that the court is not merely applying a statute to the tortious action, but determining from the total factual circumstances whether or not the statute violator *251 was negligent at all. I, therefore, advocate true rational control of the negligence doctrine through the return of the negligence question to the trier of fact in cases involving evidence of a violation of statute.
Currently, the majority of American jurisdictions follow the negligence per se doctrine and find that a breach of statutory duty is a breach of standard of care for civil negligence cases. Seven states follow the theory that a breach of a statutory duty is evidence of negligence in civil action, while five states hold that a violation of a statute is prima facie negligence which may be rebutted by competent evidence. In addition, some of the courts which follow the majority rule as to statutes have held that the breach of ordinances, or traffic laws, or the regulations of administrative bodies is only evidence for the jury. Such cases seem to indicate a desire to leave some leeway for cases where a violation may not be necessarily unreasonable. [c]
The English rule is to consider a breach of a statutory duty a tort in itself. The Canadian Supreme Court recently reviewed both the English rule and the American rules and chose to follow the American minority rule which considers the violation to be mere evidence of negligence. The Queen v. Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, 143 D.L.R.3d 9 (1983); see also Note, Negligence and Breach of Statutory Duty, 4 Oxford J. Legal Stud. 429 (1984). As indicated by the Canadian decision, criticism of the *252 negligence per se doctrine is mounting in the courts. Authors of treatises and journal articles are also increasingly critical of the doctrine and write favorably of the evidence-of-negligence doctrine. Objection is made to the court’s inferring a legislative intent to create a standard of care in civil cases where the Legislature is silent. The main criticism is that it is difficult to discover the bases on which the courts either find or refuse to find these fictional intentions. Alexander, Legislation and the Standard of Care in Negligence, 42 Can. B. Rev. 243 (1964).
The most widely accepted rationale for the negligence per se rule is that the reasonable man always obeys the criminal law, thus, a breach of the criminal law must be unreasonable and, therefore, negligent. Thayer, Public Wrong and Private Action, 27 Harv. L. Rev. 317 (1913–14). The basic flaw in this rationale and in inferring legislative intent is the fact that the criminal proscriptions may be ill conceived, hastily drawn with inadequate investigation or obsolete and, yet, the validity of the statute will not be before the court in the negligence action. The Legislature has not considered the policy problems peculiar to civil liability nor has it composed the legislation in terms of a standard of due care in damage suits or for judging negligence. Morris, The Role of Criminal Statutes in Negligence Actions, 49 Colum. L. Rev. 21, 39–43 (1949). Reliance on the Legislature for a standard of reasonableness under these circumstances would not make for the wisest decision.
A second rationale for finding legislative intent to create a standard of care in civil cases is that the Legislature recognizes that the negligence per se rule is needed to promote and fulfill reliance by others on uniform obedience to statutes. However, where the Legislature does not explicitly impose automatic liability in a civil action as a sanction, the court is encroaching on legislative territory when it adds such a sanction for the purposes of law enforcement. Further, “[n]either in fact nor in law do others have the right under all circumstances to rely on the actor’s obedience to statute.” [c]
*253 Further criticism of the negligence per se doctrine arises because of the differences between the criminal and civil systems. Lawmakers may be contented with a broad unqualified requirement in a criminal statute because they knew that enforcement officials would use their discretion to make exceptions in cases where literal compliance made no sense or worked a hardship. In a civil action on the other hand, where large damages are often at stake, the injured party cannot be expected to jeopardize his claim by forgiving noncompliance in exceptional cases, as a public prosecutor would. [c]. Additionally, civil defendants do not have the ability to avail themselves of criminal procedural defenses and protections against an inflexible application of the criminal standard.
Criticism is also made because of the imposition of liability without fault. As noted above, the Washington courts have joined in this criticism and produced multiple exceptions in order to avoid this aspect of the doctrine. This exception-finding approach produces a weakened doctrine and ultimately places the jury’s task of determining negligence with the court under all circumstances. Such an approach also leads to distorted statutory construction which affects the criminal law as well.
The defect in our prior reasoning is that the negligence per se doctrine removes the determination of negligence from the fact-finding function of the jury, or the court sitting as a fact finder. While it is a convenient method to affix liability, it runs counter to the basic notion of determining tort liability. I would prospectively limit the doctrine to an evidence of negligence standard.
Note 1. In some instances, a statutory violation may be used to establish duty; in others, it may be used as evidence of breach (or as conclusive of breach). What is the practical difference?
Note 2. Rationales Negligence Per Se. Bauman observes variations in 12 states and three countries relative to how they consider and apply negligence per se. Identify the rationales for the doctrine. Are you more persuaded by the rationales for negligence per se or by critiques of the doctrine?
Note 3. Authority Issues. The theme of Palsgraf’s fight over decisional authority on the question of negligence continues. Does it strike you as fair, efficient, or otherwise good for tort law to use negligence per se to determine breach? How about merely to offer evidence of breach? Would you distinguish its use based on the kind of statute? The category of harm? The kind of actor alleged to have breached their duty or violated the statute?
Note 4. Excuse. Bauman identifies a number of instances in which the violation of a statute may be excused. What are they?
Excused Violations Restatement (3d) on Torts § 15.
Restatement (3d) on Torts: Liability for Physical Harm (adopted 2005; published 2010)
An actor’s violation of a statute is excused and not negligence if:
Is the use of negligence per se, and rules of law that create excuses for violation, effectively making breach into a categorical inquiry, like duty? What do you think of this in terms of your understanding of the proper role for the judge and jury? The next case is a classic opinion on these issues, brought to you again by Justice Cardozo.
Martin v. Herzog, Court of Appeals of New York (1920) (228 N.Y. 164)
The action is one to recover damages for injuries resulting in death.
Plaintiff and her husband, while driving toward Tarrytown in a buggy on the night of August 21, 1915, were struck by the defendant’s automobile coming in the opposite direction. They were thrown to the ground, and the man was killed. At the point of the collision the highway makes a curve. The car was rounding the curve, when suddenly it came upon the buggy, emerging, the defendant tells us, from the gloom. Negligence is charged against the defendant, the driver of the car, in that he did not keep to the right of the center of the highway. Highway Law, § 286, subd. 3, and section 332 (Consol. Laws, c. 25). Negligence is charged against the plaintiff’s intestate, the driver of the wagon, in that he was traveling without lights. Highway Law, § 329a, as amended by Laws 1915, c. 367.
There is no evidence *167 that the defendant was moving at an excessive speed. There is none of any defect in the equipment of his car. The beam of light from his lamps pointed to the right as the wheels of his car turned along the curve toward the left; and, looking in the direction of the plaintiff’s approach, he was peering into the shadow. The case against him must stand, therefore, if at all, upon the divergence of his course from the center of the highway. The jury found him delinquent and his victim blameless. The Appellate Division reversed, and ordered a new trial.
We agree with the Appellate Division that the charge to the jury was erroneous and misleading. [***] In the body of the charge the trial judge said that the jury could consider the absence of light ‘in determining whether the plaintiff’s intestate was guilty of contributory negligence in failing to have a light upon the buggy as provided by law. I do not mean to say that the absence of light necessarily makes him negligent, but it is a fact for your consideration.’
The defendant requested a ruling that the absence of a light on the plaintiff’s vehicle was ‘prima facie evidence of contributory negligence.’ This request was refused, and the jury were again instructed that they might consider the absence of lights as some evidence of negligence, but that it was not conclusive evidence.
The plaintiff then requested a charge that ‘the fact that the plaintiff’s intestate was driving without a light is not negligence in itself,’ and to this the court acceded. The defendant saved his rights by appropriate exceptions.
*168 We think the unexcused omission of the statutory signals is more than some evidence of negligence. It is negligence in itself.
Lights are intended for the guidance and protection of other travelers on the highway. Highway Law, § 329a. By the very terms of the hypothesis, to omit, willfully or heedlessly, the safeguards prescribed by law for the benefit of another that he may be preserved in life or limb, is to fall short of the standard of diligence to which those who live in organized society are under a duty to conform. That, we think, is now the established rule in this state. [***]
A rule less rigid has been applied where the one who complains of the omission is not a member of the class for whose protection the safeguard is designed. [***] In the case at hand, we have an instance of the admitted violation of a statute intended for the protection of travelers on the highway, of whom the defendant at the time was one. Yet the jurors were instructed in effect that they were at liberty in their discretion to treat the omission of lights either as innocent or as culpable. They were allowed to ‘consider the default as lightly or gravely’ as they would (Thomas, J., in the court below). They might as well have been told that they could use a like discretion in holding a master at fault for the omission of a safety appliance prescribed by positive law for the protection of a workman. Jurors have no dispensing power, by which they may relax the duty that one traveler on the highway owes *170 under the statute to another. It is error to tell them that they have. The omission of these lights was a wrong, and, being wholly unexcused, was also a negligent wrong. No license should have been conceded to the triers of the facts to find it anything else.
We must be on our guard, however, against confusing the question of negligence with that of the causal connection between the negligence and the injury. A defendant who travels without lights is not to pay damages for his fault, unless the absence of lights is the cause of the disaster. A plaintiff who travels without them is not to forfeit the right to damages, unless the absence of lights is at least a contributing cause of the disaster. To say that conduct is negligence is not to say that it is always contributory negligence. ‘Proof of negligence in the air, so to speak, will not do.’ Pollock Torts (10th Ed.) p. 472.
We think, however, that evidence of a collision occurring more than an hour after sundown between a car and an unseen buggy, proceeding without lights, is evidence from which a causal connection may be inferred between the collision and the lack of signals. [c] If nothing else is shown to break the connection, we have a case, prima facie sufficient, of negligence contributing to the result.
There may, indeed, be times when the lights on a highway are so many and so bright that lights on a wagon are superfluous. If that is so, it is for the offender to go forward with the evidence, and prove the illumination as a kind of substituted performance. The plaintiff asserts that she did so here. She says that the scene of the accident was illumined by moonlight, by an electric lamp, and by the lights of the approaching car. Her position is that, if the defendant did not see the buggy thus illumined, a jury might reasonably infer that he would not have seen *171 it anyhow. We may doubt whether there is any evidence of illumination sufficient to sustain the jury in drawing such an inference; but the decision of the case does not make it necessary to resolve the doubt, and so we leave it open. It is certain that they were not required to find that lights on the wagon were superfluous. They might reasonably have found the contrary. They ought, therefore, to have been informed what effect they were free to give, in that event, to the violation of the statute. They should have been told, not only that the omission of the light was negligence, but that it was ‘prima facie evidence of contributory negligence’; i. e., that it was sufficient in itself unless its probative force was overcome (Thomas, J., in court below) to sustain a verdict that the decedent was at fault. [c]
Here, on the undisputed facts, lack of vision, whether excusable or not, was the cause of the disaster. The defendant may have been negligent in swerving from the center of the road; but he did not run into the buggy purposely, nor was he driving while intoxicated, nor was he going at such a reckless speed that warning would of necessity have been futile. Nothing of the kind is shown. The collision was due to his failure to see at a time when sight should have been aroused and guided by the statutory warnings. Some explanation of the effect to be given to the absence of those warnings, if the plaintiff failed to prove that other lights on the car or the highway took their place as equivalents, should have been put before the jury. The explanation was asked for and refused.
We are persuaded that the tendency of the charge, and of all the rulings, following it, was to minimize unduly, in the minds of the triers of the facts, the gravity of the decedent’s fault. Errors may not be ignored as unsubstantial, when they tend to such an outcome. A statute designed for the protection of human life is not to be brushed aside as a form of words, its commands reduced *172 to the level of cautions, and the duty to obey attenuated into an option to conform.
The order of the Appellate Division should be affirmed, and judgment absolute directed on the stipulation in favor of the defendant, with costs in all courts.
HOGAN, J. (dissenting).
Upon the trial of this action, a jury rendered a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Defendant appealed from the judgment entered thereon, and an order made denying an application to set aside the verdict and for a new trial, to the Appellate Division. The latter court reversed the judgment on the law, and granted a new trial on questions of law only; the court having examined the facts and found no error therein. The decision thus made was equivalent to a determination by the court that it had passed upon the question of the sufficiency of the evidence, and as to whether the verdict rendered by the jury was against the weight of evidence. The effect of that decision was that the order denying the motion to set aside the verdict and grant a new trial was upon the facts properly denied. Judson v. Central Vt. R. Co., 158 N. Y. 597, 602. A jury and the Appellate Division having determined that, upon the facts developed on the trial of the action, the plaintiff was entitled to recover, in view of certain statements in the prevailing opinion, and for the purpose of explanation of my dissent, I shall refer to the facts which were of necessity found in favor of plaintiff, and approved by the Appellate Division. The following facts are undisputed:
On the evening of August 21, 1915, the plaintiff, together with her husband, now deceased, were seated in an open wagon drawn by a horse. They were traveling on the highway westerly towards Tarrytown. The defendant was traveling alone on the highway in the opposite direction, viz. from Tarrytown easterly towards East View, in an automobile which weighed about 3,000 pounds, having a capacity of 70 horse power, capable of developing a speed of 75 miles an hour. Defendant was driving the car.
A collision occurred between the two vehicles on the highway, at or near a hydrant located on the northerly side of the road. Plaintiff and her husband were thrown from the wagon in which they were seated. Plaintiff was bruised and her shoulder dislocated. Her husband was seriously injured and died as a result of the accident. The plaintiff, as administratrix, brought this action to recover damages arising by reason of the death of her husband, caused, as she alleged, solely by the negligence of defendant in operating, driving, and running the automobile at a high, unlawful, excessive, and unsafe rate of speed, in failing to blow a horn or give any warning or signal of the approach of said automobile, and in operating, driving, and riding said automobile at said time and place upon his left-hand or wrongful side of said road or highway, thereby causing the death of her husband.
Defendant by his answer admitted that he was operating the automobile, put in issue the remaining allegations of the complaint, and affirmatively alleged that any injury to plaintiff’s intestate was caused by his contributory negligence. As indicated in the prevailing opinion, the manner in which the accident happened and the point in the highway where the collision occurred are important facts in this case, for as therein stated:
The evidence on behalf of plaintiff tended to establish that on the evening in question her husband was driving the horse at a jogging gait along on the right side of the highway near the grass, which was outside of the worked part of the road on the northerly side thereof; that plaintiff observed about 120 feet down the road the automobile operated by defendant approaching at a high rate of speed, two searchlights upon the same, and that the car seemed to be upon her side of the road; that the automobile ran into the wagon in which plaintiff and her husband were seated at a point on their side of the road, while they were riding along near the grass. Evidence was also presented tending to show that the rate of speed of the automobile was 18 to 20 miles an hour and the lights upon the car illuminated the entire road. The defendant was the sole witness on the part of the defense upon the subject under consideration. His version was:
*175 The manner in which and the point in the highway where the accident occurred presented a question of fact for a jury. If the testimony of defendant was accredited by the jury, plaintiff and her intestate, having observed the approaching automobile deliberately, thoughtlessly, or with an intention to avoid the same, left their side of the road at a moment when an automobile was rapidly approaching with lights illuminating the road, to cross over to the side of the highway where the automobile should be, and as claimed by defendant was traveling, and thereby collided with the same, or, on the contrary, defendant was driving upon his left side of the road and caused the collision.
The trial justice charged the jury fully as to the claims of the parties, and also charged that the plaintiff in her complaint specifically alleged the acts constituting negligence on the part of defendant (amongst which was that he was driving on the wrong side of the road, thereby causing the death of her husband, the alleged absence of signals having been eliminated from the case), and in order to recover the plaintiff must show that the accident happened in the way and in the manner she has alleged in her complaint.
‘It is for you to determine whether the defendant was driving on the wrong side of the road at the time he collided with the buggy; whether his lights did light up the road, and the whole road, ahead of him to the extent that the buggy was visible, and so, if he negligently approached the buggy in which plaintiff and her husband were driving at the time. If you find, from the evidence here, he was driving on the wrong side of the road, and that for this reason he collided with the buggy, which was proceeding on the proper side, or if you find that as he approached the buggy the road was so well lighted up that he saw or should have seen the buggy, and yet collided with it, then you may say, if you so find, that the defendant was careless and negligent.’
No exception was taken by the defendant to that charge, but at the *176 close of the charge counsel for defendant made certain requests to charge upon the subject as follows:
Each one of the several requests was charged, and in addition the trial justice charged that if the deceased, Mr. Martin, collided with the automobile while the wagon was on the wrong side of the road, the verdict must be for defendant. The principal issue of fact was not only presented to the jury in the original charge made by the trial justice, but emphasized and concurred in by counsel for defendant. The prevailing opinion, in referring to the accident and the highway at the point where the accident occurred, describes the same in the following language:
Such in substance was the testimony of the defendant, but his version was rejected by the jurors and the Appellate Division, and the evidence in the record is ample to sustain a contrary conclusion. As to the statement that the car was rounding ‘a curve, ‘*177 two maps made by engineers from actual measurements and surveys for defendant were put in evidence by counsel for plaintiff. Certain photographs, made for the purposes of the trial, were also before the jury. I think we may assume that the jurors gave credence to the maps and actual measurements, rather than to the photographs, and failed to discover therefrom a curve of any importance, or which would interfere with an unobstructed view of the road. As to the ‘buggy emerging, the defendant tells us, from the gloom,’ evidence was adduced by plaintiff tending to show that the searchlights on defendant’s car lighted up the entire roadway to the extent that the vehicle in which plaintiff and her husband were riding was visible; that the evening was not dark, though it appeared as though a rainfall might be expected. Some witnesses testified it was moonlight. The doctor called from Tarrytown, who arrived within 20 minutes after the collision, testified that the electric lights all along the highway were burning as he passed over the road. The width of the worked part of the highway at the point of the accident was 27 1/2 feet. About 25 feet westerly on the southerly side was located an electric light, which was burning. A line drawn across the highway from that light to the point of the accident would be about 42 feet.
One witness called by plaintiff lived in a house directly across the highway from the point of the accident. Seated in a front room, it was sufficiently light for her to see plaintiff’s intestate when he was driving along the road at a point near a telegraph pole, which is shown on the map some 90 or 100 feet easterly of the point of the accident, when she observed him turn his horse into the right towards the fence. Soon thereafter she heard the crash of the collision, and immediately went across the highway and found Mr. Martin in a sitting position on the grass. A witness called by the *178 defendant testified that she was on the stoop of her house, which is across the highway from the point of the accident and about 40 feet distant from said point, and while seated there she could see the body of Mr. Martin. While she testified the evening was dark, the lights on the highway were sufficient to enable her to see the body of Mr. Martin lying upon the grass 40 feet distant. The defendant upon cross-examination was confronted with his testimony given before the coroner, where he testified that the road was ‘fairly light.’
The facts narrated were passed upon by the jury under a proper charge relating to the same, and were sustained by the Appellate Division. The conclusions deducible therefrom are: (a) Defendant was driving his car upon the wrong side of the road. (b) Plaintiff and her intestate were driving a horse attached to the wagon in which they were seated upon the extreme right side of the road. (c) The highway was well lighted. The evening was not dark. (d) Defendant collided with the vehicle in which plaintiff and her husband were riding and caused the accident.
I must here note the fact that concededly there was no light upon the wagon in which plaintiff and her husband were riding, in order that I may express my views upon additional phrases in the prevailing opinion Therein it is stated:
I am in accord with that statement, but I dissent from the suggestion we may doubt whether there is any evidence of illumination sufficient to sustain the jury in drawing the inference that, if defendant did not see the buggy thus illumined, it might reasonably infer that he would not have seen it anyway. Further the opinion states:
As to the rate of speed of the automobile, the evidence adduced by plaintiff’s witnesses was from 18 to 20 miles an hour, as ‘very fast’; further that after the collision the car proceeded 100 feet before it was stopped. The defendant testified that he was driving about 12 miles an hour, that at such rate of speed he thought the car should be stopped in 5 or 6 feet, and though he put on the foot brake, he ran 20 feet before he stopped. The jury had the right to find that a car traveling at the rate of 12 miles an hour, which could be stopped within 5 or 6 feet, and with the foot brake on, was not halted within 100 feet, must at the time of the collision have been running ‘very fast,’ or at a reckless rate of speed, and therefore warning would of necessity be futile. No claim was made that defendant was intoxicated, or that he purposely ran into the buggy. Nor was proof of such facts essential to plaintiff’s right to recover. This case does not differ from many others, wherein the failure to exercise reasonable care to observe a condition is disclosed by evidence and properly held a question of fact for a jury. In the earlier part of the prevailing opinion, as I have pointed out, the statement was:
It would appear that ‘lack of vision, whether excusable or not, was the cause of the disaster,’ had been adopted in lieu of divergence from the center of the highway. I have therefore discussed divergence from the center of the road.
[***] My examination of the record leads me to the conclusion that lack of vision was not, on the undisputed facts, the sole cause of the disaster. Had the defendant been upon his right side of the road, upon the plaintiff’s theory he might have been driving recklessly, *180 and, the plaintiff and her intestate being near to the grass on the northerly side of a roadway 27 feet and upwards in width, the accident would not have happened, and the presence of or lack of vision would not be material. If, however, as found by the jury, defendant was wrongfully on plaintiff’s side of the road and caused the accident, the question of whether or not, under the facts, in the exercise of reasonable care, he might have discovered his error and the presence of plaintiff, and thereupon avoid the collision, was for the jury. The question was presented whether or not, as defendant approached the wagon, the roadway was so well lighted up that defendant saw, or in the exercise of reasonable care could have seen, the wagon in time to avoid colliding with the same, and upon that proposition the conclusion of the jury was adverse to defendant, thereby establishing that the lights of the car on the highway were equivalent to any light which, if placed upon the wagon of plaintiff, would have aroused the attention of defendant, and that no causal connection existed between the collision and absence of a light on the wagon.
At the close of the charge to the jury the trial justice was requested by counsel for defendant to charge:
The justice declined to charge in the language stated, but did charge that the jury might consider it on the question of negligence, but it was not in itself conclusive evidence of negligence. For the refusal to instruct the jury as requested, the judgment of the Trial Term was reversed by the Appellate Division.
The request to charge was a mere abstract proposition. Even assuming that such was the law, it would not bar a recovery by plaintiff, unless such contributory negligence was the proximate and not a remote contributory cause of the injury. [***] The *181 request to charge excluded that important requisite. The trial justice charged the jury that the burden rested upon plaintiff to establish by the greater weight of evidence that plaintiff’s intestate’s death was caused by the negligence of the defendant and that such negligence was the proximate cause of his death; that by ‘proximate cause,’ is meant that cause without which the injury would not have happened, otherwise she could not recover in the action. In the course of his charge the justice enlarged on the subject of contributory negligence, and in connection therewith read to the jury the provisions of the highway law, and then charged that the jury should consider the absence of a light upon the wagon in which plaintiff and her intestate were riding and whether the absence of a light on the wagon contributed to the accident.
At the request of counsel for defendant, the justice charged that, if the jury should find any negligence on the part of Mr. Martin, no matter how slight, contributed to the accident, the verdict must be for the defendant. I cannot concur that we may infer that the absence of a light on the front of the wagon was not only the cause, but the proximate cause, of the accident. Upon the evidence adduced upon the trial and the credence attached to the same, the fact has been determined that the accident would have been avoided, had the defendant been upon his side of the road, or attentive to where he was driving along a public highway, or had he been driving slowly, used his sense of sight, and observed plaintiff and her intestate as he approached them; they being visible at the time.
The defendant’s request to charge, which was granted, ‘that plaintiff must stand or fall on her claim as made, and, if the jury do not find that the accident happened as substantially claimed by her and her witnesses, that the verdict of the jury must be for the defendant,’ presented the question quite succinctly. The jury found that the accident happened as claimed by the plaintiff and her witnesses, and we cannot surmise or *182 infer that the accident would not have happened, had a light been located on the wagon. [***]
It would not be profitable to refer to and analyze the numerous decisions of this court upon the effect of a violation of an ordinance or a statute. A large number of cases were cited in the opinions in the Amberg Case. That case was decided upon the principle that, where a duty is imposed by statute and a violation of the duty causes an injury, such violation is evidence of negligence as matter of law. [***] The charge requested and denied in this case was in effect that a failure to have a light upon the intestate’s wagon was as matter of law such negligence on his part as to defeat the cause of action, irrespective of whether or not such negligence was the proximate cause of the injury. My conclusion is that we are substituting form and phrases for substance, and diverging from the rule of causal connection.
Note 1. What differences stood out to you in the two descriptions of fact represented in the majority and dissenting opinions? Which strikes you as more careful? Which seems more persuasive?
Note 2. What is the legal significance of the plaintiff’s allegation that “the scene of the accident was illumined by moonlight, by an electric lamp, and by the lights of the approaching car”?
Note 3. What precisely was the error in the instruction to the jury, according to the majority opinion?
Res Ipsa Loquitur. This phrase is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.” Its use traces to a 19th-century British case, Byrne v. Boadle, where it may have been intended to do no more than provide fancy Latin dicta suggestive of the court’s rationale. (There are also theories that it intentionally sought to expand liability and codify a series of earlier rulings; it is not entirely clear). Whatever the intended purpose of the phrase, it has since evolved into something besides a mere placeholder or explanation. Some courts treat it as a substantive doctrine and others as a rule of evidence (whose precise effect varies by jurisdiction). In this course, we will treat it as a rule of evidence with important substantive implications. In brief, when evidence regarding the defendant’s breach of due care is unavailable, mysterious, or inaccessible to plaintiff but not defendant, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (“RIL”) may be deemed applicable by a judge (and then sent to be applied by the jury, in most cases). The effect and operation of the doctrine vary, but in all cases, its purpose is to help the plaintiff when their case is otherwise fatally flawed on the question of what happened, or how their injuries came to about as a function of the defendant’s negligence. Because RIL is being used to help the plaintiff’s case in some way, the question of its application is held to fairly strict standards; not every mysterious accident applies. The next case is commonly credited with being the source of the doctrine.
Byrne v. Boadle Court of Exchequer (1863) (2 H. & C. 722, 159 Eng.Rep. 299)
[Action for negligence. The plaintiff’s evidence was that he was walking in a public street past the defendant’s shop, and that a barrel of flour fell upon him from a window above the shop, knocked him down, and seriously injured him. There was no other evidence. The Assessor was of the opinion that there was no evidence of negligence for the jury, and nonsuited the plaintiff, reserving leave to him to move the Court of Exchequer to enter the verdict for him for £50 damages. Plaintiff obtained a rule nisi.]
Charles Russell [attorney for defendant] now shewed cause.
First, there was no evidence to connect the defendant or his servants with the occurrence. It is consistent with the evidence that the purchaser of the flour was superintending the lowering of it by his servant, or it may be that a stranger was engaged to do it without the knowledge or authority of the defendant. [Pollock, C.B. The presumption is that the defendant’s servants were engaged in removing the defendant’s flour; if they were not it was competent to the defendant to prove it.]
Secondly, assuming the facts to be brought home to the defendant or his servants, these facts do not disclose any evidence for the jury of negligence. The plaintiff was bound to give affirmative proof of negligence. But there was not a scintilla of evidence, unless the occurrence is of itself evidence of negligence. There was not even evidence that the barrel was being lowered by a jigger-hoist as alleged in the declaration. [Pollock, C.B. There are certain cases of which it may be said res ipsa loquitur, and this seems one of them. In some cases the Courts have held that the mere fact of the accident having occurred is evidence of negligence, as, for instance, in the case of railway collisions.]
POLLOCK, C.B. We are all of opinion that the rule must be absolute to enter the verdict for the plaintiff. The learned counsel was quite right in saying that there are many accidents from which no presumption of negligence can arise, but I think it would be wrong to lay down as a rule that in no case can a presumption of negligence arise from the fact of an accident. Suppose in this case the barrel had rolled out of the warehouse and fallen on the plaintiff, how could he possibly ascertain from what cause it occurred? It is the duty of persons who keep barrels in a warehouse to take care that they do not roll out, and I think that such a case would, beyond all doubt, afford prima facie evidence of negligence. A barrel could not roll out of a warehouse without some negligence, and to say that a plaintiff who is injured by it must call witnesses from the warehouse to prove negligence seems to me preposterous. * * * The present case upon the evidence comes to this, a man is passing in front of the premises of a dealer in flour, and there falls down upon him a barrel of flour. I think it apparent that the barrel was in the custody of the defendant who occupied the premises, and who is responsible for the acts of his servants who had the control of it; and in my opinion the fact of its falling is prima facie evidence of negligence, and the plaintiff who was injured by it is not bound to show that it could not fall without negligence, but if there are any facts inconsistent with negligence it is for the defendant to prove them.
Note 1. Why did the plaintiff need help in this case? Why not allow the plaintiff’s case to fail? What policy considerations drive the doctrine, in your view?
Note 2. One common fact pattern in RIL cases is objects falling from the sky onto plaintiffs’ heads. And yes, it’s tort law: there are indeed whole classes of fact patterns like this. In fact, a non-trivial number of them seem to involve chairs being flung out of hotel windows. (See Larson v. St. Francis Hotel, 83 Cal.App.2d 210 (1948) (res ipsa loquitur not applicable in action against hotel for injuries suffered by pedestrian when she was struck by a “heavy, overstuffed armchair” thrown from a window to the sidewalk; hotel lacked exclusive control of its furniture and the accident was not one that would ordinarily not happen without negligence). The case is often taught along with the historical background: “The accident out of which this action arose was apparently the result of the effervescence and ebullition of San Franciscans in their exuberance of joy on V-J Day, August 14, 1945.” These end-of-war celebrations might have played a role in the court’s determination since it might have been impossible to control the partying that ensued. “Although there were a number of persons in the immediate vicinity, no one appears to have seen from whence the chair came nor to have seen it before it was within a few feet of plaintiff’s head, nor was there any identification of the chair as belonging to the hotel. However, it is a reasonable inference that the chair came from some portion of the hotel.” Larson, at 513 (1948). More recently, see https://news.yahoo.com/woman-sues-76ers-owners-property-000841467.html?guccounter=1Woman Sues 76ers Owner’s Property Company
Ybarra v. Spangard, Supreme Court of California (1944) (25 Cal.2d 486)
On October 28, 1939, plaintiff consulted defendant Dr. Tilley, who diagnosed his ailment as appendicitis, and made arrangements for an appendectomy to be performed by defendant Dr. Spangard at a hospital owned and managed by defendant Dr. Swift. Plaintiff entered the hospital, was given a hypodermic injection, slept, and later was awakened by Doctors Tilley and Spangard and wheeled into the operating room by a nurse whom he believed to be defendant Gisler, an employee of Dr. Swift. Defendant Dr. Reser, the anesthetist, also an employee of Dr. Swift, adjusted plaintiff for *488 the operation, pulling his body to the head of the operating table and, according to plaintiff’s testimony, laying him back against two hard objects at the top of his shoulders, about an inch below his neck. Dr. Reser then administered the anesthetic and plaintiff lost consciousness. When he awoke early the following morning he was in his hospital room attended by defendant Thompson, the special nurse, and another nurse who was not made a defendant.
Plaintiff testified that prior to the operation he had never had any pain in, or injury to, his right arm or shoulder, but that when he awakened he felt a sharp pain about half way between the neck and the point of the right shoulder. He complained to the nurse, and then to Dr. Tilley, who gave him diathermy treatments while he remained in the hospital. The pain did not cease, but spread down to the lower part of his arm, and after his release from the hospital the condition grew worse. He was unable to rotate or lift his arm, and developed paralysis and atrophy of the muscles around the shoulder. He received further treatments from Dr. Tilley until March, 1940, and then returned to work, wearing his arm in a splint on the advice of Dr. Spangard.
Plaintiff also consulted Dr. Wilfred Sterling Clark, who had X-ray pictures taken which showed an area of diminished sensation below the shoulder and atrophy and wasting away of the muscles around the shoulder. In the opinion of Dr. Clark, plaintiff’s condition was due to trauma or injury by pressure or strain, applied between his right shoulder and neck.
Plaintiff was also examined by Dr. Fernando Garduno, who expressed the opinion that plaintiff’s injury was a paralysis of traumatic origin, not arising from pathological causes, and not systemic, and that the injury resulted in atrophy, loss of use and restriction of motion of the right arm and shoulder.
Plaintiff’s theory is that the foregoing evidence presents a proper case for the application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, and that the inference of negligence arising therefrom makes the granting of a nonsuit improper. Defendants’ [***] main defense may be briefly stated in two propositions: (1) that where there are several defendants, and there is a division of responsibility in the use of an instrumentality causing the injury, and the injury might have resulted from the separate act of either one of two or more persons, the rule of res ipsa loquitur cannot be invoked against any one of them; and (2) that where there are several instrumentalities, and no showing is made as to which caused the injury or as to the particular defendant in control of it, the doctrine cannot apply. We are satisfied, however, that these objections are not well taken in the circumstances of this case.
The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur has three conditions: “(1) the accident must be of a kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence; (2) it must be caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant; (3) it must not have been due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff.” [c] is applied in a wide variety of situations, including cases of medical or dental treatment and hospital care. [cc]
There is, however, some uncertainty as to the extent to which res ipsa loquitur may be invoked in cases of injury from medical treatment. This is in part due to the tendency, in some decisions, to lay undue emphasis on the limitations of the doctrine, and to give too little attention to its basic underlying purpose. The result has been that a simple, understandable rule of circumstantial evidence, with a sound background of common sense and human experience, has occasionally been transformed into a rigid legal formula, which *490 arbitrarily precludes its application in many cases where it is most important that it should be applied. If the doctrine is to continue to serve a useful purpose, we should not forget that “the particular force and justice of the rule, regarded as a presumption throwing upon the party charged the duty of producing evidence, consists in the circumstance that the chief evidence of the true cause, whether culpable or innocent, is practically accessible to him but inaccessible to the injured person.” [cc] Maki v. Murray Hospital, 91 Mont. 251 [7 P.2d 228, 231].) In the last-named case, where an unconscious patient in a hospital received injuries from a fall, the court declared that without the doctrine the maxim that for every wrong there is a remedy would be rendered nugatory, “by denying one, patently entitled to damages, satisfaction merely because he is ignorant of facts peculiarly within the knowledge of the party who should, in all justice, pay them.”
The present case is of a type which comes within the reason and spirit of the doctrine more fully perhaps than any other. The passenger sitting awake in a railroad car at the time of a collision, the pedestrian walking along the street and struck by a falling object or the debris of an explosion, are surely not more entitled to an explanation than the unconscious patient on the operating table.
Viewed from this aspect, it is difficult to see how the doctrine can, with any justification, be so restricted in its statement as to become inapplicable to a patient who submits himself to the care and custody of doctors and nurses, is rendered unconscious, and receives some injury from instrumentalities used in his treatment. Without the aid of the doctrine a patient who received permanent injuries of a serious character, obviously the result of someone’s negligence, would be entirely unable to recover unless the doctors and nurses in attendance voluntarily chose to disclose the identity of the negligent person and the facts establishing liability. [c] If this were the state of the law of negligence, the courts, to avoid gross injustice, would be forced to invoke the principles of absolute liability, irrespective of negligence, in actions by persons suffering injuries *491 during the course of treatment under anesthesia. But we think this juncture has not yet been reached, and that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is properly applicable to the case before us.
The condition that the injury must not have been due to the plaintiff’s voluntary action is of course fully satisfied under the evidence produced herein; and the same is true of the condition that the accident must be one which ordinarily does not occur unless someone was negligent. We have here no problem of negligence in treatment, but of distinct injury to a healthy part of the body not the subject of treatment, nor within the area covered by the operation. The decisions in this state make it clear that such circumstances raise the inference of negligence, and call upon the defendant to explain the unusual result.[c]
The argument of defendants is simply that plaintiff has not shown an injury caused by an instrumentality under a defendant’s control, because he has not shown which of the several instrumentalities that he came in contact with while in the hospital caused the injury; and he has not shown that any one defendant or his servants had exclusive control over any particular instrumentality. Defendants assert that some of them were not the employees of other defendants, that some did not stand in any permanent relationship from which liability in tort would follow, and that in view of the nature of the injury, the number of defendants and the different functions performed by each, they could not all be liable for the wrong, if any.
We have no doubt that in a modern hospital a patient is quite likely to come under the care of a number of persons in different types of contractual and other relationships with each other. For example, in the present case it appears that Doctors Smith, Spangard and Tilley were physicians or surgeons commonly placed in the legal category of independent contractors; and Dr. Reser, the anesthetist, and defendant Thompson, the special nurse, were employees of Dr. Swift and not of the other doctors. But we do not believe that either the number or relationship of the defendants alone determines whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies. Every defendant in whose custody the plaintiff was placed for any period was bound to exercise ordinary care to see that no unnecessary harm came to him and each would be liable for *492 failure in this regard. Any defendant who negligently injured him, and any defendant charged with his care who so neglected him as to allow injury to occur, would be liable. The defendant employers would be liable for the neglect of their employees; and the doctor in charge of the operation would be liable for the negligence of those who became his temporary servants for the purpose of assisting in the operation.
In this connection, it should be noted that while the assisting physicians and nurses may be employed by the hospital, or engaged by the patient, they normally become the temporary servants or agents of the surgeon in charge while the operation is in progress, and liability may be imposed upon him for their negligent acts under the doctrine of respondeat superior. Thus a surgeon has been held liable for the negligence of an assisting nurse who leaves a sponge or other object inside a patient, and the fact that the duty of seeing that such mistakes do not occur is delegated to others does not absolve the doctor from responsibility for their negligence. [cc]
It may appear at the trial that, consistent with the principles outlined above, one or more defendants will be found liable and others absolved, but this should not preclude the application of the rule of res ipsa loquitur. The control, at one time or another, of one or more of the various agencies or instrumentalities which might have harmed the plaintiff was in the hands of every defendant or of his employees or temporary servants. This, we think, places upon them the burden of initial explanation. Plaintiff was rendered unconscious for the purpose of undergoing surgical treatment by the defendants; it is manifestly unreasonable for them to insist that he identify any one of them as the person who did the alleged negligent act.
The other aspect of the case which defendants so strongly emphasize is that plaintiff has not identified the instrumentality any more than he has the particular guilty defendant. Here, again, there is a misconception which, if carried to the extreme for which defendants contend, would unreasonably limit the application of the res ipsa loquitur rule. It should be enough that the plaintiff can show an injury resulting *493 from an external force applied while he lay unconscious in the hospital; this is as clear a case of identification of the instrumentality as the plaintiff may ever be able to make.
An examination of the recent cases, particularly in this state, discloses that the test of actual exclusive control of an instrumentality has not been strictly followed, but exceptions have been recognized where the purpose of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur would otherwise be defeated. Thus, the test has become one of right of control rather than actual control. See Metx v. Southern Pac. Co., 51 Cal.App.2d 260, 268). In the bursting bottle cases where the bottler has delivered the instrumentality to a retailer and thus has given up actual control, he will nevertheless be subject to the doctrine where it is shown that no change in the condition of the bottle occurred after it left the bottler’s possession, and it can accordingly be said that he was in constructive control. (Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Co., 24 Cal.2d 453). Moreover, this court departed from the single instrumentality theory in the colliding vehicle cases, where two defendants were involved, each in control of a separate vehicle. [cc] Finally, it has been suggested that the hospital cases may properly be considered exceptional, and that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur “should apply with equal force in cases wherein medical and nursing staffs take the place of machinery and may, through carelessness or lack of skill, inflict, or permit the infliction of, injury upon a patient who is thereafter in no position to say how he received his injuries.” (Maki v. Murray Hospital, 91 Mont. 251; see, also, Whetstine v. Moravec, 228 Iowa 352, where the court refers to the “instrumentalities” as including “the unconscious body of the plaintiff.”)
In the face of these examples of liberalization of the tests for res ipsa loquitur, there can be no justification for the rejection of the doctrine in the instant case. As pointed out above, if we accept the contention of defendants herein, there will rarely be any compensation for patients injured while unconscious. A hospital today conducts a highly integrated system of activities, with many persons contributing their efforts. There may be, e.g., preparation for surgery by nurses *494 and internes who are employees of the hospital; administering of an anesthetic by a doctor who may be an employee of the hospital, an employee of the operating surgeon, or an independent contractor; performance of an operation by a surgeon and assistants who may be his employees, employees of the hospital, or independent contractors; and post surgical care by the surgeon, a hospital physician, and nurses. The number of those in whose care the patient is placed is not a good reason for denying him all reasonable opportunity to recover for negligent harm. It is rather a good reason for re-examination of the statement of legal theories which supposedly compel such a shocking result.
We do not at this time undertake to state the extent to which the reasoning of this case may be applied to other situations in which the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is invoked. We merely hold that where a plaintiff receives unusual injuries while unconscious and in the course of medical treatment, all those defendants who had any control over his body or the instrumentalities which might have caused the injuries may properly be called upon to meet the inference of negligence by giving an explanation of their conduct.
The judgment is reversed.
Note 1. The court expresses concern that “a patient who received permanent injuries of a serious character, obviously the result of someone’s negligence, would be entirely unable to recover unless the doctors and nurses in attendance voluntarily chose to disclose the identity of the negligent person and the facts establishing liability”? If parties can be compelled to testify under oath at trial, why would the court be worried?
Note 2. How far should the rule of Ybarra v. Spangard extend, in your view? Does it seem equally fair to apply it in different kinds of contexts or does it gain greater legitimacy in the context of medical care?
Note 3. How important is the “instrumentality” to the operation of RIL? If it is unknown, can RIL be deployed nonetheless? If it is known, is RIL truly necessary?
Note 4. What is the significance of the court’s reference to the operations of a “modern hospital”?