Law School Case Brief
Peterson v. Taylor - 316 N.W.2d 869 (Iowa 1982)
A particular child's incapacity for negligence may be determined by the court as a matter of law only if the child is so young or the evidence of incapacity so overwhelming that reasonable minds could not differ on that issue. If reasonable minds can differ, the question of the child's contributory negligence is submitted to the jury with instructions to apply a standard of care similar to the following: If the actor is a child, the standard of conduct to which he must conform to avoid being negligent is that of a reasonable person of like age, intelligence, and experience under like circumstances. In applying this standard, the jury must initially make a subjective determination of the particular child's capacity to perceive and avoid the specific risk involved, based on evidence of his age, intelligence and experience. Although that standard has been applied by Iowa courts in conjunction with presumptions of incapacity where the child was below the age of fourteen, the Iowa Supreme Court now holds that it no longer recognize any presumptions regarding the capacity of children for negligence or contributory negligence; rather, the question of a particular child's capacity is an issue of fact to be determined on the basis of evidence of the child's age, intelligence and experience.
Evidence at trial showed that the Taylors and the Petersons lived on neighboring small acreages just outside the Des Moines city limits and that plaintiff, seven-year-old David Peterson, frequently played with the Taylors' son Greg. On Sunday, August 7, 1977, David and his three-year-old sister Molly stopped at the Taylor place on their way home from another neighbor's house. Finding no one home, David decided to gather some twigs and build a fire on a concrete slab in the Taylors' back yard, using some matches he had taken from his uncle's car earlier that day. When the wind blew that fire out, David "got mad." He then went to the Taylors' storage shed, removed a can of gasoline, opened it, smelled it to confirm that it was gasoline, threw a lighted match into it and stood back to watch the fire come out of the can. When that fire appeared to have died out, he went to the shed, removed a second can of gasoline, and accidentally spilled some of it on his pants. Then he dropped the second can and either lit another match or knocked over the first can which was still flaming inside; in any event, David's gasoline-soaked pants somehow became ignited, and he rolled on the ground to put out the fire. As a result of the incident, David received serious burns on the lower half of his body and superficial burns on portions of the upper half.
The shed from which David removed the gasoline cans was a small brick building with a single wooden door, held shut by a sliding bolt located approximately 57 inches above the ground. When David approached the shed on August 7, the door was bolted as usual, and he stood on his "tippy-toes" to unlatch it. Although David had never been in the shed prior to the day of his injury, he knew the Taylors stored cans of gasoline there.
David also testified that he had been told not to go onto the Taylors' property when they were not home, and that he knew the Taylors would not have allowed him to enter the shed had they been present. He knew that gasoline would burn and might even explode when ignited with a match. When he put the match into the first gasoline can, he thought about the possibility that he would be burned. His mother testified that David had previously been caught playing with fire on a few other occasions and had been punished and sternly warned about the dangers involved.
Plaintiff presented expert testimony to the effect that David was of average intelligence, that he was mildly hyperactive, and that hyperactive children tend to be somewhat more attracted to playing with fire than other children. The expert also testified that a child having David's characteristics probably would not realize the full extent of the danger involved in playing with matches and gasoline; for instance, he probably would not realize that a gasoline fire cannot be put out with water. The same expert did testify, however, that such a child "would certainly know that he'd get burned" if he played with gasoline and matches.
Was there sufficient evidence for the trial court to submit the question of the boy's contributory negligence to the jury?
A jury absolved the neighbors of liability. The court affirmed. The court no longer recognized any presumptions regarding a child's capacity for negligence or contributory negligence. A jury initially had to make a subjective determination of a particular child's capacity to understand a specific risk based on his age, intelligence and experience. The standard of conduct to which this child had to conform was that of a reasonable person of his age, intelligence, and experience under similar circumstances. There was sufficient evidence for the trial court to submit the question of the boy's contributory negligence to the jury. The child testified he had been told not to go on his neighbors' property if they were not home and that he knew about the risk of gasoline. The jury instructions adequately set forth the necessary elements of a landowner's liability to trespassing children for harm caused by an artificial condition.
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