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DOYLE v. SOUTH PITTSBURGH WATER COMPANY. (03/17/64)

March 17, 1964

DOYLE, APPELLANT,
v.
SOUTH PITTSBURGH WATER COMPANY.



Appeal, No. 173, March T., 1963, from judgment of Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, July T., 1962, No. 2886, in case of Robert A. Doyle and Frances P. Doyle, his wife, v. South Pittsburgh Water Company. Judgment reversed; reargument refused May 12, 1964.

COUNSEL

James R. Hornick, with him Clair V. Duff, for appellants.

James F. Manley, with him Burns & Manley, for appellee.

Before Musmanno, Jones, Cohen, Eagen, O'brien and Roberts, JJ.

Author: Musmanno

[ 414 Pa. Page 201]

OPINION BY MR. JUSTICE MUSMANNO

On December 31, 1961, the home of the plaintiffs in this case, Robert A. Doyle and his wife Frances P. Doyle, was destroyed by fire. The destruction could have been averted if the Pittsburgh Fire Department, which had responded to the fire alarm, could have obtained water from the fire hydrants, of which there were at least five in the immediate area of the house. None would yield a stream of water for the hoses ready to carry the extinguishing element to the flames which began small but eventually leaped to proportions which engulfed and consumed the dwelling.

On September 18, 1962, the plaintiffs filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County a complaint in trespass against the South Pittsburgh Water Company averring that it was under contract to provide water for fire hydrants in the vicinity of their dwelling and to maintain those hydrants for use in emergencies for the sole purpose of fighting fires in and about the vicinity of the plaintiffs' home. The complaint charged the water company with certain acts of negligence which individually or collectively caused the destruction mentioned. The water company filed preliminary objections in which it simply said that the plaintiffs had failed to set forth a cause of action upon which relief could be granted, and moved for an order dismissing the complaint. The court sustained the objections and entered judgment for the defendant. The plaintiffs have appealed.

In their complaint the plaintiffs enumerated the items of negligence attributed to the defendant. Since the defendant demurred, the averments in the complaint will be accepted as established fact. The complaint

[ 414 Pa. Page 202]

    states that the defendant allowed the water in the crucial hydrants to freeze so that they became useless for fire-fighting emergencies; that it failed to inspect the hydrants, failed to maintain sufficient pressure in the hydrants, failed to replace or repair inoperative valves and, inter alia, failed to notify the plaintiffs or the Pittsburgh Fire Department that the hydrants were inoperative.

In arguing before this Court, the water company asserts that it was not the lack of water which destroyed the plaintiffs' home-- it was the fire. This is like saying that a person who starves to death dies not because of lack of food but because of physical debility. The plaintiffs specifically charge in their complaint that had the defendant supplied water, their home would not have gone up in flames. This is the charge the defendant must answer to and nothing is gained by the elusive debating dialectic that it was the fire and not the lack of the drenching element which caused the loss of which the plaintiffs complain.

In attempted support of its argument that the lack of water was too remote to be a proximate cause for the plaintiffs' losses, the defendant cites the case of Grant v. Erie, 69 Pa. 420, and says: "The basic and fundamental issue before your Honors is what is the proximate cause of plaintiffs' loss, the fire or the failure of water? This precise question was answered by this Honorable Court in the case of Grant v. Erie, 69 Pa. 420, where it was clearly held that the proximate cause of the damage was the fire and the remote cause was the lack of water."

In that case the municipality of Erie was authorized by the burgess and councils of the borough "'to make and establish a sufficient number of reservoirs to supply water in case of fire.'" The reservoirs were erected but were allowed to fall into decay and, as a consequence, properties belonging to the plaintiff were destroyed

[ 414 Pa. Page 203]

    by fire because there was no water in the reservoirs to extinguish the flames. The appellee here says in its brief that this Court, in the Erie case, said: "'In this case it was neither the reservoir nor the amount of water in it that caused the fire. It was caused by something else than that, and whether the ultimate loss was caused by the want of water leads us too far into the region of possibility and conjecture to enable any one to say, with any certainty, that such loss can be traced directly to the want of water." Emphasis supplied by appellee's counsel.)

In offering this quotation, appellee's counsel reveals more resourcefulness than discovery because this Court did not make any such statement. The cited quotation was taken from the charge of the trial court which was not approved by this Court. In fact, this Court said much to the contrary of that alleged by the appellee, namely, "The purpose of the reservoir being to extinguish fires, and the fire having been shown not to have been extinguished in consequence of the non-performance of the duty imposed, it would be no answer, perhaps, to say that the proximate cause of the injury was the fire, and the want of water only the remote cause. If it were made the duty of a municipality to station a police officer at a particular corner, to protect the foot-passengers from being run over by passing vehicles, it may be doubted whether it would be an answer to an action, to say that the cause of the injury was the horse and wagon and not the absence of the officer." (Emphasis supplied here.)

The decision in the Erie case turned on a factor entirely absent in this case, namely, that the municipality was given only a discretionary authority to build the reservoirs and, therefore, no legal duty was imposed on it to build the reservoirs.

In the case of Eagle Hose Co. v. Elec. Light Co., 33 Pa. Superior Ct. 581, a fire horse, belonging to the

[ 414 Pa. Page 204]

    plaintiff hose company, was killed when it stepped on an electric wire after an arc lamp, to which the wire was attached, fell to the ground because the lamp had been held in place by a hemp rope which had been consumed by the conflagration the fire company was fighting. The plaintiff contended that in using a rope, instead of a fireproof device, the electric company committed an act of negligence which resulted in the horse's death. The trial court entered a non-suit against the plaintiff, asserting that the proximate cause of the injury was the burning of the rope, due to a casualty which the defendant was not reasonably bound to foresee. The Superior Court reversed, declaring: "While the burning building may be treated as an inevitable accident so far as the defendant company is concerned, in that they were not in any manner identified with the cause of the fire and had no control over it, it may at least be treated as an intervening agency which brought into dangerous prominence that which a jury might find was a negligent act of the defendant, and so combined with it as to cause the plaintiff's damage. If this should be so determined against the defendant company it will be sufficient ground on which to base a verdict in the plaintiff's favor. ... The precautions which were reasonably necessary to protect the arc lamp in its place, and whether the company failed to adopt an appliance which was recognized as safer than the one he had had in use, and was well known to be of such a character, and in general use in the community prior to the happening of this accident, was a question for the jury."

Similarly in the case at bar, the question as to whether the water company used appropriate care in maintaining the water hydrants so they would not freeze or otherwise become inoperable was a question of fact for the jury.

[ 414 Pa. Page 205]

Did the water company, by failing to properly maintain the hydrants, create a perilous condition? Certainly it could never be said that the fire was an unforeseeable event. Unfortunately, fires are always possible, and the purpose of a fire hydrant, like a Minute Man, is to be ready for fires at all times. It would be wholly unrealistic to say that the water company was not to anticipate the likelihood of a fire, in which event its failing to keep the hydrants and their appurtenances in proper repair could result in the very loss which occurred and in the very manner it occurred. Thus, the defendant cannot avoid liability merely by asserting that the fire and not the defendant's negligence was the proximate cause of the plaintiffs' loss. What was said in Stark v. Lehigh Foundries, Inc., 388 Pa. 1, 11, applies here: "'"'One who negligently creates a dangerous condition cannot escape liability for the natural and probable consequences thereof, although the innocent act of a third party may have contributed to the final result.' And when there are two contributing acts, it is not proximity in time that determines which of them is the proximate cause of the resulting injury:" Mars v. Meadville Telephone Co., 344 Pa. 29, 31. ... In determining whether an intervening force is a superseding cause, the Supreme Court in Hendricks v. Pyramid Motor Freight Corp., 328 Pa. 570, 574, stated: "The answer to this inquiry depends on whether the (intervening) conduct was so extraordinary as not to have been reasonably foreseeable, or whether it was reasonably to be anticipated ..."

"'"The question of what is the proximate cause of an accident is almost always one of fact for the jury:" Ashby v. Phila. Electric Co., [328 Pa.] 479; Helmick v. South Union Twp., 323 Pa. 433, 439; Murray v. Pittsburgh Athletic Co., 324 Pa. 486, 493; Restatement, Torts, sec. 447.'"

[ 414 Pa. Page 206]

The defendant company next contends that it owed no liability to the plaintiffs because it was under no duty to supply them with water. To support this thesis it cites the case of Thompson v. Springfield Water Co., 215 Pa. 275, where this Court stated that since the municipality there involved had no duty to supply water to the plaintiffs, its agent, the water company, acting for and in behalf of the municipality, similarly had no such duty. We need not say whether under similar facts that decision would today be followed. It is sufficient to state that in the Thompson case, the Court proceeded on the theory that undertaking the task of supplying water to the plaintiff, as in Grant v. Erie, supra, was discretionary with the municipality and that therefore it could not be held liable for failing to exercise a discretionary duty.

The plaintiff's claim in the Thompson case was based on the insufficiency of available hydrants near the plaintiff's property and the Court viewed the claim as being one of a breach of duty to supply water. Here the situation is entirely different. The plaintiffs are not relying on the defendant's breach of duty to supply water but on its breach of a duty to use reasonable care in the operation and maintenance of a water system which the defendant had in fact set up in the vicinity of the plaintiffs' property.

Thus, the water company is not charged with the failure, through the municipality, to perform an act, which the court in the Thompson case said was a discretionary act. The municipality here did exercise its discretion and no one challenges that exercise. As a result of the fulfillment of that choice of action, hydrants were actually set up in the vicinity of the plaintiffs' property - five of them. Hence, the situation in the case at bar is far further advanced than the one outlined in the Thompson case. Discretion having been exercised and the physical fact of that exercise having

[ 414 Pa. Page 207]

    become a fait accompli, reasonable care in the maintenance and repair of the planted hydrants became imperative. The failure to use that care is what the defendants are being charged with, not merely a breach of duty to supply water because of the defendant's contract with the municipality.

The duty which the defendant company owed to the plaintiffs under the facts averred in the complaint arises from the law and not from its contract with the Borough.

The physical situation in the case at bar and the facts evolving therefrom bring this litigation squarely within the rule that where a party to a contract assumes a duty to the other party to the contract, and it is foreseeable that a breach of that duty will cause injury to some third person not a party to the contract, the contracting party owes a duty to all those falling within the foreseeable orbit of risk of harm. The landmark in this field of the law is the well-known MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co., 217 N.Y. 382, where the opinion was written by Judge CARDOZO.

In that case the defendant manufactured an automobile which it sold to a retail dealer who in turn sold it to the plaintiff. While the car was in movement, one of its wheels, being made of wood and defectively constructed, crumbled, and the plaintiff was thrown out of the car and injured.

He sued the manufacturer, Buick Motor Company, which defended on the basis that it had no contract with the plaintiff and therefore owed him no duty. The Court of Appeals of New York rejected this defense and held: "If the nature of a thing is such that it is reasonably certain to place life and limb in peril when negligently made, it is then a thing of danger. Its nature gives warning of the consequences to be expected. If to the element of danger there is added knowledge that the thing will be used by persons other

[ 414 Pa. Page 208]

    than the purchaser, and used without new tests, then, irrespective of a contract, the manufacturer of this thing of danger is under a duty to make it carefully."

To erect fire hydrants close to dwellings is to assure the inhabitants of those homes that potential fire engines stand guard to fight an invading conflagration. To erect fire hydrants and then not inspect them with some reasonable regularity is like setting sentinels and then offering them no relief or food so that they fall over from exhaustion and thereby become useless as watchful guardians. With fire hazard, unceasing vigilance is not only desirable but mandatory. As stated by Judge CARDOZO in the MacPherson case: "The presence of a known danger, attendant upon a known use, makes vigilance a duty. We have put aside the notion that the duty to safeguard life and limb, when the consequences of negligence may be foreseen, grows out of contract and nothing else. We have put the source of the obligation where it ought to be. We have put its source in the law." (Emphasis supplied.)

The New York Court of Appeals rejected the argument of the defendant that it owed a duty only to the dealer who purchased the car originally: "The defendant would have us say that he [the dealer] was the one person whom it was under a legal duty to protect. The law does not lead us to so inconsequent a conclusion. Precedents drawn from the days of travel by stage coach do not fit the conditions of travel today. The principle that the danger must be imminent does not change, but the things subject to the principle do change. They are whatever the needs of life in a developing civilization require them to be."

Could the needs of domiciliary life require anything more vitally than proper fire protection? Could anything be more cruelly deceptive than fire hydrants which do not function? Could there be a greater lapse of care than to fail to properly inspect and maintain

[ 414 Pa. Page 209]

    fire hydrants once they have been established and the community has accepted them as being live ...


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