McDermott v. State
The duty of care a tree removal crew owed to members of the general public was to keep them a reasonably safe distance away from the tree removal operation. Department of Transportation employees placed safety cones around and removed the limbs from a 55 foot sugar maple tree. While they removed the trunk in segments, William McDermott walked approximately 35 feet past a cone and stood between crew members, approximately 55 feet from the trunk. A segment fell to the ground, struck a limb on the ground and propelled it into the air. The limb struck McDermott on the forehead. He fell backward, struck his head on the sidewalk and died from his injuries. The log landed approximately 90 feet from the tree. After obtaining permission from the claims commissioner, Madeline McDermott, individually and as administratrix of her husband's estate, brought this action against the state seeking damages for wrongful death and loss of consortium. The court found the defendant liable on both counts. The defendant appealed, claiming first, that the court improperly determined the scope of the duty of care owed to the decedent. The majority of the Appellate Court reversed the judgment. The duty of care owed to the decedent and other members of the general public was to keep them a reasonably safe distance from the tree removal operation. The majority disagreed with the trial court that the defendant assumed the duty to remove the decedent from the marked area simply because of the cones' location. The trial court concluded that the defendant's duty was to prevent the decedent from walking past the cone, even though it found that the decedent was standing within an area considered appropriate by industry standards and the log that struck him traveled beyond the coned area. The majority also determined that the court improperly concluded that the death was proximately caused by the defendant's employees' failure to remove the decedent from the marked area. The trial court found the "specific event" causing death "not legitimately foreseeable." While the question of proximate cause is generally a factual issue and becomes one of law when the mind of a fair and reasonable person could reach only one conclusion, here, it was a question of law. Judge Pellegrino dissented.