The Importance of Knowledge in Negligence Claims – Wheeling Park Commission v. Dattoli

fenceWhen an individual or loved one is injured or killed as a result of another’s error or failure, it can be difficult not to want to place blame on the person or entity that is believed to have caused the harm.  It is only human nature that we would want to hold another accountable for the harm that we have suffered and to seek retribution or revenge for the loss that was experienced.  When dealing with claims of negligence, however, it is not enough that the accident or shortcomings of another party led to an injury.  The law requires that a plaintiff also show that the defendant had a duty to prevent the circumstances that led to the injury and that the individual knowingly failed to uphold such a duty.  Without this element, a negligence claim cannot succeed.

In Wheeling Park Commission v. Dattoli, the requirements of duty and knowledge were at the heart of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals’ determination that a park agency should not be held liable for injuries that occurred to a member of the public.  In the case, Joseph Dattoli was injured while visiting a park maintained by the Wheeling Park Commission.  Mr. Dattoli was leaning on a split rail fence when the fence collapsed. He suffered a rotator cuff injury that led to his being out of work for over six months. Mr. Dattoli brought a negligence claim against the Commission.

At trial, Mr. Dattoli presented evidence of the damages he experienced. He also produced evidence that the Commission had installed the fence sometime between 1970 and 1990, and it had no documentation of any repairs ever being done to the fence. The Commission later moved for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that Mr. Dattoli had not established all the requisite elements for a negligence claim, including knowledge. The motion was denied, and the jury awarded Mr. Dattoli approximately $50,000 in damages.  The Commission appealed the court’s denial of its motion for judgment as a matter of law.

On appeal, the Commission argued that Mr. Dattoli had offered no evidence to show that the Commission owed a duty of maintenance of the fence to Mr. Dattoli or had failed to meet its duty.  Under the requirements for a negligence claim, a plaintiff must show that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff, the defendant breached that duty, and the breach resulted in injuries and damages to the plaintiff.  Here, the court noted, the test of liability for the Commission was whether someone in the Commission’s position would or should have known that Mr. Dattoli was likely to face harm when he leaned against the Commission’s fence. Here, the court determined that to the extent the Commission owed a duty to Mr. Dattoli while he was on public property, there was no evidence to show that anyone at the Commission had knowledge, or should have had knowledge, that the fence was not being maintained in a manner consistent with that duty.

Specifically, the court held that no one had reported to the Commission that the fence was damaged, and there had been no prior reports of injuries due to the fence. Nor was there any evidence that the defect in the fence was so obvious as to be noticeable to anyone passing by and thus should have been known by the Commission. In light of the lack of such evidence, the court determined that Mr. Dattoli failed to establish a prima facie case of negligence and that the trial court erred in denying the Commission’s motion for judgment as a matter of law. Accordingly, the judgment in favor of Mr. Dattoli was reversed.

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident on another’s property, it is important that you take a careful look at which duties were owed and the knowledge the other party might have had.  The Wolfe Law Firm can help in such matters.  Our West Virginia personal injury lawyers have been serving clients in child injury and other claims throughout the state for more than 25 years. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm represents clients in a wide range of injury, criminal defense, and bankruptcy matters. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

Related blog posts:

Premise Liability for Roadways and Walkways in West Virginia – Barb v. Shepherd University

Open and Obvious Hazards in West Virginia Premises Liability Cases – Skaggs v. U.S.

Visitor, Trespasser, Invitee: Why Labels Matter in West Virginia Premises Liability Cases – Ragonese v. Racing Corporation of West Virginia