Newton v. Preseau, No. 19-297

Docket NºNo. 19-297
Citation236 A.3d 1270
Case DateJune 19, 2020
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

236 A.3d 1270

Bradley NEWTON and Kristi Newton
v.
Ron PRESEAU, Ron's Car Care et al.

No. 19-297

Supreme Court of Vermont.

March Term, 2020
June 19, 2020
Reargument Denied July 9, 2020


Michael Sabbeth of Sabbeth Law, PLLC, Woodstock, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Kaveh S. Shahi of Cleary Shahi & Aicher, P.C., Rutland, for Defendants-Appellees.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Robinson, Eaton, Carroll and Cohen, JJ.

EATON, J.

¶ 1. Plaintiff, who was injured when his brother's truck broke apart while on a lift in plaintiff's garage, appeals the civil division's decision granting summary judgment to defendants associated with the state-designated inspection station where the truck had been inspected several months earlier. For the reasons expressed herein, we conclude that any legal duty owed by motor vehicle inspectors to third persons does not extend to plaintiff under the circumstances of this case, which did not involve operation of the subject vehicle or any other vehicle at the time of the incident in question. Accordingly, we affirm the civil division's decision.

¶ 2. The material facts are not in dispute. In the early autumn of 2014, defendant Ron Preseau performed an annual state inspection of a 1994 GMC pickup truck owned by defendant Douglas Newton, who is plaintiff Bradley Newton's brother. In late January 2015, the truck broke down while being operated on a public highway. Shortly thereafter, Douglas put the inoperable pickup on a flatbed truck and took it to plaintiff's detached garage. In 2010, plaintiff had purchased and installed a lift in his garage. After the plow was removed from the front of the pickup, Douglas put the pickup, which had at least 300 pounds of sand in its bed, on the lift. After diagnosing the problem, Douglas asked plaintiff to assess the damage. While plaintiff was under the truck, it collapsed into two pieces, and plaintiff was injured when one of the pieces pinned him to the floor of the garage.

¶ 3. In July 2017, plaintiff filed a personal injury action, alleging in relevant part that defendant Preseau and others had acted negligently in connection with the inspection of the pickup truck.1 Plaintiff alleged that defendant had negligently certified the truck as safe to operate even though its undercarriage was severely rusted, which he claims ultimately caused the accident that injured him. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that, as a matter of law, he owed no duty of care to plaintiff under the circumstances of this case and that plaintiff could not prove proximate cause. Plaintiff opposed the motion, and a hearing on the motion was held in May 2019. One month later, the civil division entered judgment for defendant. After examining our case law pertaining to § 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, the court concluded that defendant owed no duty to plaintiff under the circumstances of this case. The court also expressed doubt, but ultimately did not decide, if plaintiff could prove causation under these circumstances.

236 A.3d 1273

¶ 4. "We review a trial court's decision on a motion for summary judgment without deference, using the same standard as the trial court." Sheldon v. Ruggiero, 2018 VT 125, ¶ 14, 209 Vt. 33, 202 A.3d 241. "Summary judgment is appropriate when, construing the facts as alleged by the nonmoving party and resolving reasonable doubts and inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, there are no genuine issues of material fact and judgment is appropriate as a matter of law." Id. (citing V.R.C.P. 56 ).

¶ 5. The parties agree that the controlling law is § 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which this Court formally adopted in Derosia v. Liberty Mutual Ins. Co., 155 Vt. 178, 182-83, 583 A.2d 881, 883 (1990). That section "delineates when an undertaking to render services to another may result in liability to a third person." Derosia, 155 Vt. at 182, 583 A.2d at 883. It provides:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things, is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to protect his undertaking, if (a) his failure to exercise reasonable care increases the risk of such harm, or (b) he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person, or (c) the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other or the third person upon the undertaking.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 324A (1965).2

¶ 6. Whether a defendant owes a legal duty to another is a question of law that weighs public policy considerations to achieve fairness while examining factors such as the relationship of the parties, the nature of the risk, and the public interest at stake. Deveneau v. Wielt, 2016 VT 21, ¶ 8, 201 Vt. 396, 144 A.3d 324 ; see also LeClair v. LeClair, 2017 VT 34, ¶ 10, 204 Vt. 422, 169 A.3d 743 ("Whether or not one party owes a duty to another is an expression of policy considerations about when people are entitled to legal protections."); Hamill v. Pawtucket Mut. Ins. Co., 2005 VT 133, ¶ 6, 179 Vt. 250, 892 A.2d 226 ("Ultimately, whether a duty exists is a question of fairness that depends on, among other factors, the relationship of the parties, the nature of the risk, and the public interest at stake."). "Courts determine legislative facts necessary to decide whether a no-duty rule is appropriate in a particular category of cases." Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm § 7 cmt. b (2010).

¶ 7. With this in mind, we examine § 324A and our case law interpreting that provision. Generally, before examining § 324A ’s individual subsections, we consider whether a plaintiff has made "a threshold showing that there existed an undertaking to render services for another for the protection of a third party."3 Kennery v. State, 2011 VT 121, ¶ 14, 191 Vt. 44, 38 A.3d 35.

236 A.3d 1274

¶ 8. Like the civil division, we assume, without deciding, that designated inspection stations render services for the protection of third persons operating motor vehicles on state highways. But see Stiver v. Good & Fair Carting & Moving, Inc., 9 N.Y.3d 253, 848 N.Y.S.2d 585, 878 N.E.2d 1001, 1003 (2007) ("[A]s a matter of public policy, we are unwilling to force inspection stations to insure against risks the amount of which they may not know and cannot control, and as to which contractual limitations of liability might be ineffective." (quotation and alteration omitted)). We conclude as a matter of law, however, that defendant is not liable to plaintiff for a negligent undertaking pursuant to § 324A because the scope of any legal duty arising from defendant's undertaking in inspecting plaintiff's vehicle does not extend to the circumstances of this case.

¶ 9. Because the subsections in § 324A are disjunctive, plaintiff need only satisfy one of them to survive summary judgment. Sheldon, 2018 VT 125, ¶ 30, 209 Vt. 33, 202 A.3d 241. The first subsection makes a person who undertakes services to protect third persons subject to liability when that person's failure to exercise reasonable care in undertaking those services "increases the risk of ... harm." Restatement (Second)...

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1 practice notes
  • Boyd v. State, 2021-177
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • 18 Marzo 2022
    ...evidence and law without deference, applying the same standard as the superior court. Newton v. Preseau, 2020 VT 50, ¶ 4, 212 Vt. 445, 236 A.3d 1270. "Summary judgment is appropriate when, construing the facts as alleged by the nonmoving party and resolving reasonable doubts and inferences ......
1 cases
  • Boyd v. State, 2021-177
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • 18 Marzo 2022
    ...evidence and law without deference, applying the same standard as the superior court. Newton v. Preseau, 2020 VT 50, ¶ 4, 212 Vt. 445, 236 A.3d 1270. "Summary judgment is appropriate when, construing the facts as alleged by the nonmoving party and resolving reasonable doubts and inferences ......

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