Davis v. Westwood Group

Decision Date14 July 1995
Citation652 N.E.2d 567,420 Mass. 739
PartiesRufus DAVIS v. WESTWOOD GROUP. 1
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Paul M. Moretti, Boston (Richard L. Neumeier, with him), for defendant.

Kevin M. Truland, Boston, for plaintiff.

Before LIACOS, C.J., and WILKINS, ABRAMS and GREANEY, JJ.

LIACOS, Chief Justice.

The plaintiff sustained serious injuries on March 11, 1982, when a van driven by Robert Allard struck him as he crossed Route 1A in Revere, outside the Wonderland Greyhound Park, an establishment owned and operated by the defendant, Westwood Group. The plaintiff commenced this negligence action against Westwood and several other defendants. 2 He alleged that Westwood (1) was negligent in failing to provide a pedestrian bridge over Route 1A or a traffic signal at the pedestrian crossing, and (2) was vicariously liable for the negligence of the Revere police officer in charge of traffic control. The Appeals Court reversed the judgment that the plaintiff had obtained against Westwood because the plaintiff's second theory was not tenable, and because the court could not ascertain which theory had been the basis of the jury's verdict. 3 Davis v. Allard, 37 Mass.App.Ct. 508, 641 N.E.2d 121 (1994). Westwood filed an application for further appellate review of the Appeals Court's conclusion that Westwood owed a duty to the plaintiff to construct a pedestrian bridge or otherwise make alterations to Route 1A, a State highway. We allowed Westwood's application and conclude that Westwood owed no such duty to the plaintiff. 4 We also conclude that Westwood cannot be vicariously liable for the police officer's conduct. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment against Westwood and direct entry of a judgment in its favor.

On March 11, 1982, the plaintiff and a friend went to the dog races at Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere. They arrived shortly before the first race, which was scheduled for 8 P.M. The plaintiff parked his car in Wonderland's south parking lot, which is located across VFW Parkway, State Route 1A (Route 1A) from the track. The pair walked a short distance to the edge of the parking lot, where pedestrians would traverse a painted crosswalk in order to reach the track.

Route 1A is a multi-lane divided State highway running north and south. At this point, the highway has two lanes and a breakdown lane in each direction. Wonderland's south parking lot abutted the northbound lanes. 5 A median strip separated the north and south travel lanes in the area of the crosswalk. Patrons who parked in the south parking lot would assemble at the crosswalk and wait until it was safe to cross the highway. A Revere police officer in uniform on paid detail would walk out from the median strip into the northbound traffic and halt the traffic by hand signal. The patrons then would cross the highway, after which the officer would direct the traffic to resume and the officer would return to the median strip. The process would be repeated as subsequent groups of patrons assembled at the crosswalk. A second officer similarly directed the traffic in the southbound lanes.

On the night in question, Revere police Officer Sabatino Falzarano directed the northbound traffic. Although Falzarano attempted to control the traffic, a van operated by the defendant Robert Allard, who was driving while under the influence of alcohol, drove past Falzarano and struck and injured the plaintiff, who was crossing the highway. After trial, a jury found Allard seventy-eight per cent responsible, Westwood thirteen per cent responsible, and the plaintiff nine per cent responsible. 6

The plaintiff based his case against Westwood on two theories. First, he alleged that the system used for patron crossing of Route 1A from the south parking lot was intrinsically inadequate and contributed to the accident. In particular, the plaintiff contended that Westwood should have erected a traffic light or constructed a pedestrian bridge in order to provide safe pedestrian passage across Route 1A. Second, the plaintiff alleged that Officer Falzarano acted negligently and that Westwood was responsible for the consequences of the officer's negligence.

At trial, the plaintiff called civil engineer James D'Angelo to testify as an expert on the subject of Westwood's allegedly negligent failure to erect a traffic light or to build a pedestrian bridge. 7 In addressing whether the judge erred in allowing D'Angelo's testimony, the Appeals Court "put to one side the question whether [Westwood] was under a duty to make provision for safe passage of patrons over the highway, a public facility ... [because Westwood] voluntarily undertook the task and was thus cast with a duty to exercise due care in carrying it out." Davis v. Allard, supra at 512, 641 N.E.2d 121.

Before liability for negligence can be imposed, there must first be a legal duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, and a breach of that duty proximately resulting in the injury. See O'Gorman v. Antonio Rubinaccio & Sons, 408 Mass. 758, 760, 563 N.E.2d 231 (1990); Yakubowicz v. Paramount Pictures Corp., 404 Mass. 624, 629, 536 N.E.2d 1067 (1989). Whether such a duty exists is a question of law. Wallace v. Wilson, 411 Mass. 8, 12, 575 N.E.2d 1134 (1991), citing Yakubowicz v. Paramount Pictures Corp., supra. In determining whether the defendant had a duty to be careful, we look to existing social values and customs, as well as to appropriate social policy. Yakubowicz v. Paramount Pictures Corp., supra. See Schofield v. Merrill, 386 Mass. 244, 251, 435 N.E.2d 339 (1982). 8

It is well established that an owner or possessor of land owes a common law duty of reasonable care to all lawful visitors. Sullivan v. Brookline, 416 Mass. 825, 827, 626 N.E.2d 870 (1994), citing Mounsey v. Ellard, 363 Mass. 693, 707, 297 N.E.2d 43 (1973). This duty includes an obligation to maintain the premises in reasonably safe condition and to warn visitors of any unreasonable dangers of which the landowner is aware or reasonably should be aware. 9 Thorson v. Mandell, 402 Mass. 744, 747, 525 N.E.2d 375 (1988). Toubiana v. Priestly, 402 Mass. 84, 88, 520 N.E.2d 1307 (1988). Polak v. Whitney, 21 Mass.App.Ct. 349, 351, 487 N.E.2d 213 (1985). Although a landowner or possessor typically is not held to any duty with respect to public highways adjacent to or crossing his land, he must exercise reasonable care in the use of his land so as not to injure a traveler on the highway. Pritchard v. Mabrey, 358 Mass. 137, 140, 260 N.E.2d 712 (1970).

In this case, Westwood did not fail to exercise reasonable care in the use of its land, nor was there any condition on its land that created an unreasonable risk to users of Route 1A. The mere fact that Westwood's facilities used land on both sides of Route 1A, without more, does not necessarily impose on it the broad duty to provide safe passage over the State highway by erecting a traffic light or constructing a pedestrian bridge, or by applying for a permit to make such alterations. To hold that Westwood owed the plaintiff such a duty would significantly expand the scope of a landowner or possessor's duties with respect to adjacent public roads, and would make the line which cuts off landowner liability "nearly impossible to draw." See Wofford v. Kennedy's 2nd St. Co., 649 S.W.2d 912, 914 (Mo.Ct.App.1983). This we decline to do. 10

Nevertheless, the plaintiff contends that Westwood had a duty to provide safe passage over Route 1A because it exercised actual control over the road at the site of the accident. Certainly a duty of care may arise from the right to control land, even where the person held to such a duty does not own the land in question. Underhill v. Shactman, 337 Mass. 730, 733, 151 N.E.2d 287 (1958). See Anthony H. v. John G., 415 Mass. 196, 200, 612 N.E.2d 663 (1993), citing Mounsey v. Ellard, supra at 707-708, 297 N.E.2d 43. Although Westwood arranged for municipal police details at the pedestrian crosswalk, we do not believe that this action amounts to such "control" over the road that we should impose on Westwood the broad duty to provide safe pedestrian passage across Route 1A by altering a State highway, or by applying for a permit to do so.

Indeed, it is clear that the Commonwealth controls Route 1A. Route 1A is a State highway owned and maintained by the Commonwealth. See G.L. c. 81, § 13 (1992 ed.) ("State highways shall be maintained and kept in good repair and condition by the department [of highways] at the expense of the commonwealth"). For example, the Commonwealth, through the department of highways, designs and constructs State highways such as Route 1A. See G.L. c. 81, § 5. The department, at the Commonwealth's expense, is responsible for snow and ice removal on State highways, for keeping State highways reasonably clear of brush, and for performing other maintenance duties. G.L. c. 81, §§ 13 & 19. The department constructs sidewalks along those sections of State highways as it determines public convenience and necessity require. G.L. c. 81, § 20. It is authorized to install lighting to illuminate State highways. G.L. c. 81, § 20A. In addition, the department oversees a permit process for approving and overseeing alterations to State highways. See G.L. c. 81, § 21. As part of this process, the department has authority to require certain persons to install and pay for standard traffic control devices or other highway improvements to facilitate safe and efficient traffic flow, or to make these improvements itself at the expense of those persons. G.L. c. 81, § 21.

The Commonwealth's undisputed control over Route 1A undermines the plaintiff's attempts to impose on Westwood a duty to provide safe pedestrian passage over the State highway. Westwood's hiring of uniformed officers to direct motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic when races occurred does not amount to such control over Route 1A that imposing this...

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