536 F.2d 443 (1st Cir. 1976), 75-1195, LaForest v. Autoridad de Las Fuentes Fluviales de Puerto Rico

Docket Nº:75-1195.
Citation:536 F.2d 443
Party Name:Robert LaFOREST et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. AUTORIDAD de LAS FUENTES FLUVIALES DE PUERTO RICO, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:May 25, 1976
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

Page 443

536 F.2d 443 (1st Cir. 1976)

Robert LaFOREST et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

AUTORIDAD de LAS FUENTES FLUVIALES DE PUERTO RICO,

Defendant-Appellant.

No. 75-1195.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

May 25, 1976

Argued Feb. 4, 1976.

As Modified June 14, 1976.

Page 444

Luis A. Lugo, Jr., Hato Rey, P. R., for defendant-appellant.

Harvey B. Nachman, San Juan, P. R., with whom Nachman, Feldstein & Gelpi, San Juan, P. R., was on brief, for plaintiffs-appellees.

Before COFFIN, Chief Judge, MATTHES [**], and CAMPBELL, Circuit Judges.

LEVIN H. CAMPBELL, Circuit Judge.

In the evening of March 11, 1972, while bike riding with friends in Torrimar, Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, eleven year old Robert LaForest, Jr., was electrocuted when proceeding through a puddle in the planting strip near a road. The cause of the tragedy was a break in an underground high voltage wire belonging to defendant, a publicly-owned utility. The fractured ends of the wire, lying near the earth's surface, had electrified the puddle. Instant or near instant death resulted.

The deceased and his family, though residing in Puerto Rico, were citizens of Haiti; and the present action seeking damages for his death was brought in the district

Page 445

court for the District of Puerto Rico under the jurisdictional provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Plaintiffs are the deceased's father, mother and siblings. Under section 1802 of the Civil Code of Puerto Rico, 31 L.P.R.A. § 5141, recovery may be had for damage suffered through another's fault or negligence. 1 Major elements of the damages claimed by each plaintiff were his or her own mental suffering, anguish and loss of companionship occasioned by the decedent's death, elements for which parents, brothers and sisters may be individually compensated in such cases under the law of Puerto Rico. See Commercial Union Insurance Co. v. Gonzalez Rivera, 358 F.2d 480 (1st Cir. 1966). The jury found for plaintiffs in the total sum of $210,000: $75,000 for each parent, and $15,000 for each of the four siblings. This appeal was taken after the court denied defendant's motion for a new trial.

Defendant argues first that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to find that Robert LaForest, Jr., was killed as the result of defendant's negligence. The short answer to this contention is that it is foreclosed, since defendant did not move for a directed verdict and a federal appellate court may not reverse for insufficiency of the evidence in the absence of an unwaived motion for directed verdict. Home Ins. Co. of New York v. Davila, 212 F.2d 731, 733 (1st Cir. 1954); 5A Moore, Federal Practice P 50.05(1), at 2343; Wright & Miller, Fed.Practice & Procedure, P 7536. It is true that defendant raised the question of insufficiency in his motion for new trial; but even assuming, without deciding, that there could ever be extraordinary circumstances where a claim of insufficiency of the evidence could rest upon a motion for new trial, cf. Oliveras v. American Export Isbrandtsen Lines, Inc., 431 F.2d 814, 817 (2d Cir. 1970), no such situation remotely exists here. Indeed, as hereinafter described, the record amply supports the verdict.

After a concrete lighting pole was damaged late in 1968, defendant's servants made repairs simply by splicing the high voltage wire servicing the pole, tucking it down into the butt of the pole, and burying the butt and wire after severing and carrying away the remainder of the pole. No replacement pole was installed. Several years later, shortly before Robert LaForest's death, an allegedly unauthorized person operating a scraper apparently snagged the concrete stump with sufficient force to pull it from the ground, breaking the attached underground wire. As this occurred in the daytime, the power was off; but in the evening, when the current came on, the broken wires, forming part of a series system, were electrified and energized the puddle, creating the lethal trap.

Defendant argues that its mode of repairing the damaged pole in 1968 was not negligent. However, plaintiffs' expert testified that leaving the broken stump, concealing a spliced 2000 volt line, a foot or less from the earth's surface in this location created an unreasonable hazard. While defendant's expert took a contrary view, plaintiffs' expert's opinions coupled with the evidence as a whole provided sufficient basis for a finding of negligence. The jury could determine that the stump and wire were something of a booby trap. One accidentally uncovering the broken stump would not know that the live wire was therein; moreover the location was not only well travelled but often wet, presenting a risk that the soil covering would, in time, erode, and enhancing the risk of accidental electrical discharge. Electrical utility companies are not insurers, but they are charged with knowledge of the inherently dangerous character of their enterprise, and are under a corresponding duty to exercise the utmost care and vigilance in constructing and maintaining high voltage...

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