Harper v. Herman (Minnesota, 1993)

Procedural History: This case arises upon a reversal by the court of appeals of summary judgment found in favor of the defendant. The court of appeals held that defendant had a duty to warn plaintiff. Supreme Court reverses and reinstates judgment in favor of defendant.

Facts: On August 9, 1986, Harper was one of four guests on Herman’s sail boat on Lake Minnetonka. Harper was invited by another guest and Herman and Harper did not know each other before the outing. Herman was 64 and Harper was 20. Herman was an experienced boat owner and Harper had some swimming experience but no formal training in diving. After boating for a few hours, the group decided to go swimming near Big Island, where both Herman and Harper had been before. Herman positioned the boat 100 to 200 yards from the island in an area shallow enough to use the boat ladder but still deep enough to swim. The bottom of the lake was not visible from the boat. Herman set anchor and lowered the boat’s ladder. While he was doing so, Harper asked him if he was “going in.” Herman relied that he was and without warning, Harper dove into 2 or 3 feet of water. He struck the bottom, severed his spinal cord, and was rendered a C6 quadriplegic.

Issue: Did the boat owner, who was a social host, owe a duty of care to warn his guests that the water was too shallow to dive?

Rules: An affirmative duty to act only arises when a special relationship exists between the parties. Generally a special relationship giving a duty to warn is only found on the part of common carriers, innkeepers, possessors of land who hold it open to the public, and persons who have custody of another person. Actual knowledge of a dangerous condition tends to impose a special duty to do something about that condition.

Application: Because there was no special relationship between Harper and Herman, and they in fact, did not know each other until that day, there was no duty for Herman to warn Harper that the water was too shallow to safely dive into. Only if Herman had custody of Harper under circumstances in which Harper was deprived of normal opportunities to protect himself would Herman have had a duty to warn in this situation. Because there was no duty, there can be no breach of that duty, and therefore, no liability for failing to warn Harper that the water was too shallow to dive.

Conclusion: Herman had no special relationship with Harper in order to create a legal duty to warn Harper that the water was too shallow to dive into.

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