Court of Appeals reminds litigants: If there’s no duty, there’s no lawsuit
What do a haunted house, hidden explosives, and an overweight package all have in common? These are the unusual fact patterns of a trio of recent cases from the end of 2015 that are all simply twists on the same story – if there’s no duty, there’s no lawsuit.
In Scott Griffin v. The Haunted Hotel, Inc., the plaintiff became frightened by an actor in a haunted house event and fell when he attempted to run away; in Mario Garcia, et al. v. Michele Holt, et al., the plaintiff landscaper was injured when he stepped on hidden explosives in a rental unit’s yard; and in Stephen Moore v. William Jessup University, the plaintiff UPS driver was injured when he lifted a box that inaccurately listed the weight.
So what is duty and how does it tie all of these lawsuits together? Put simply, duty is a legal obligation to do (or not do) something for another person or entity. Some duties can be complex, like an insurance company’s duty to protect its insured, while others are much more straightforward, like a driver’s duty not to drive while intoxicated.
The distinction of “legal obligation” is an important one, as ethical obligations and legal obligations are two very different things. For example, if you saw a lost child crying for her parents, it could be easily argued that you have an ethical obligation to help; however, if you simply walked by, the lost child’s parents couldn’t sue you for failure to help – even though you may have an ethical obligation as a human being to help, you do not have a legal obligation to do so. It is this difference between a thing that a person could or ought to do and a thing that a person must do in all situations that generally represents the difference between a valid personal injury lawsuit and not.
Too often, plaintiffs focus solely on their injuries and lose sight of this distinction between the way they wish they were treated and the way they are legally entitled to be treated, leading to lawsuits that never should have been brought in the first place. This is precisely what happened in the trio of cases above, where the respective courts found that there is no general duty to protect a person who visits a haunted house from being scared, no general duty for a landlord to inspect his tenant’s property for homemade and buried explosives, and no general duty to protect a delivery driver from a box that is heavier than the label states.
You may be saying – but wait, doesn’t it depend on the circumstances? What if an actor at a haunted house grabs an unwilling customer in an attempt to scare him and injures him in the process? Or what if a landlord has good reason to suspect that there were explosives being made at her property but refuses to inspect or warn about the danger? You’re absolutely correct to ask this question and the answer is yes, these could be valid lawsuits. The key phrase here, though, is “general” duty – that is, a legal obligation that is imposed in all circumstances. In other words, although there are certainly cases where a haunted house would have a duty to protect its customers or where a landlord has a duty to inspect his property, it is not the case that such a duty always exists.
The question that potential litigants must be sure ask, then, is whether it would be reasonable to always impose a duty of care under the circumstances of their case. If not, then they were likely owed no legal duty and the chances of a successful lawsuit are slim. By taking a moment to objectively ask this question of themselves – or to consult with an attorney who can objectively answer it – many plaintiffs could save themselves the large investment of time, money, and emotions that come from bringing an unmeritorious lawsuit only to have it dismissed long before trial.
TLDR: If there’s no duty, there’s no lawsuit.
If you’re involved in a lawsuit or risk management and have any questions regarding current or potential legal issues, we would urge you to contact an attorney as soon as possible to obtain advice, guidance and representation. At Baker, Keener & Nahra, we have the experience, skill, and drive to get the best possible results for our clients, no matter the size of the case or the scope of the problem. So if we can be of any assistance to you, please contact us and let us know how we can help.