By and large, when I handle negligence cases, I do so as a defense attorney. So, I have a definite bias when I disagree with the Court of Appeal’s decision today in Sparks v. White (pdf). In that case, the Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s decision to deny summary judgment to property owners where the property owners had a brick mailbox about 3 feet off the highway. A motorist left the road for reasons that were not explained by the Plaintiff and struck the mailbox. The court decided that it would be legally appropriate if a jury were to decide that the property owner should anticipate that the motorist might leave the road and that the mailbox was built too strong and, therefore, that the property owners owed the motorist money for her injuries. The Court of Appeals cited a similar decision where they held that a property owner could be found liable by a jury for a fence post 6 feet off the property that was sturdier than necessary.
In my mind, summary judgment should have been appropriate in these cases and the property owners shouldn’t be subjected to trial by jury. Juries are to decide fact issues. There don’t appear to be any issues of fact in these cases; only value judgments to be imposed on those facts – namely whether the post or the mailbox was “too strong.” In particular, the mailbox couldn’t have been placed much further back from the road. Postal regulations required it to be accessible by a mail truck from the road. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think a property owner should be required to anticipate a motorist will leave the road and drive on the owner’s property.
I wonder if the plaintiffs will be required to prove by a preponderance of the evidence what the injuries would have been with obstructions that weren’t “too strong” versus the obstructions that were actually in place. Because, if you’re allowed to have a mailbox in that location, it is going to cause some impact. The property owner should not be responsible for injuries that would have been caused anyway up to that level of impact. Therefore, at the very least, the plaintiff should have a fairly demanding burden of proof for showing which injuries were in fact caused by the “excess” impact. Otherwise, the property owner is potentially liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars for the egregious act of having a mailbox.