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OTT v. WASHINGTON GAS LIGHT CO.

June 4, 1962

William R. OTT, Jr., William R. Ott, Plaintiffs,
v.
WASHINGTON GAS LIGHT CO., J. H. De Veau & Son, Inc., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HOLTZOFF

This is a motion for a directed verdict made by the two defendants at the close of the plaintiffs' case on the issue of liability. The action is brought to recover damages for personal injuries sustained by a little boy three and a half years old, by being burned by an open flame of a flare pot set out in the street as a warning of the presence of a barricade and excavation. The suit was filed in behelf of the infant by his father as next friend and by the father in his own right.

In view of the fact that the defendants at the opening of the trial raised a seriously debatable question as to their legal liability, the Court directed plaintiffs' counsel to introduce all of their evidence on the issue of liability first, withholding any testimony on the issue of damages for the time being. The Court further indicated that at the conclusion of the plaintiffs' evidence on the issue of liability, it would entertain and pass on the defendants' motions for a directed verdict, which were to raise and present the question whether there was any legal liability on their part or either of them. The evidence on the part of the plaintiffs on the issue of liability has been concluded and the defendants have moved for a directed verdict.

 On the occasion involved in this case, the defendant Washington Gas Light Company made an excavation of the kind mentioned in a suburban hamlet in Prince Georges County, Maryland, known as Deer Park Heights. This suburb is in effect a cul-de-sec and no through traffic operates through it. It is inhabited by families, many of whom have little children. On the day before the unfortunate accident, the defendant De Veau was repairing the excavation pursuant to an order placed with it by the Washington Gas Light Company. At the close of the working day, the workmen erected barricades to protect the excavation and set out flare pots with lighted open flames near the barricade as a warning to passers-by and motorists.

 On the following morning shortly after 10:00 o'clock, the flare pots were still burning. The infant plaintiff was playing in the street with his older sister and other children in the neighborhood and somehow or other came in contact with the open flame of one of the flare pots and was badly burned. This action is brought to recover damages for the serious personal injuries sustained by the little boy as the result of this tragic episode.

 The place where the accident occurred is located in Prince Georges County, Maryland, which adjoins the city of Washington. The liability of the defendants and the plaintiffs' right to recover is therefore governed by the law of Maryland, and the Court must consequently turn to that law. Maryland has expressly declined to recognize and accept what is generally known as the doctrine of 'attractive nuisance', which imposes a special and peculiar liability in respect to minor children, State, to Use of Alston, v. Baltimore Fidelity Warehouse Co., 176 Md. 341, 346, 4 A.2d 739. It follows that the defendants were under no greater liability to a little child than they would have been to an adult under the circumstances of this case. The mere fact that young children were wont to play in this area and that the plaintiff was one of those children, would create no basis for liability under the law of Maryland, although perhaps it would be otherwise in other jurisdictions. The only difference, of course, is that a child of tender years, such as the infant plaintiff, would not be charged with contributory negligence as would be the case with an adult plaintiff, Miller v. Graff, 196 Md. 609, 620, 78 A.2d 220; LeFebvre v. United States, D.C., 178 F.Supp. 176, 178.

 It is also the law of Maryland that the use of flare pots burning open flames for the purpose of warning the public of the presence of repair work and barricades on highways, is not negligence and that it is lawful to use devices of this type with this objective in view, Conrad v. City of Takoma Park, 208 Md. 363, 118 A.2d 497; Ritter v. Baltimore City, 219 Md. 477, 150 A.2d 260. In other words, there is no basis for any finding of negligence in the fact that the defendants selected flare pots with open flames as warning devices as against other means of illumination, such as lanterns or electric lamps. The defendant De Veau had the right to choose any available instrument for the purpose for which it was used. The mere fact that other means were available that might have been less hazardous or dangerous is immaterial. It might be noted that the law is otherwise in some other jurisdictions, but that again does not affect the disposition of this case.

 The ultimate question in this case, therefore, is whether there is any basis for a contention that the defendant De Veau was guilty of any failure to exercise due care in connection with employing these flares, and whether there is substantial evidence of lack of due care to justify the submission of the question to the jury. The flares in question were intended primarily to illuminate dangerous sites between sunset and sunrise as a means of warning to pedestrians and motorists. There is a basis for an inference that these flares served no useful purpose during daylight hours because barricades would obviously be visible without any artificial illumination at that time. That there was no object in keeping these flares burning during daylight hours appears from the very fact that it was the practice of De Veau to extinguish them some time after sunrise and not to relight them until the end of the working day. In this case the flares were still burning more than three hours after sunrise, because it was stipulated that the sun rose at 6:30 a.m. that morning, while the accident took place shortly after 10:00 a.m.

 May it be said that in permitting the flares to continue burning and failing to extinguish them within more than three hours after daylight, the defendant De Veau was guilty of a lack of due care and, therefore, of negligence? In this connection it is important to observe why these flares had not been extinguished at the time of the accident. The evidence shows that it was the practice of the defendant to extinguish flares after sunrise. For this purpose it was customary for the foreman of the defendant's crew to send out two men in a pickup truck after the crew appeared at the opening of the working day between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m., and to have these men visit each project at which the flares had been lighted on the preceding evening, and to pick up and extinguish them. The practice was for these men to proceed to the furthest point at which a project was in operation and then to drive back from project to project, finally ending up at the project nearest the point at which the workmen had originally assembled. The evidence further showed that on the day in question the furthest project was a considerable distance away on a highway known as Indian Head Highway; that it took considerable time for the two men delegated to the task to reach that point, and they had been unable to work their way back to the site in question by the time the accident occurred.

 The Court is of the opinion that there is a question for the jury to determine whether it was unreasonable for the defendant De Veau not to have extinguished these flares earlier than three and a half hours after sunrise and whether in view of the special circumstances existing that morning, more than one group of men should have been sent out to pick up and extinguish flares. The Court is of the opinion that there is a question for the jury to determine whether there was any lack of due care in failing to extinguish the flares within a reasonable time after sunrise, and whether three and a half hours would constitute a reasonable time.

 It is argued by able counsel for De Veau, however, that the Conrad and Ritter Cases, to which reference has been made, should be construed as going as far as holding that no negligence can be predicated on the fact that the flares were not extinguished during daylight hours. This Court does not agree with this contention. In the opinion in the Conrad case, 208 Md. 363, at 367, 118 A.2d 497, at 498, it was stated that: 'No special circumstances, to suggest an unreasonable or unnecessary use of the flares, are alleged.' The necessary implication is that if there are any special circumstances suggesting an unreasonable or unnecessary use of the flares there may be liability. In this case the evidence is sufficient to submit to the jury the question whether there was an unreasonable or an unnecessary use of the flares in question.

 So, too, the declarations in the Conrad and Ritter cases were largely predicated on the attractive nuisance doctrine, which Maryland has repudiated, and the cases are distinguishable insofar as concerns the question of ...


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