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Colon v. Metro-North Commuter Railroad Co.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

October 13, 2017

MILTON OMAR COLON and ARLENE DAVIS, Plaintiffs,
v.
METRO-NORTH COMMUTER RAILROAD COMPANY, and METROPOLITAN TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY, Defendants,
v.
UNITED ILLUMINATING COMPANY, Third-Party Defendant.

          RULING ON MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW AS TO LIABILITY UNDER THE KNOWN TRESPASSER AND CHILD TRESPASSER RULES

          JEFFREY ALKER MEYER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Omar Colon suffered severe electrocution injuries after he trespassed on railroad property and climbed up high on a catenary pole next to high voltage wires running above the railroad tracks near New Haven, Connecticut. He and his spouse, Arlene Davis, filed a personal injury lawsuit against defendants Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company (“Metro-North”) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (“MTA”) claiming that they should be liable for Colon's injuries.

         Following several years of pre-trial discovery and motions, the case went to jury trial in August 2017. The case was predicated on plaintiff's status as a trespasser and whether defendants should be liable to him for the injuries he suffered despite the fact that he was a trespasser on railroad property. At the close of plaintiffs' evidence, defendants moved pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a) for judgment as a matter of law. Doc. #471. Although I permitted the case to proceed to the jury with respect to one of plaintiff's theories of liability (referred to here as the “constant trespass” rule), I declined to instruct the jury on two alternative theories of liability (referred to here as the “known trespasser” and “child trespasser” rules). The jury subsequently rendered a verdict for defendants on the constant trespass rule, concluding that plaintiffs had failed to prove three out of the five necessary elements to sustain their claim. Doc. #494.

         This ruling explains the basis for my declining to instruct the jury under the known trespasser and child trespasser rules. I conclude that the evidence was insufficient for plaintiff to proceed on the known trespasser rule, because there was no evidence that defendants knew at the time of the incident that Colon or any other trespasser was in dangerous proximity to high voltage wires on their property. I further conclude that the evidence was insufficient for plaintiff to proceed on the child trespasser rule for multiple reasons: (1) because Colon was not a child; (2) because the child trespasser rule does not apply to adults like Colon with diminished mental capacity; and (3) because plaintiffs did not prove that defendants knew or had reason to know that children (or adults with diminished mental capacities) would climb the railroad's catenary poles as Colon did.

         Background

         The factual background of this case has been described in detail in the Court's ruling on motions for summary judgment. See Colon v. Metro-N. Commuter R.R. Co., 242 F.Supp.3d 65, 69-71 (D. Conn. 2017). Insofar as relevant now, my summary judgment ruling outlined three potential theories of negligence liability as provided for in the Restatement (Second) of Torts.

         The first and most significant theory was the constant trespasser rule under § 335 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. This rule provides that a possessor of property may be liable to a trespasser for an injury that a trespasser sustains on the property if the possessor of property was aware of prior constant intrusion by trespassers upon the limited area of the land where the danger existed that injured the trespassing plaintiff. I concluded for summary judgment purposes that there was enough evidence on this theory to warrant a trial. Id. at 73-75. In view that the admissible evidence would likely be the same and that the issue would be subject to reconsideration on the basis of evidence to be presented at trial, I also allowed in my summary judgment ruling for plaintiffs to proceed under the known trespasser rule of § 337 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts and the child trespasser rule of § 339 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. Id. at 75-77.

         Discussion

         Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50, a motion for judgment as a matter of law will be granted only if “a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party” at trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). A party seeking judgment on this basis bears a “heavy burden, ” and will succeed only if “the evidence is such that, without weighing the credibility of the witnesses or otherwise considering the weight of the evidence, there can be but one conclusion as to the verdict that reasonable [persons] could have reached.” Matusick v. Erie Cnty. Water Auth., 757 F.3d 31, 52 (2d Cir. 2014). I must view the evidence “in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion was made and ... give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that the jury might have drawn in his favor from the evidence.” Harris v. O'Hare, 770 F.3d 224, 231 (2d Cir. 2014). Moreover, notwithstanding a movant's reliance on trial evidence that favored the movant's version of events, a court considering a Rule 50 motion “must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe.” ING Glob. v. United Parcel Serv. Oasis Supply Corp., 757 F.3d 92, 97 (2d Cir. 2014).

         The issues discussed here involve the application of Connecticut law. As a federal court, my role is to apply Connecticut law as I believe that the Connecticut Supreme Court would do and giving proper regard to relevant rulings of lower Connecticut courts as well as analogous rulings from other jurisdictions. See, e.g., In re Thelen, LLP, 736 F.3d 213, 219 (2d Cir. 2013).

         In light of these standards, I conclude as a matter of law and in light of the evidence presented by plaintiffs at trial that there was no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for the jury to have been instructed on and to consider whether defendants should have been liable under the known trespasser or child trespasser rules. I will address both rules in turn.

         The Known Trespasser Rule

         Section 337 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts is titled: “Artificial Conditions Highly Dangerous to Known Trespassers.” It provides:

A possessor of land who maintains on the land an artificial condition which involves a risk of death or serious bodily harm to persons coming in contact with it, is subject to liability for bodily harm caused to trespassers by his failure to exercise reasonable care to warn them of the condition if (a) the possessor knows or has reason to know of their presence in dangerous proximity to the condition, and (b) the condition is of such a ...

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