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Law School Case Brief

Haskins v. Grybko - 301 Mass. 322, 17 N.E.2d 146 (1938)

Rule:

If a trespasser is merely a trespasser upon the land of a third person, then the third person is bound to exercise reasonable care so that no harm incurs on account of the third person's negligence. If a trespasser is a trespasser upon the a third person's land, the latter is not liable for mere negligence, but is under an obligation to refrain from intentional injury and from wilful, wanton and reckless conduct.

Facts:

Defendant John Grybko was in possession, as lessee, of a tract of land containing about 20 acres. The land was used to raise squash, and defendant's crop had suffered from the ravages of woodchucks. Defendant went to the northwesterly corner of his lot on the evening of July 7, 1933, for the purpose of shooting woodchucks. He was standing beside his automobile on his own lot when he heard a rustling noise in the brush about 50 feet away, and then saw a moving object about 18 inches high in the brush. Believing that the object was a woodchuck, he shot at it. After staying a few minutes he left the tract. When he returned the next morning, he discovered the body of the intestate.

The public administrator brought a tort action to recover for the death of the intestate. The district court held that there was no evidence of any sort that tended to show why the plaintiff’s intestate was in that general locality. According to the district court, the plaintiff's intestate was a trespasser either on lands of a third party who owned to the north of the leased premises or was a trespasser on the lot leased by defendant Grybko. Despite this, the district court found that Grybko as negligent and that degree of negligence was ordinary negligence; therefore, the plaintiff could recover.

Issue:

Could the public administrator, on behalf of the Intestate, recover damages by merely proving that defendant was ordinarily negligent in the shooting?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of Massachusetts held that the legal duty owed by the property lessee to the deceased depended upon the relation of the deceased to him at the time of the shooting. If the deceased was merely a trespasser upon the land of a third person, then the lessee was bound to exercise reasonable care so that no harm would be incurred by the deceased on account of the lessee's negligence. If the deceased was a trespasser upon the defendant’s land, the latter was not liable for mere negligence. He was, however, under an obligation to refrain from intentional injury and from wilful, wanton and reckless conduct. As the administrator failed to show that the deceased was not a trespasser upon the defendant’s land when the shooting occurred, he was not entitled to recover by proving that the defendant was guilty of mere negligence, and the ruling in favor of the lessee was erroneous.

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