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Porter v. Union Electric Co.

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ILLINOIS


September 24, 2009

JUSTIN PORTER, A MINOR, BY AND THROUGH HIS MOTHER AND NEXT FRIEND, ANNA THEBEAU, AND ANNA THEBEAU, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
UNION ELECTRIC COMPANY, D/B/A AMEREN UE, DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stiehl, District Judge

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

Before the Court is plaintiffs' motion for new trial, which the Court takes as a motion for reconsideration*fn1 (Doc. 48), to which defendant has filed a response (Doc. 51). Plaintiffs seek reconsideration pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59.

BACKGROUND

On April 26, 2005, plaintiff Justin Porter, age thirteen (13), trespassed upon land owned by defendant Union Electric Company d/b/a Ameren UE Corporation (Ameren) in Madison County, Illinois. Plaintiff Porter then climbed a metal tower carrying a power line owned by defendant, upon which he was electrocuted and fell approximately thirty-five (35) feet to the ground, sustaining burns, fractures, lacerations, and contusions. Plaintiff is represented by his mother and next friend, Anna Thebeau. Plaintiffs seek reconsideration pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59 of the Court's Order, dated September 30, 2008, which granted Ameren summary judgment based upon a finding that Ameren did not owe plaintiff Justin Porter a duty of care.

LEGAL STANDARD

Under Rule 59(e), a litigant may move the Court to amend a judgment on three limited bases: (1) newly discovered evidence; (2) an intervening change in controlling law; or (3) manifest error of law or fact. Cosgrove v. Bartolotta, 150 F.3d 729, 73 (7 th Cir. 1998); Russell v. Delco Remy Div. of Gen. Motors Corp., 51 F.3d 746, 749 (7 th Cir. 1995); Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e).

ANALYSIS

I. Child Trespasser Exception v. Frequent Trespasser

Exception*fn2 The basis of plaintiffs' claim against defendant is that, despite the general rule in Illinois that landowners owe no duty of care to trespassers,*fn3 plaintiff Justin Porter sustained an injury on defendant's land for which an exception to the "no duty" rule applies. In their motion now before the Court, plaintiffs seek reconsideration of the Court's ruling that the child trespasser exception*fn4 applies in this case. Plaintiffs contend that they alleged their claim under the frequent trespasser exception,*fn5 which is separate and distinct from the child trespasser exception.*fn6 Although defendant argues that the child trespasser exception and the frequent trespasser exception are not separate and distinct exceptions to the "no duty" rule, settled Illinois law belies that assertion.*fn7

But recognizing the existence of, and distinction between, these two exceptions does not end the Court's inquiry. The Court must also determine whether, as plaintiffs argue, the frequent trespasser exception applies in this case.*fn8 As the following discussion reveals, plaintiffs now seek an extension of the frequent trespasser exception which Illinois courts have never adopted.

The Supreme Court of Illinois has not applied the frequent trespasser exception in any case since 1921,*fn9 but the Illinois Court of Appeals has applied that exception more recently, most frequently in cases involving trespassers traversing a "beaten path" on or near a set of railroad tracks.*fn10 In at least one case, Miller v. Gen. Motors Corp., 565 N.E.2d 687 (Ill. App. 1990), the Illinois Court of Appeals refused to extend the frequent trespasser exception to cover a case involving a trespasser who was electrocuted by a power line. Id. at 694.

In Miller, a twenty-year-old boy attempted to gain access to a balcony area of a pumphouse by scaling a nine-foot wall and crawling through a twelve- by twenty-inch gap between the floor and the balcony. Id. at 689. After climbing onto the balcony, plaintiff grabbed a live electrical wire, and severely injured his hand. Id. Although the Illinois Court of Appeals explicitly considered the frequent trespasser exception in determining whether the defendant owed a duty of care to plaintiff, the court did not apply that rule. Id. at 691-95. Therefore, the Illinois Court of Appeals implicitly refused to extend application of the frequent trespasser exception to reach cases with facts similar to those now before the Court.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court of Illinois has never considered a case in which an overhead power line caused an electrocution to a child trespasser.*fn11 Therefore, the Supreme Court has never passed on the question of whether the child trespasser exception applies in such cases. But the Illinois Court of Appeals has applied the child trespasser exception on facts similar to those now before the Court.*fn12 Notably, the Court of Appeals also applied the open and obvious danger doctrine*fn13 to limit landowner liability in those cases,*fn14 a result plaintiffs attempt to avoid in this case through application of the frequent trespasser exception.

Even if the Illinois Supreme Court has not endorsed its lower courts' application of the child trespasser exception, this Court cannot ignore or reject the Illinois Court of Appeals' clear pronouncement that the child trespasser exception applies when a child is electrocuted by an overhead power line.*fn15 After ascertaining what the law in Illinois states with respect to this issue, the Court remains unpersuaded by other data that the Supreme Court of Illinois would depart from its lower courts' rulings.*fn16 Ultimately, plaintiffs' desire to apply the frequent trespass exception in this case is an attempted end-run around the immunity that landowners enjoy against trespassers who injure themselves on open and obvious dangers.*fn17 Accordingly, plaintiffs' motion for reconsideration cannot be granted on these grounds.

II. Duty Analysis

Plaintiffs also seek reconsideration on the grounds that, even if this Court properly applied the open and obvious danger rule, the Court erred in failing to consider whether defendant could reasonably have foreseen the injury that plaintiff Porter sustained.*fn18 But as the Illinois Supreme Court has made clear, when the open and obvious danger rule applies in trespasser cases, "there is no reasonably foreseeable risk of harm."*fn19 The Court further stated that "[t]he exception for obvious dangers is 'not merely a matter of contributory negligence or assumption of risk, but of lack of duty to the child.'"*fn20 This Court is bound by the Supreme Court of Illinois' clear holding that landowners cannot foresee injuries sustained by child trespassers on open and obvious conditions and, therefore, owe no duty of care in such circumstances.*fn21 Accordingly, plaintiffs' motion for reconsideration cannot be granted on these grounds.

III. Power Line: Open and Obvious Risk?

Finally, plaintiffs contend that the Court erred in ruling that the risk of electrocution that plaintiff Porter encountered was open and obvious. Plaintiffs have simply restated the argument that they raised in opposition to defendant's motion for summary judgment, an argument that the Court previously considered and rejected. Upon review of the record, the Court remains convinced that plaintiff Justin Porter encountered the open and obvious risk of electrocution when he knowingly climbed a metal tower supporting a power line.*fn22 Because plaintiffs have not pointed to any manifest error of law or fact with respect to their third and final argument, their motion for reconsideration on these grounds warrants no further consideration.

CONCLUSION

This Court, as it has previously stated, is not unsympathetic to the unfortunate circumstances leading to plaintiff Porter's injuries in this case. In arriving at its determination, the Court has considered and weighed competing considerations of public policy. The great concern for human safety that is raised by the facts of this case must be weighed against the rationale that, "in a civilization based on private ownership, it is considered a socially desirable policy to permit a person use of his land in his own way, without the burden of watching for and protecting those who come there without permission or right."*fn23 Ultimately, "[t]he responsibility for a child's safety lies primarily with his or her parents, whose duty it is to see that the child is not placed in danger."*fn24 Upon review of the record, the Court DENIES plaintiffs' motion for reconsideration (Doc. 48).

IT IS SO ORDERED.

WILLIAM D. STIEHL DISTRICT JUDGE


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