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Knight v. Rower - 170 Vt. 96, 742 A.2d 1237 (1999)

Rule:

The elements of common law negligence are: (1) defendants owed a legal duty to protect plaintiff from an unreasonable risk of harm; (2) defendants breached that duty; (3) defendants' conduct was the proximate cause of plaintiffs' injuries; and (4) plaintiffs suffered actual damage. 

Facts:

On July 5, 1996, David Woodward and Jacob Rower visited two separate properties, one owned by defendants Duncan and Geraldine Leete and the second owned by defendant Sally Spear. They consumed alcohol on the lands owned by the Leetes and Spear. Woodward was a passenger in Rower's car as they left Spear's property and Rower caused an accident. Woodward died as a result of the crash. Woodward's mother, plaintiff Naomi "Sukie" Knight, individually and as the administrator of his estate, and joined by his father, Timothy N. Woodward, filed suit against the Leetes and Spears; defendants Jacob Rower, the driver, and his parents, Kenneth and Leslie Rower, alleging negligent operation of a motor vehicle, negligent entrustment, and negligent supervision; defendants Heather Pierson, who allegedly purchased alcohol for Rower and Woodward on July 4; and defendants Gidget Rollins and Donald Leete, who allegedly were present while the alcohol was consumed. Gidget Rollins and Sally Spear filed a motions for judgment on the pleadings and/or summary judgment; Duncan and Geraldine Leete filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. The trial court granted Spears' and the Leetes' motions for judgment on the pleadings, holding that property owners did not owe a duty to individuals injured by minors attending social gatherings on their property if the owners were neither present nor furnished the alcohol consumed. Plaintiffs appealed.

Issue:

Did the court properly grant judgment on the pleadings in favor of the landowners, Spears and the Leetes?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The state supreme court affirmed the trial court's order because the plaintiffs never alleged that defendant landowners were present at time of the incident or furnished the alcohol consumed; there was no liability for injuries caused by consumption of alcohol on their property where they were not present, did not furnish alcohol, and did not control alcohol consumed. In order for plaintiffs to prevail, they had to that the landowners furnished the alcohol to the driver, driver and passenger, which connoted possession or control of the alcoholic beverage by the furnisher. Thus, the court affirmed, holding that the landowners were not liable for injuries caused by the consumption of alcohol on their property where they were not present, did not furnish the alcohol, and did not control the alcohol consumed. Also, plaintiffs failed to show that the landowners possessed a heightened duty to protect.

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