22 October 2013

Controversial Court Decisions: Bigbee v. Pacific Tel. & Tel. Co.

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe controversial, notorious, infamous, and outrageous court decisions. For similar posts, click here.

Case: Bigbee v. Pacific Tel. & Tel. Co., 34 Cal.3d 49 (1983).

Facts: Bigbee was was injured when an allgedly intoxicated driver lost control of her car, veered off the street into a parking lot, and crashed into a telephone booth in which the man was standing. The phone booth was about 15 feet from the road, and the door was allegedly "sticky."  Bigbee sued the driver and the companies that served her alcohol. In addition (and this is what this case is about), he also sued the companies responsible for the design, location, installation, and maintenance of the telephone booth. 

Appellate Court: The California Supreme Court ruled that the risk someone might veer off the road and crash into the telephone booth was not unforeseeable as a matter of law. The Court also determined that it was of no consequence that the harm to the plaintiff came about through the negligent or reckless acts of an allegedly intoxicated driver. The Court concluded that "there are no policy considerations which weigh against imposition of liability" against the defendants, and referred specifically to "the probable availability of insurance tor these types of accidents." After the case was remanded, the defendants settled with Bigbee for an undisclosed amount.

Why It's Controversial: The Court's decision that the companies responsible for the design, installation and maintenance of the telephone booth could be held liable endorsed a wide-ranging definition of forseeability: A jury need not find that the defendants could forsee an intoxicated driver crashing into a phone booth located on that particular street, but rather whether a jury could foresee any driver crashing into a man standing in any phone booth similarly situated (the dissent notes that public telephones have long been maintained adjacent to roads for the convenience of the public, despite obvious but remote risks). This broad definition of forseeability is a license for a considerable expansion of liability. For more background and a different perspective on the Bigbee case, see here.
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