One of the key elements in proving a negligence claim in Alabama is establishing whether the offending party had a duty to the plaintiff.What that means it that the law recognizes that due to the establishment of a relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff, the defendant was obligated to act in a certain manner toward the plaintiff. It could be a duty to protect. It could be a duty to care. It could be a duty to control or a duty to rescue.
If the court finds that such a duty exists, then the plaintiff can pursue the issue of whether that duty was breached.
However, establishing that duty is not always easy, as recently highlighted in the case of Bell v. Dawson, reviewed by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Although this is an out-of-state case, many of the same legal elements apply.
The facts of the case start out as so many other Montgomery injury cases do: With the injury of a minor child. Here, the minor was 13-years-old and was seriously injured while skating out of a driveway belonging to the defendant. The youth was subsequently struck in the roadway by a moving vehicle.
The boy’s mother brought a negligence claim on his behalf against the defendants, alleging they had provided negligent supervision and also that they had negligently created an inherent danger on their property by failing to adequately trim the vegetation, which created a visual obstruction for both those coming out of the driveway and those passing by it.
The superior court granted a summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding that the plaintiff in this case failed to establish that the defendants had any duty of care to her son. The court found that the defendants owed no duty of care to the youth because they were not in a custodial relationship with the boy at the time of the accident. The court also dismissed the claim of overgrown vegetation because there was no indication in the accident reports that this had played any role in the incident.
The defendants’ home in this case was a popular hang-out spot for young teens in the neighborhood. They would go there to smoke cigarettes and sometimes drink alcohol, despite being underage. The evening before the incident, the defendants agreed to allow the 13-year-old and several other boys to stay at their house, even though they weren’t in a position to supervise. The youth called his mother, told her he was staying at a friend’s home, when in fact he was staying with the defendants. The female half even phoned the boy’s mother, pretending to be the other child’s mother, so that he would be allowed to stay.
The defendants went to bed later that night, and the 13-year-old left the house around 1 a.m. He did not return until about 4 a.m. He then returned to his home around 7 a.m., stayed for about 20 minutes, talked with his parents and then left again on his skateboard, saying he was going to find his friend.
At some point thereafter, he returned to the home belonging to the defendants. He then road his skateboard out of their driveway, at which point he was struck by a vehicle and sustained serious injuries.
While there is no question that the defendants’ actions the night before were irresponsible, the court found that because the boy had left the property prior to the incident and returned home, they were not technically in a supervisory relationship with him at the time of the crash. Had the incident happened before the boy returned home, this likely would have been a very different case, as the duty of care could have been established via the defendants’ agreement to allow the minor child to stay at their home for the night.
However, the court found that the defendants’ duty of care ended when he left their property and returned to his home that morning.
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