Paige v. Saint Andrew's Roman Catholic Church Corp., 15866

Decision Date15 September 1998
Docket NumberNo. 15866,15866
Citation247 Conn. 24,718 A.2d 425
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesThelonious PAIGE v. SAINT ANDREW'S ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH CORPORATION et al.

John B. Farley, with whom was Mark R. Cramer, Hartford, for appellant (named defendant).

Vincent M. Musto, with whom was Lillian C. Gustilo, Bridgeport, for appellee (plaintiff).

Before CALLAHAN, C.J., and BERDON, NORCOTT, PALMER and McDONALD, JJ.

BERDON, Associate Justice.

The plaintiff, Thelonious Paige, sustained grievous injuries when a large boiler in the basement of a church owned by the defendant St. Andrew's Roman Catholic Church Corporation (defendant) was activated while the plaintiff was cleaning it from the inside.

As a result of the accident, which occurred on April 22, 1988, the plaintiff suffered third and fourth degree burns over two thirds of his body; portions of his legs and ankles were burned to the bone. Ten years later, the plaintiff remains severely scarred. Following his injury, the plaintiff brought this negligence action against the defendant. 1 The case was tried before a jury, which returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. After reducing the amount of damages by 35 percent to account for contributory negligence, the jury awarded the plaintiff damages in the approximate amount of $3.2 million. 2 The trial court thereafter denied the defendant's motion to set aside the jury's verdict and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The defendant appealed from this ruling to the Appellate Court, and we transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to Practice Book § 4023, now Practice Book (1998 Rev.) § 65-1, and General Statutes § 51-199(c).

The defendant asserts three claims before this court: (1) the jury's verdict is not supported by sufficient evidence; (2) the trial court improperly excluded evidence of subsequent remedial measures adopted by the plaintiff's employer, Turnpike Furnace Company (Turnpike Furnace); and (3) the trial court improperly declined to instruct the jury regarding the defendant's claim that the plaintiff was employed by an independent contractor. We review these claims seriatim.

I

The defendant claims there was insufficient evidence to prove a causal connection between the jury's finding that it was negligent in "[f]ailing to supervise its employees, servants, and agents and failing to instruct them to avoid activating the burner or boiler while [the plaintiff] was cleaning the boiler" and the plaintiff's injuries. 3 We are persuaded to the contrary.

The jury reasonably could have found the following facts. The plaintiff and his coworker, on-site supervisor Osvaldo Cano, arrived at the defendant's church between 8:30 and 9 a.m. They spent some time cleaning the exterior of the boiler before the plaintiff entered it to clean the interior. The emergency switch and the three circuit breaker switches that activate the boiler were mounted on a wall in the boiler room located eight to ten feet from the boiler. All four switches were in the "off" position when the plaintiff entered the boiler. 4

The plaintiff entered the boiler through one of its two small hatchways. Cano fed the large vacuum hose that was used to clean the interior through one of the hatchways. When the plaintiff was inside the boiler, Cano was looking straight ahead into the boiler to supervise him. Consequently, Cano was unable to observe if anyone entered the boiler room after the plaintiff entered the boiler and before the plaintiff was injured. In order to see the plaintiff, Cano had to look through the hatchway adjacent to the hatchway through which the enormously powerful and noisy vacuum hose passed; accordingly, he was unable to hear anybody enter the boiler room.

The boiler room in which the plaintiff was injured was part of the same complex containing the church, school, church hall and kitchen. The defendant's rectory and convent are, respectively, up a hill and across the street from this complex. The rectory is so close to the complex that a painter working in the church hall went to the rectory to call 911 after learning of the plaintiff's injuries.

The boiler in which the plaintiff was injured could not have ignited unless someone activated both the emergency switch and the three circuit breakers. 5 There would be a minimum of a fifteen second delay, if not longer, between the activation of the switches and the ignition of the burners. Consequently, the person who activated the switches would have had time to turn on the switches, leave the boiler room and return to another part of the church complex before the boiler's burner ignited.

At least nineteen people were in or near the church complex on the morning of April 22, 1988: three priests, five nuns, a maintenance supervisor and two janitorial assistants, a housekeeper, a cook, and two secretaries (hereinafter, collectively referred to as the employees), in addition to the plaintiff, Cano and two painters painting the church hall pursuant to a contract with the defendant. The switches were not activated by the plaintiff, Cano, or the painters. 6 This leaves at least fifteen employees who could have activated the boiler.

It is useful to state at the outset and with clarity what, precisely, the defendant challenges as insufficient. The defendant does not dispute that it would have been impossible for its boiler to ignite unless someone activated separate controls for both an emergency switch and three circuit breakers. Nor does the defendant contest the fact that it failed to provide any supervision, instructions or warnings whatsoever to any of its employees that they were not to activate the boiler. 7 Moreover, the defendant concedes--as it must--that, if the jury reasonably could have concluded that an employee activated the boiler, the defendant's failure to instruct its employees not to activate the boiler was a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries. In other words, if the jury reasonably could have found that an employee activated the boiler, the defendant concedes negligence and causation, and therefore liability. Thus, as the defendant itself characterizes the issue, its challenge to the jury's verdict centers on whether there was "direct or circumstantial evidence sufficient to support an inference that an unidentified church employee, servant, or agent had anything to do with the alleged activation of [the boiler's] control switches."

More than half a century ago, this court observed that " '[w]e have consistently held that in a civil case proof of a material fact by inference from circumstantial evidence, alone, need not be so conclusive as to exclude every other hypothesis.... The decisive consideration is not whether the [fact so found] is consistent or inconsistent with [alternative] hypotheses but whether or not the inference upon which it is based was one which could have been fairly and reasonably drawn from the physical facts without the admixture of speculation or conjecture.' " (Citation omitted; emphasis added.) Gleba v. New Britain, 133 Conn. 85, 88, 48 A.2d 227 (1946).

This standard is deferential, and for good reason. "The concurrence of the judgments of the [trial] judge and the jury who saw the witnesses and heard the testimony is a powerful argument" for upholding the verdict. Lopez v. Price, 145 Conn. 560, 564, 145 A.2d 127 (1958); accord Fink v. Golenbock, 238 Conn. 183, 207-208, 680 A.2d 1243 (1996); Stewart v. Federated Dept. Stores, Inc., 234 Conn. 597, 610, 662 A.2d 753 (1995); Mather v. Griffin Hospital, 207 Conn. 125, 130, 540 A.2d 666 (1988). Furthermore, it is not the function of this court to "sit as the 'seventh juror' when we review the sufficiency of the evidence ... rather, we must determine, in the light most favorable to sustaining the verdict, whether the totality of the evidence, including reasonable inferences therefrom, supports the jury's verdict...." (Citation omitted; emphasis added; internal quotation marks omitted.) Purzycki v. Fairfield, 244 Conn. 101, 112-13, 708 A.2d 937 (1998). In making this determination, "[t]he evidence must be given the most favorable construction in support of the verdict of which it is reasonably capable." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Fink v. Golenbock, supra, at 208, 680 A.2d 1243. In other words, "[i]f the jury could reasonably have reached its conclusion, the verdict must stand," even if this court disagrees with it. (Emphasis added.) Donner v. Kearse, 234 Conn. 660, 681, 662 A.2d 1269 (1995); see Trzcinski v. Richey, 190 Conn. 285, 298, 460 A.2d 1269 (1983).

Three further points bear emphasis. First, it is fundamental that, in a civil case, the plaintiff is not required to prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt; a mere preponderance of the evidence is sufficient. 8 Second, jurors "are not expected to lay aside matters of common knowledge or their own observation and experience of the affairs of life, but, on the contrary, to apply them to the evidence or facts in hand...." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Purzycki v. Fairfield, supra, 244 Conn. at 113, 708 A.2d 937. Third, the well established standards compelling great deference to the historical function of the jury find their roots in the constitutional right to a trial by jury. Id., at 112, 708 A.2d 937.

Although this is a close case, our independent review of the trial testimony reveals that neither speculation nor conjecture is required to justify the verdict rendered. Instead, the record reflects that the jury reasonably could have believed, "drawing proper inferences from [these] facts ... that it was more probable than not that" one of the defendant's employees activated the boiler in which the plaintiff was working. Blados v. Blados, 151 Conn. 391, 396, 198 A.2d 213 (1964). We, therefore, decline the defendant's invitation to take the drastic measure of setting aside the work of the jury in this case.

The jury's determination is supported...

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13 cases
  • State v. Orhan
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • March 16, 1999
    ...showing by the defendant of substantial prejudice or injustice." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Paige v. St. Andrew's Roman Catholic Church Corp., 247 Conn. 24, 37, 718 A.2d 425 (1998). "It is a fundamental rule of appellate review of evidentiary rulings that if error is not of constit......
  • Paige v. St. Andrew's Roman Catholic Church Corp.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • August 3, 1999
    ...is based upon the factual premise relied upon by the original majority opinion. See generally Paige v. St. Andrew's Roman Catholic Church Corp., 247 Conn. 24, 31-36, 718 A.2d 425 (1998). Under this scenario, which is predicated on the jury finding that the defendant negligently had failed t......
  • Churchill v. Allessio, (AC 16646)
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • November 10, 1998
    ...... [is] a showing... of substantial prejudice or injustice." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Paige v. St. Andrew's Roman Catholic Church Corp., 247 Conn. 24, 37, 718 A.2d 425 (1998). Here, in ruling that the 1984 will, as well as testimony concerning the circumstances surrounding its d......
  • State v. Dunbar, (AC 17143)
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • December 22, 1998
    ...phase of trial. The trial court has broad discretion to determine the admissibility of evidence. Paige v. St. Andrew's Roman Catholic Church Corp., 247 Conn. 24, 37, 718 A.2d 425 (1998). While the trial court stated that it did not believe that it had discretion to redact the incident repor......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 books & journal articles
  • 1998 Connecticut Appellate Review
    • United States
    • Connecticut Bar Association Connecticut Bar Journal No. 73, 1998
    • Invalid date
    ...(1998). The statute involved is CONN. GEN. STAT. §52-592(a). 27 245 Conn. 464, 715 A.2d 724, reconsideration granted en banc (1998). 28 247 Conn. 24, 718 A.2d 425, reargument granted en banc: (1998). 29 246 Conn. 223, 717 A.2d 202 (1998). 30 See supra note 1. 31 245 Conn. 88, 713 A.2d 1267 ......
  • 1999 Connecticut Appellate Review
    • United States
    • Connecticut Bar Association Connecticut Bar Journal No. 74, 1999
    • Invalid date
    ...10. Id. at 534, 535. 11. Id. at 535-36 (footnote omitted). 12. 248 Conn. 207, 726 A.2d 531 (1999). 13. Id. at 273. 14. 4247 Conn. 24, 718 A.2d 425 15. Id. at 31. 16. 250 Conn. 14, 734 A.2d 15 (1999). 17. Id. at 3940. 18. Id. at 58. He also pointedly but irrelevantly began his dissent by men......

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