Justia Vermont Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Personal Injury
Civetti v.Town of Isle La Motte, et al.
A Vermont trial court determined that both the Town of Isle La Motte and the road commissioner Shelby Turner were entitled to qualified immunity and granted their motions for summary judgment after concluding that decisions regarding road alterations were discretionary, “involv[ing] an element of judgment or choice,” rather than ministerial, meaning “prescribe[d].” The underlying tort action in this appeal followed an August 2016 motor vehicle accident in the Town: Plaintiff Paul Civetti was driving a propane truck on Main Street when he lost control of the vehicle causing it to roll over and come to rest on its roof. Plaintiff argued defendants were negligent in failing to widen Main Street in accordance with Vermont Town Road and Bridge Standards, causing his accident. The State of Vermont promulgated Town Road and Bridge Standards to serve as guidance for municipalities when they decide to construct or alter a town highway. Plaintiff filed a negligence claim against defendants the Town of Isle La Motte and Turner, in his capacity as road commissioner, seeking damages for plaintiff’s injuries. The parties disputed what authority, if any, the Town Selectboard delegated to the road commissioner to construct, lay out, and alter Town roadways. The Vermont Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that deciding whether to widen Main Street was discretionary, thus entitling both the Town and the road commissioner to qualified immunity. The Court therefore affirmed. View "Civetti v.Town of Isle La Motte, et al." on Justia Law
Beatty v. Keough
Plaintiff and defendant worked in the same location. Defendant was the wife of plaintiff’s employer. In late July 2021, plaintiff sought relief under 12 V.S.A. § 5133 following a workplace confrontation with defendant. After an October 2021 hearing, the trial court credited plaintiff's version of events, ultimately concluding that defendant defendant behaved in a way that she knew or should have known would place a reasonable person in fear of harm, and this satisfied the statutory definition of stalking. The court thus issued a final anti-stalking order in plaintiff’s favor. Defendant appealed the issuance of that anti-stalking order against her, raising procedural and substantive challenges to the court’s decision. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court agreed with defendant that the evidence did not support the trial court’s conclusion that she engaged in “two or more acts over a period of time, however short” as required by 12 V.S.A. § 5131(1)(A). The Court therefore reversed. View "Beatty v. Keough" on Justia Law
Progressive Northern Insurance Company v. McGrath
Plaintiff-appellant Kevin McGrath challenged a superior court’s decision granting summary judgment to appellee Progressive Northern Insurance Company. Specifically, he argued the court erred in concluding that he was not “occupying” a vehicle, as that term is defined in the insurance policy at issue, when he was struck and injured by an underinsured motorist. Plaintiff was driving the vehicle’s owner in the owner’s vehicle to the airport. Plaintiff stopped at a gas station/convenience store on the way; he got out to pump gas and paid for it at the pump. The owner went inside the store for coffee. As the two returned to the car, but before they got inside, a pickup truck struck both plaintiff and the owner. Plaintiff filed for underinsured motorist benefits with the owner’s insurance company, Progressive, asserting he qualified for coverage under the terms of the policy. Progressive denied the claim, contending Plaintiff was not operating or occupying the car at the time of the accident. Plaintiff sued for a declaratory judgment on stipulated facts and no discovery. Summary judgment was entered in favor of the insurer. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed, finding that while Plaintiff intended to enter the car, he did not, thus he did not occupy it under the terms of the policy at issue. View "Progressive Northern Insurance Company v. McGrath" on Justia Law
Higgins v. Bailey
The issue this case presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review was whether a landlord who had no knowledge that a tenant’s dog had dangerous propensities could be held liable for injuries the dog causes to individuals who enter the property with tenant’s permission. Plaintiff Katherine Higgins, who was badly injured by a tenant’s dog while on the leased property, challenged the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to defendant landlords. When he was showing the house on landlords’ behalf after tenant moved in, a realtor who was representing landlords in marketing the property observed obvious signs around the house that a dog lived there, including door casings that were badly scratched by the dog. The realtor did not see the dog and did not know its size or breed or whether it had ever acted aggressively towards any person or other animal; based on the sound of the dog, he opined that it was “tough and loud.” Plaintiff, a neighbor, was attacked and seriously injured by tenant’s dog, an American Pitbull Terrier, while visiting tenant on the rental property. On appeal, plaintiff renews her argument that landlords have a general duty of care to the public, and that this duty includes a duty of reasonable inquiry concerning tenants’ domestic animals. In addition, she argues that landlords were on notice of the dog’s dangerous propensities on the basis of the observations made by realtor, acting as landlords’ agent. Finally, she contends that landlords are liable to plaintiff on the basis of a municipal ordinance. Finding no reversible error in granting summary judgment to the landlords, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court. View "Higgins v. Bailey" on Justia Law
West v. North Branch Fire District #1
Claimant John West appealed a Vermont Department of Labor decision concluding that the 2014 amendment to 21 V.S.A. 644(a)(6) did not apply retroactively. In March 2013, West fell fifteen to twenty feet while working in the course of his employment for North Branch Fire District. He was transported to the hospital and treated for extensive injuries. In September 2014, West relocated to Florida, and at some point thereafter, began working at the Freedom Boat Club. Between 2014 and 2016, several different physicians provided conflicting opinions on the level of West’s permanent impairment. In February 2016, Dr. Joseph Kandel conducted an independent medical examination (IME) at North Branch’s request. At a deposition in September 2018, Dr. Kandel testified that it would be accurate to say that “West suffered an injury to the skull resulting in [a] severe traumatic brain injury causing permanent and severe cognitive, physical, or psychiatric disabilities.” West filed a request for a formal hearing, asserting that he was permanently and totally disabled under section 644(a)(6). Between the date of West’s injury and his request for a formal hearing, the Vermont Legislature amended section 644(a)(6). In January 2019, North Branch filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the pre-amendment version of 644(a)(6), which defined total and permanent disability as “an injury to the skull resulting in incurable imbecility or insanity,” applied to West’s claim because that was the law on the date of his injury in March 2013. Further, North Branch argued that the 2014 amendment did not apply retroactively because despite the Legislature’s stated purpose, the amendment created a substantive change in the law. In any event, because West was employed, North Branch maintained that he was not totally and permanently disabled under either version of 644(a)(6). West argued that, contrary to the Commissioner’s conclusion, the 2014 amendment to 644(a)(6) applied retroactively because it did not create any new substantive rights. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the 2014 amendment applied retroactively and therefore reversed and remanded. View "West v. North Branch Fire District #1" on Justia Law
Crogan v. Pine Bluff Estates et al.
Plaintiff Cameron Crogan was seriously injured when he rode his motorbike into a cable strung across a beach access road at the lakeside residential development where he lived with his family. As a result, his mother filed a negligence action against several entities related to the development, including the homeowners’ association and a separately formed beach association, as well as certain individuals in both their individual and representative capacities. The civil division granted defendants’ motions for summary judgment primarily on the grounds that, given the undisputed facts of this case, Vermont’s Recreational Use Statute protected them from liability, and the individual defendants did not owe plaintiff a duty of care in connection with the accident that led to this lawsuit. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the individual defendants were entitled to summary judgment, but reversed the trial court’s determination that the Recreational Use Statute was applicable in this case. Accordingly, the case was remanded for further proceedings concerning plaintiff’s claims against the non-individual defendants. View "Crogan v. Pine Bluff Estates et al." on Justia Law
Blondin v. Milton Town School District et al.
Defendant Milton Town School District and plaintiff, a high-school football player who sued the District after being assaulted by team members during an off-campus team dinner at the residence of one of the players, both appealed various trial court rulings and the jury’s verdict in favor of plaintiff following a five-day trial. Plaintiff sued the District in 2017 claiming negligent supervision and a violation of the Vermont Public Accommodations Act (VPAA) in connection with his assault at the hands of fellow football team members at an on off-campus dinner in the fall of 2012. At that time, Plaintiff was a freshman, and the District was aware that members of the football team had a history of harassment, including sexual assaults and hazing, against underclassmen team members. In October 2012, nine or ten members of the team, including plaintiff, attended a team dinner at one of the player’s parents’ home. At some point that evening, plaintiff was dragged down to the basement and thrown onto a couch, where one player held plaintiff down while another player forcibly inserted a pool cue into plaintiff’s rectum. The school principal spoke to plaintiff and another football player after learning that some incoming freshman did not want to play football because they had heard rumors of team members using broomsticks to initiate new team members. When the principal told plaintiff that she would shut down the football program if the rumors proved to be true, plaintiff denied the rumors because he feared retaliation from other students for causing the football program to be shut down. The principal then directed plaintiff to speak to the incoming freshman and tell him he had lied about the use of broomsticks during the initiation of new team members. When the principal informed the district superintendent about the rumors, the superintendent declined to do anything further. In April 2014, the Department for Children and Families (DCF) opened an investigation into allegations concerning the Milton High School football team. The Chittenden County State’s Attorney later filed criminal charges against five Milton High School football players, including plaintiff’s attackers, all of whom pled guilty to criminal offenses related to harassment, hazing, and assault. After review of the trial court record, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the judgment. View "Blondin v. Milton Town School District et al." on Justia Law
Newton v. Preseau
Plaintiff Bradley Newton, who was injured when his brother’s truck broke apart while on a lift in plaintiff’s garage, appealed the civil division’s decision granting summary judgment to defendants associated with the state-designated inspection station where the truck had been inspected several months earlier. In the early autumn of 2014, defendant Ron Preseau performed an annual state inspection of a 1994 GMC pickup truck owned by defendant Douglas Newton, who is plaintiff Bradley Newton’s brother. In late January 2015, the truck broke down while being operated on a public highway. Shortly thereafter, Douglas put the inoperable pickup on a flatbed truck and took it to plaintiff’s detached garage. In 2010, plaintiff had purchased and installed a lift in his garage. After the plow was removed from the front of the pickup, Douglas put the pickup, which had at least 300 pounds of sand in its bed, on the lift. After diagnosing the problem, Douglas asked plaintiff to assess the damage. While plaintiff was under the truck, it collapsed into two pieces, and plaintiff was injured when one of the pieces pinned him to the floor of the garage. In July 2017, plaintiff filed a personal injury action, alleging in relevant part that defendant Preseau and others had acted negligently in connection with the inspection of the truck. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded that any legal duty owed by motor vehicle inspectors to third persons did not extend to plaintiff under the circumstances of this case, which did not involve operation of the subject vehicle or any other vehicle at the time of the incident in question. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the civil division’s decision. View "Newton v. Preseau" on Justia Law
Civetti v. Turner
The trial court dismissed plaintiff Paul Civetti's negligence action against the Town of Isle La Motte and the Town Road Commissioner on grounds that: (1) because the Road Commissioner was an “appointed or elected municipal officer,” plaintiff was required by 24 V.S.A. section 901(a) to bring his action against the Town, rather than the Road Commissioner; and (2) the Town was, in turn, immune from suit based on municipal immunity. In his complaint, plaintiff alleged that: the Town has formally adopted road standards for its town roads; the Road Commissioner is responsible for assuring that the Town’s roads meet those standards; Main Street did not comply with those standards, including standards relating to the “width and shoulder”; the Road Commissioner knew or should have known that Main Street did not comply; and plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle accident because of the non-compliant road. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded that if the Road Commissioner was negligent in performing a ministerial function, the Town assumes the Road Commissioner’s place in defending the action and therefore may not assert municipal immunity from the claim pursuant to section 901(a) or § 901a, and that dismissal of this claim on the basis of qualified immunity was premature. Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Civetti v. Turner" on Justia Law
Montague v. Hundred Acre Homestead, LLC
Plaintiff Darryl Montague sued Hundred Acre Homestead, a therapeutic residential community, after a resident of Hundred Acre shot him at the shooting range he owned. He invoked two theories of liability: (1) that as the resident’s mental-health provider, Hundred Acre breached a duty to take reasonable steps to protect him from the resident by warning him of the danger she posed; and (2) Hundred Acre breached a duty to him by accepting and retaining the resident for care in violation of applicable Vermont regulations. Montague appealed the superior court’s dismissal of both. The issue this case presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review reduced to whether one who provides residential care for an individual had a tort-law duty to warn a potential victim of violence by that individual when that potential victim is neither individually identified or identifiable, nor a member of a discrete identified or identifiable class of potential victims. The Court concluded both theories of negligence failed because neither established that Hundred Acre had a cognizable legal duty to protect Montague enforceable through a private tort action. View "Montague v. Hundred Acre Homestead, LLC" on Justia Law