In a recent case before the First Circuit Court of Appeals, the estate of a deceased commercial fisherman brought a wrongful death action against the owner and leaseholder of a pier, alleging that the defendants failed to provide safe and reasonable access to the fishing boat on which the deceased was working. While the lower court ruled in favor of the defendants on summary judgment, the First Circuit reversed and remanded the decision, finding a genuine issue of material fact as to the foreseeability of the fisherman’s specific use of the property that caused his death.
In Cracchiolo v. Eastern Fisheries, Inc., the pier was used primarily to process fish and berth vessels. At the facility, there were a number of entrances and exits to access various areas on the property. A main route was regularly plowed and led to the fish processing areas and to the pier. There was also an alternative route through a large gap in the fence surrounding the facility, which provided a path directly to the pier and berthing area that was much shorter than the main pathway. The alternative route was clearly visible and the path was shorter by way of crossing the retainer wall surrounding a portion of the pier.
On the night of the incident, the deceased took the alternative route when returning to his fishing ship to check on the vessel. A third party had warned the deceased that the route was icy, but because the main gate was locked, the deceased could not return to the ship unless he used the alternative route. As he made his way to the boat using this alternative route, the deceased slipped, fell into the water, and drowned. The plaintiff, the spouse of the deceased, alleged that the owner of the pier and the company that leased the pier failed to use due care in the inspection, maintenance, and repair of the premises, and failed to provide the deceased with a safe and reasonable egress from and ingress to the boat, particularly given the winter weather conditions at the time.
Under Massachusetts law, to prevail on a negligence claim, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of reasonable care, that the defendant breached this duty, that damage resulted from the breach, and that there is a causal relationship between the breach of duty and the damage suffered. Additionally, landowners ordinarily have no duty to warn of hazards where the warning would be obvious for an ordinary intelligent visitor. Based upon Massachusetts premises liability case law, particularly in instances where snow and ice conditions make a path more perilous, a landowner has the duty to make reasonable efforts to protect lawful visitors against the danger of snow and ice conditions.
The defendants argued that there was no duty to warn the deceased of any danger, as the pathway was clearly dangerous and the defendants did not know seamen utilized the alternative path. The defendants further asserted that, absent a duty to warn the deceased, there could be no breach of any duty that could give rise to a successful negligence claim against them.
The First Circuit disagreed, ruling that the record contained too many disputes of material fact on the issue of the defendants’ duty to warn the deceased of the dangers of taking the alternative route. A duty to warn visitors may exist if the defendant knew or should have known about the use. Although it may have been clear that it was more dangerous to cross the retaining wall than to walk around the building, a jury could assess the degree of risk involved in doing so, as part of its assessment of the foreseeability that seamen would use the alternative route. Accordingly, the First Circuit remanded the case to the district court for these issues of material fact to be presented to and decided upon by a jury. If a jury finds that it is foreseeable that fishermen would use the alternative route along the retaining wall, then the defendants may very well have had a duty to warn the deceased against the risks of doing so.