31_train_trackIn October, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated and remanded back to the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts a premises liability case that could have a significant impact on landowner rights.

In Menard v. CSX Transportation, Inc., a trespasser named Menard injured himself as he walked across an active rail yard on his commute home.  Menard argued that CSX employees breached their duty of care by failing to warn him to leave the property.  However, both the District Court and the First Circuit determined that, as a trespasser, “the duty owed to him – unless and until a specific peril threatened him and this became known to CSX – was only to avoid willful, wanton or reckless conduct.”

At issue on the limited remand is whether Menard was in fact in peril and, if he was, whether CSX employees acted negligently.  The District Court should reassert its previous position and, following Massachusetts case-law, hold that absent aggravating circumstances, an adult who chooses to trespass upon railroad tracks is not entitled to recover.

The First Circuit relied on the 1982 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case of Schofield v. Merrill, in which that court squarely rejected a proposal by the dissenters to expand landowners’ duties to trespassers.  Specifically, the Court stated that a “trespasser is entitled to no greater duty of care from … the landowner… than that he refrain from willful wanton or reckless disregard for the trespasser’s safety”, although “reasonable care” is owed to trespassers who are known to be in a “position of peril”.

Contrary to Menard’s arguments, as the First Circuit points out, nothing in Menard’s complaint supports the general allegation that Menard was seen by CSX employees who knew he was in peril or, if seen, could have been rescued by reasonable care.  As the district judge observed, Menard never alleged that he “saw any employees in the vicinity of the railroad switch when he was injured, that he called to anyone for help, or that any specific person saw Mr. Menard’s peril.”  Therefore, Menard does not fall into the “specific peril” exception.

Further, a ruling in favor of Menard would encourage plaintiffs to sue businesses for injuries that were predominately the fault of the plaintiffs.  If businesses are liable for injuries to those on their property both with and without permission, it is likely that these businesses would be party to never-ending lawsuits.  Additionally, if businesses are held to the same standard for trespassers as they are for those rightfully on the property, the businesses will face increased security and insurance costs in an effort to keep trespassers off the property and to protect themselves against almost certain litigation.

For both legal and policy reasons, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts should rule that landowners owe no duty to trespassers unless that trespasser is known to be in peril and can be rescued with reasonable care.