Adams v. Bullock

(N.Y. 1919)

Procedural History: Trial court had a verdict for plaintiff, Appellate Division affirmed by a divided court, and highest court reversed.

Facts: Defendant runs a trolley line with overhead wires. At one point on the route, a road is crossed by a bridge that pedestrians often use and children play on. A 12-year-old boy was swinging a wire about 8 feet long on the bridge and it came into contract with the trolley wires, and the boy was shocked and burned. There was a protective wall eighteen inches wide and the wires were strung 4′ 7.75″ below the top of the wall.

Issue: Is a trolley company liable for somebody who gets hurt under extraordinary circumstances even if the trolley company took all regular and reasonable precautions against harm?

Rules: The trolley company had a duty to adopt all reasonable precautions to minimize resulting perils. Reasonable care in the use of a destructive agency imports a high degree of vigilance. When accidents were well within the range of prudent foresight, a party should be found negligent.

Application: Because the defendant couldn’t have possibly foreseen this accident happening and took regular precautions in making sure the trolley wiring was out of reach, the defendant was not being negligent and should not be held liable for damages without negligence. Because ordinary caution did not involve forethought of this extraordinary peril, the defendant was not acting negligently.

Holding: The trolley company should not be liable for failing to predict such an unpredictable event in a particular place on the trolley route, especially when the trolley lines were too far to be reached by pedestrian traffic under any predictable circumstances.

“Chance of harm, though remote, may betoken negligence, if needless. Facility of protection may impose a duty to protect.”

If there is only a remote possibility of an accident, it appears that the party was not negligent.

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