The plaintiffs, in this case, are Richard and Elizabeth Jones, who are suing the defendants as the administrators of their daughter’s estate for her wrongful death. At the time of her death their daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Jones, was working as an independent contractor alongside some of the other defendants. She was working as the second camera assistant for a film crew that had been contracted to shoot the film ‘Midnight Rider’.
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On 20 February 2014, the production crew had planned to shoot a pre-production scene on the property of Rayonier, who had granted permission for the filming of the said scene on its property. Sarah and the rest of the crew arrived at the scene to prepare for the shoot. The scene was to be shot at railroad tracks that were owned and operated by CSX Transportation Inc. A representative of Rayonier informed the crew that only two trains would pass on the tracks per day.
None of the crew, agents, employees, representatives or contractors had obtained the requisite approval from CSX to shoot on their tracks despite the evident danger that was presented by the prospect of shooting on active railroad tracks. This lack of approval was hidden by the defendants from the rest of the cast and crew including Sarah. They gave the impression to the rest of the crew that they had obtained that permission.
The defendants also failed to apply minimum safety standards and to comply with the applicable industry standards for productions involving dangerous filming conditions. Based on the information that was given by Rayonier’s representative, the crew had waited for the two trains to pass before beginning the preparation of the scene. The crew was further informed that if another train approached, they would have 60 seconds to evacuate the equipment and themselves from the tracks. Despite their apprehension that this time might be insufficient, they proceeded with the shoot. At approximately 4.30 pm on the same day, another train approached the crew on the same tracks. It was wide and approaching at rapid speed. The only path left to the crew to evacuate was to run towards the train and then off the tracks, thus, leaving them with less than 60 seconds for evacuation. Some of the crew did not make it off the tracks in time, and the resulting collision led to Sarah’s death.
The legal issues that arise are that:
- As the owners of the property on which the filming was taking place, Rayonier was responsible for the activities taking place on its property. By informing the crew of the number of trains that would pass, it assumed the responsibility of accurately warning them of the dangers inherent in using the active railroad tracks.
- CSX was required by its safety rules to take reasonable precautions when unauthorized individuals are on the train tracks. They had actual knowledge of the presence of the crew on the tracks. Also, even though two trains had passed the crew and seen them preparing to shoot on the tracks, no warning was given to subsequent trains to take reasonable care. They did not provide a representative to assist in the evacuation of the crew and the equipment. Lastly, the driver of the train did not take reasonable precautions because it did not make use of a signal e.g. a low horn or even slow down when he saw the crew.
- These combined actions, therefore, led to a failure to exercise reasonable precautions and the required standard of care.
The law of torts imposes upon every individual the duty to act in a manner that is reasonable or to act in the same manner as a prudent person would in the same situation. A person is considered to have been negligent where he acts in a manner that causes the unreasonable and foreseeable risk of harm to the people around him. Negligence, like risk, has in fact been described regarding relation in that, an action will only be termed as negligent by viewing the surrounding circumstances in which it was committed (Thomas v. Quartermaine, 18 Q.B.D 685, 694). The four most important elements of negligence are a duty, a breach of that duty, causation, and damages.
Firstly, the plaintiff has to prove that there was a duty of care that was owed to him/her. Duty arises where a person’s conduct is such that it creates the possibility of harm to others. In their case, Rayonier’s duty of care arose from the fact that a property owner is has a duty of care towards all the people that he allows onto his property. The only exception is about uninvited guests. Otherwise, he is required to inform everyone that comes into his property with his knowledge of the risks of harm that are present on his property.
Failure to do so is considered a breach of this duty of care and he will be held liable in negligence for any harm that results from his failure to give warning. Rayonier, therefore, had a duty to warn the Midnight Rider crew of the risks of harm that were present on their property because the crew was there with the express knowledge of the property owner.
When the defendant fails to act like that which a reasonable person would in the same circumstances, then they are considered to have breached their duty of care. What is considered reasonable will inevitably vary with changing circumstances and whether or not a defendant has acted reasonably is primarily a matter of fact. For example, where a professional deviates from the standard rules of procedure that are exercised in his profession and this results in harm to another person, he/she is held to have breached the duty of care that is imposed on them. In this case, CSX, the railroad operators did not adhere to the standard procedure that was required of them to ensure the safety of the crew. Even though their formal approval was not sought, they knew the crew would be filming on an active railroad.
Despite this knowledge, they did not take the measures that would be taken by a reasonably prudent person of the same profession to ensure the safety of the crew. As railroad operators, they should have been alive to the fact that they needed to establish a system of communication with subsequent trains to approach at a low speed because of the presence of the crew on the tracks. They should have also provided a formal representative from their company who would ensure that safety regulations are adhered to according to their code of practice. Their failure to do so, therefore, led to the breach of the duty of care that they owed to the crew.
Another essential element is that there should be a chain of causation that links the defendant’s failure to act reasonably with the harm that is suffered by the plaintiff. In the present case, the courts would ask the question, ‘But for the negligence of the defendants, would Sarah’s death sill have occurred?’ If the answer is no, then the causal link is established.
Finally, for the plaintiff’s parents to recover compensation, they must show that Sarah suffered either physical or psychological damage. The fact that the harm suffered, in this case, is the death of one of the crew members means that her parents have the right to an award of compensation because the damage suffered is evident.
The most important defense that could be made available to the defendants is that of comparative fault. The argument that the defendants will present is essential that the plaintiff ought to have known the risk of harm when they were engaging in that activity, and therefore, they are partly to blame for the harm that they suffer as a result. Although this defense leads to the apportioning of fault between the plaintiff and the defendant, it does not eliminate the plaintiff’s ability to recover damages from the defendants. It was held in the Kansas Supreme Court that the purpose of this principle was to ensure that each of the parties paid their fair share of the loss (Brown v. Keill, 224 Kan. at 203, 580 P. 2d at 874).
The argument that could hurt this defense, however, is that Sarah was not made aware of the dangers that were inherent in the particular job that they were doing, and she could therefore not fairly be regarded as having assumed the risk knowingly.
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The defendants could also rely on the “open-and-obvious” doctrine which states that if the danger should be obvious and clear to the invitee, then the landowner is liberated from his duty of warning him/her of the dangers in the land (Armstrong v. Best Buy Co. Inc, 99 Ohio St. 3d 79). In this case, therefore, the defendants could argue that the crew ought to have known of the obvious dangers that are inherent in shooting on active railway tracks.
Vicarious Liability is a liability that is imputed to a person other than the one that committed the tortuous action. The justification of this is usually that the person that committed the tort was acting under the directions and for the benefit of the person upon whom the liability is imputed. This is usually the case where employers are made liable for the actions of their employees but not those of independent contractors. In this case, Rayonier would only be held responsible for the misleading statement made by Tim Kicklighter if the plaintiffs can show that he was their employee and acting within the necessary course of his employment. If he was working as an independent contractor, they would not be held liable for his statements.
Brown v. Keill, 224 Kan. at 203, 580 P. 2d at 874.
Armstrong v. Best Buy Co. Inc, 99 Ohio St. 3d 79.
Thomas v. Quartermaine, 18 Q.B.D 685, 694.