WA Case Update: When is an Act Negligent as a Matter of Law?

From the Desk of Kyle D. Riley:  In the vast majority of cases, whether a person was negligent is an issue of fact for the jury.  There is the rare occasion, however, on which a trial court will grant summary judgment for a plaintiff after determining a defendant was negligent as a matter of law.  In the following case, the Washington Court of Appeals articulates some of the key standards of negligence on its way to affirming the trial court’s granting of summary judgment.

Claims Pointer:  In this case arising out of an on-the-job injury, the Washington Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s granting of summary judgment on the issue of the defendant’s negligence because the injury caused by the defendant’s actions was within the general field of danger foreseeable to a reasonable person, and because the plaintiff did not provide any affirmative assurance of safety prior to the defendant’s actions.  This case provides some insight as to when summary judgment will be granted on the issue of negligence, reminding us along the way that foreseeability is an objective test, and where a reasonable person would expect harm to arise from a careless act, foreseeability can be determined as a matter of law.

Lee v. Willis Enterprises, Inc., No. 46374-1-II, Washington Court of Appeals (June 7, 2016).

Verl Lee (“Lee”), an electronics technician, was sent to repair a disabled “variable frequency drive” (“VFD”), a piece of high-voltage electrical equipment, located at a mill operated by Willis Enterprises (“Willis”).  Lee turned off power to the VFD so he could disassemble it, and after he reassembled it, he turned the power back on, but it still did not start.  Lee concluded the cooling fan was causing the problem, so he positioned himself in the VFD’s cabinet to observe the fan.  Daniel Fletcher (“Fletcher”), an employee of the mill who was assisting Lee, thought he could fix the stuck fan by hitting it with a screwdriver.  In doing...

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