Court Holds That Failure to Follow Statutory Duty Does Not Create Strict Liability

Duties in a negligence case can arise from a variety of circumstances. A landlord may have a duty to protect a tenant or the general public from known dangerous conditions. A medical professional may have a duty to treat patients with a professional degree of care. Duties can also arise when a statute requires certain individuals to act in a certain manner or fulfill certain obligations. A recent case before the Kentucky Supreme Court looks at whether a failure to comply with a statutory duty results in strict liability. It may be interesting to Tennessee motorcycle accident victims as well.

In this accident case, L.M. was driving his motorcycle in Louisville shortly after a large windstorm when he ran into a tree that had not been cleared from the road. L.M. suffered serious injuries from the accident. L.M. sued the Louisville Gas and Electric Company, as well as the Assistant Director of Public Works for Louisville. He alleged a negligent failure to remove the trees or warn pedestrians about the hazards in the road. L.M. also alleged that under Kentucky statute 179.070, the Assistant Director of Public Works, R.S., who was also a county engineer, had the duty to remove all trees and obstacles from the road and was negligent in failing to fulfill this duty.

At trial, R.S. acknowledged that the statute existed but testified that he was not aware of the statute at the time of the accident or his duties under the statute. He also testified that the Department of Public Works had delegated the handling of tree removal to the operations and maintenance division, which had always handled tree removal. In light of this evidence, the jury ultimately determined that R.S. had not failed to comply with his duty under the statute. L.M. immediately moved for a new trial, arguing that the jury’s verdict went against the weight of the evidence because R.S. had acknowledged the statute placing the duty on him to remove trees, and he had not actually removed the trees that caused L.M.’s injury. The trial court denied the motion, and L.M. appealed.

The Court of Appeals agreed with L.M. that the weight of the evidence did not support the jury’s verdict and remanded for a new trial. R.S. then appealed this ruling.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that the statute requiring the county engineer and assistant director of public works to remove trees existed, but it disagreed with the Court of Appeals’ determination that this created an absolute duty for R.S. that the jury failed to consider. The Supreme Court held that this confused a statutorily created duty with the concept of strict liability. While a statute can create a duty, this does not create strict liability when an individual fails to absolutely comply with the statute. The Supreme Court held that the intent behind the statute was to ensure that roads were properly cleared. This did not require that R.S. personally clear the roads or mean that the duty was non-delegable, and the jury could have considered the evidence that suggested that R.S.’ department had delegated road clearing responsibilities to the operations and maintenance division.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that the evidence presented to the jury could have supported the jury’s verdict, and acknowledgement of the statute did not automatically require the jury to find that R.S. had violated a statutory duty. Under these circumstances, the Supreme Court held that L.M. was not entitled to a new trial because the jury had done their job in weighing the evidence, and their verdict was entitled to respect.

If you have been injured as a result of someone failing to perform a duty that they were statutorily obligated to perform, this can be a strong basis for a negligence claim. As this case makes clear, however, failing to perform a duty under a statute does not mean that someone is strictly liable for the harm that they caused you, and a jury will still have the opportunity to determine whether the facts of your case support your claim. If you are curious about how to bring a personal injury claim when statutes are involved, experienced motorcycle accident attorney Eric Beasley can help you consider arguments for a statutory duty, or a duty based on any number of other circumstances.  For more information, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223 or online.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court Reverses Summary Judgment Ruling Based on Comparative Fault, Tennessee personal Injury Blog, October 13, 2017

Tennessee Court Employs Rule of Seven to Evaluate Comparative Negligence Claim Against Minor, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, December 13, 2016

Tennessee Court Considers When a Party Can Be Held Liable For An Agent’s Negligence, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 12, 2016