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Thompson v. Pennsylvania Power Co.

filed: September 19, 1968.


Biggs, McLaughlin and Freedman, Circuit Judges. Freedman, Circuit Judge.

Author: Biggs

BIGGS, Circuit Judge.

The plaintiff-appellant Thompson appeals from a directed verdict entered in favor of the defendant-appellee Pennsylvania Power Company (Power Co.). Mrs. Thompson brought suit in the court below seeking damages under the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act, 12 P.S. § 1601 and under the Pennsylvania Survival Act, 20 P.S. § 320.601. Jurisdiction of both claims is based on diversity of citizenship and statutory amount, 28 U.S.C. § 1332, and the law of Pennsylvania governs.

The relevant facts follow. On August 21, 1964, the wife of the decedent, George Clemmer, gave birth to twins. Later that afternoon Clemmer visited the Dutch Club, located in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. After some jubilant drinking Clemmer, his father-in-law and a friend set out to see a beaver dam located about a mile from the club. On the way to and from the dam Clemmer was "acting like a fool", according to his father-in-law, leaping and "chinning" himself on the limbs of trees.

The area between the club and the supposed location of the dam*fn1 was partially cleared and partially wooded. Over this area were strung two electric wires owned and maintained by the Power Company. One of the wires was a neutral wire which carried virtually no voltage but the other wire, live and uninsulated, carried 4800 volts of electricity. It appears that at some time prior to the accident and for a reason not appearing from the record both wires had sagged to within 8 to 10 feet of the ground. When Clemmer passed beneath the wires, he shouted, "Look here! " to his father-in-law, leaped up, grasped one of the wires in each hand and was electrocuted instantly.

It is undisputed that the poles supporting the wires were 276 feet apart, that the live wire had remained energized despite the fact that the last customer serviced by it had ceased to use it in 1950, that the wires were blackened due to exposure, and that the last visual inspection made by the Power Co. had been made during the week of September 26, 1960, nearly four years prior to the accident.

At the close of the appellant's case the Power Co. moved for a directed verdict. This was denied. At the close of all the testimony the Power Co. again moved for a directed verdict. The court reserved decision on the motion. After the jury was unable to reach a decision, a directed verdict was entered in favor of the Power Co. on the grounds that Clemmer was contributorily negligent as a matter of law and that there was insufficient evidence from which reasonably the jury could have found the Power Co. guilty of wanton misconduct.*fn2 Thompson has appealed.

The appeal is based on two grounds: first, that the evidence presented on the issue of Clemmer's contributory negligence did not justify a directed verdict. Mrs. Thompson's second contention is that the trial judge was in error in refusing to charge the jury on the issue of the alleged wanton misconduct of the Power Co. We conclude that judgment was properly entered in favor of the Power Co.

The negligence of the Power Co. in the case at bar is in large part based on the following contentions: the energized line should have been de-energized and the poles supporting the line should have been placed closer together than 276 feet in order to prevent the lines from sagging.*fn3

In light of our disposition of the case at bar we shall assume that the trial judge was correct in concluding that there was sufficient testimony from which the Power Co. could be held to have been negligent. See Daltry v. Media Elec. Light, Heat & Power Co., 208 Pa. 403, 410, 57 A. 833, 836 (1904). In this regard we note that Pennsylvania imposes upon a supplier of electricity the highest degree of care. Skoda v. West Penn Power Co., 411 Pa. 323, 191 A.2d 822 (1963).*fn4

We turn to the question of contributory negligence. In Haertel v. Penna. Light & Power Co., 219 Pa. 640, 643, 69 A. 282 (1908), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania stated: "While electric companies are bound to use the highest degree of care practicable to avoid injury to everyone who may be in lawful proximity to their wires, yet the ordinary person is held to know that danger attends contact with electric wires, and it is his duty to avoid them so far as he may. If one heedlessly brings himself in contact with such a wire, and is injured in consequence, his imprudence must be regarded as a contributory cause, and will prevent a recovery." At 219 Pa. 642, 69 A. at 282, it was stated: "How he came in contact with the wire is pure speculation, with a strong implication from the circumstances that it was occasioned by his own imprudence." In the case at bar the Power Co. contends that the decedent came in contact with the deadly wires by reason of his own imprudence. See also Rank v. Metropolitan Edison Co., 370 Pa. 107, 87 A.2d 198 (1952). Could the jury have reached the opposite conclusion?*fn5 We cannot see how. We agree with the court below that decedent Clemmer was contributorily negligent as a matter of law. Rank v. Metropolitan Edison Co., 370 Pa. 107, 87 A.2d 198 (1952); Everett v. Citizens Gas & Eletric Co., 228 Pa. 241, 77 A. 460 (1910).*fn6

Finally, as we have stated, Thompson contends that the court below erred in not charging the jury on the issue of the liability of the Power Co. for wanton misconduct.*fn7 Wanton misconduct has been defined by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to mean "'that the actor has intentionally done an act of an unreasonable character, in disregard of a risk known to him or so obvious that he must be taken to have been aware of it, and so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow. It usually is accompanied by a conscious indifference to the consequences . . . .' Prosser, Torts § 33 at 151 (2d ed. 1955)." Evans v. Philadelphia Trans. Co., 418 Pa. 567, 574, 212 A.2d 440, 443 (1965). See also Goss v. Baltimore & Ohio R.R. Co., 355 F.2d 649 (3 Cir. 1966); Moss v. Reading Co., 418 Pa. 598, 212 A.2d 226 (1965); Kasanovich v. George, 348 Pa. 199, 34 A.2d 523 (1943).

We think, taking the evidence in the light most favorable to Thompson, that there was insufficient evidence to justify a charge to the jury on wanton misconduct. If there is to be any substance to a distinction between negligent conduct in breach of the highest duty of care and wanton misconduct as it relates to the activity of a utility company, the latter standard must require conduct which exceeds negligence in its reckless nature. Evans v. Philadelphia Trans. Co., supra. Kasanovich v. George, supra. We conclude that such a showing has not been made in the case at bar. See Weir v. Haverford Electric Co., 221 Pa. 611, 616-17, 70 A. 874, 876 (1908). A holding to the contrary would ignore the distinction, created by the courts of Pennsylvania, between negligence and wanton misconduct and effectively eliminate the defense of contributory negligence when asserted by a utility company. Whatever may be the merit of requiring such companies to be insurers of the safety of those who come into contact, either accidentally or intentionally, with electrical facilities, it is not the law of Pennsylvania. See Skoda v. ...

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