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Longnecker v. Illinois Power Co.

OPINION FILED SEPTEMBER 1, 1978.

ROGER LONGNECKER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

ILLINOIS POWER COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Madison County; the Hon. HORACE L. CALVO, Judge, presiding.

MR. PRESIDING JUSTICE EBERSPACHER DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

This is an appeal by defendant, Illinois Power Company ("Illinois Power"), from a judgment entered by the circuit court of Madison County following a jury trial, which judgment was in favor of plaintiff, Roger Longnecker, for personal injuries. These injuries were sustained when, on May 10, 1974, during the course of his employment, plaintiff fell from a distribution pole owned by Illinois Power. Plaintiff was employed by Southwestern Cable Television Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Cablevision Construction Company. Cablevision Construction Company had a subcontract with Anaconda Company to install a distribution system for cable television in the East Alton-Wood River area. Anaconda Company was the general contractor for the installation of the entire cable television system for Madison County Cablevision Corporation, a subsidiary of Cable Media Corporation, which held the franchises for the operation of the system in the area. Either Cable Media Corporation or its subsidiary had an agreement with Illinois Power to rent space on Illinois Power's distribution poles for the purpose of carrying the television cables in the area.

Plaintiff originally brought this action against Anaconda Company, Madison County Cablevision Corporation, and Illinois Power. In turn, Anaconda had filed a third-party action against plaintiff's employers. However, pursuant to a loan receipt agreement, the claims against Anaconda, Madison County Cablevision Corporation and the third-party action were dismissed by the lower court prior to trial. Thereafter an amended complaint premised on negligence was filed by plaintiff against the sole remaining defendant, Illinois Power. Following trial, judgment was entered in the amount of $200,000. We find the dispositive issue presented on appeal to be whether the lower court erred in denying motions by Illinois Power for a directed verdict and for judgment n.o.v.

The evidence at trial showed that prior to the actual installation of the television cable, preparatory work had been done including the replacement by Illinois Power of certain of its distribution poles which had been found unsuitable by Cable Media Corporation. Of its 4,500 distribution poles in the area, 1,600 were actually used for the television cables for which Illinois Power received a rent of $4.75 per pole amounting to $7,600 per year.

In December 1972, the particular distribution pole involved in the instant case, had broken off at its base during an ice storm. Rather than replace this pole, for purposes of support Illinois Power had embedded a "stub" pole next to the existing one which was then firmly attached to it by means of metal bands.

Plaintiff testified that he had three years experience as a lineman. His union classification was as an apprentice groundman. He, however, was working "out of classification" as a journeyman cable T.V. lineman. He stated that he was qualified to do the work of a lineman. He had been assigned to a crew whose function it was to string a support line from pole to pole to which the television cable would ultimately be attached.

By union rule and nation-wide industry custom and practice, the lineman himself determines whether or not he will climb any particular distribution pole. His decision that a pole is or is not in good condition and suitable for climbing is usually based on his own expert judgment and experience. Basic tests employed by linemen include visual inspection, pounding of the pole, such as with a hammer, to determine if it is solid or hollow, and probing the wood, such as with a screwdriver, to determine if it is soft or hard. When a lineman determines that a pole is unsafe, he may refuse to climb the pole. Plaintiff knew of this custom and practice. Illinois Power's policy was to replace poles upon request of linemen.

Plaintiff had been working at the job of stringing the support wire for three weeks prior to the occurrence. The particular pole from which he fell was the fourth pole that he had climbed that day. Plaintiff testified that as he approached the pole he noticed the stub pole attached thereto which indicated to him that it was weakened or rotten at its base. After a visual inspection of it, however, he determined that it was safe to climb. As he climbed about 25 feet up, he began having difficulty keeping his foot spikes or "gaffs" in the pole. He stated that at that spot there was "shell rot," that is, about one inch of decay on the outermost layer of wood. He thus proceeded to gouge out the wood with his gaffs until he located good wood. He stated that he had not gone back down the pole when he first encountered the problem because "I thought I was safe enough and secure to do the job." Plaintiff then fastened his safety belt around the pole and commenced his work. He had fastened the belt only around the distribution pole because the belt was too short to go around both that pole and the adjoining stub pole. When he finished, he climbed about two feet down the pole with his safety belt still on at which point he decided to climb laterally onto the adjoining newer stub pole because it appeared to be a better pole on which to descend. He then unfastened the safety belt and began moving laterally around the pole. He unfastened it because it was too short to use in the process of moving from one pole onto the other. He stated that the belt could have been extended or adjusted to a longer length so as to encompass both poles but he stated that he did not so adjust the belt before moving laterally; "Because I thought * * * I could handle it myself without it." As he was moving laterally plaintiff stated that he lost his footing as "the wood chipped off from underneath" and he fell landing flat on his back.

Randy Coffman, a groundman operator also working out of classification as a cable T.V. lineman, testified that subsequent to the instant occurrence, he too was assigned the task of climbing the same pole involved in the instant case. He was cautious in so doing because he was aware that plaintiff had fallen off that particular pole. He stated that because the pole was stubbed, such indicated that the pole was "not in real good shape," however, from a visual inspection from the ground it appeared to be safe to climb. Consequently, he determined to climb it. When he reached the point from where plaintiff had fallen, he could see that at that spot the pole was in bad shape. He stated that it was rotten such that "you could just reach and pick pieces out of the pole". He stated that he had to be "pretty cautious" so consequently he fastened on his safety belt. His belt was longer than plaintiff's had been, so that he was able to fasten it around both the distribution pole and the stub pole. He then continued with his work. When he finished, he began to descend the pole with his safety belt still fastened. As he stepped onto the aforementioned decayed spot, his gaffs slipped. However, he was held in place by his safety belt and he thereafter descended the pole without incident. When he reached the ground, he informed his foreman that he would not again climb the pole because of its condition.

An expert witness, James Taylor, testified on plaintiff's behalf that he had performed tests upon the pole at and near its base. He stated that the pole was hollow at its base. However, because his testing had been limited to the lowest portion of the pole, he stated that he had no opinion as to the exact condition of the pole at the point from which plaintiff fell. He stated, however, that he could see that there was delay developing at that point. He further stated that because of ground conditions, poles often rot out at the ground level but remain in good condition above the ground. Nonetheless, based upon a visual inspection of the pole, Taylor testified that in his opinion the pole was dangerous and should not have been climbed.

On behalf of Illinois Power, evidence was presented showing that at the level of the pole at which plaintiff fell, the interior of the pole was solid.

Defense motions for a directed verdict at the close of plaintiff's case and at the close of all the evidence were denied by the trial court. A post-trial motion for a judgment n.o.v. was also denied. In passing upon the correctness of the lower court's rulings, the rule is as stated in the oft-cited case of Pedrick v. Peoria & Eastern R.R. Co., 37 Ill.2d 494, 510, 229 N.E.2d 504, 513-14:

"In our judgment verdicts ought to be directed and judgments n.o.v. entered only in those cases in which all of the evidence, when viewed in its aspect most favorable to the opponent, so overwhelmingly favors movant that no contrary verdict based on that evidence could ever stand."

• 1-3 Initially we note that on appeal a question remains disputed as to whether plaintiff entered upon the distribution pole as a business invitee of Illinois Power. A person is a business invitee on the premises of another if (1) he enters by express or implied invitation, (2) his entry is connected with the possessor's business or with an activity the possessor conducts or permits to be conducted on his premises, and (3) there is a mutuality of benefit or an advantage to the possessor. (Madrazo v. Michaels, 1 Ill. App.3d 583, 274 N.E.2d 635.) Generally an independent contractor and his employees who are doing work upon the premises in the interest of the possessor as well as their own, are business invitees of the possessor. (National Builders Bank v. Schuham, 319 Ill. App. 546, 49 N.E.2d 825.) The evidence in the instant case leaves no question but that plaintiff entered upon the distribution pole as a business invitee of Illinois Power pursuant to the agreement of Illinois Power to rent space on its poles to Cable Media Corporation, ...


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