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Dunnaway v. Duquesne Light Co.

decided: January 7, 1970.


Hastie, Chief Judge, and McLaughlin and Van Dusen, Circuit Judges.

Author: Hastie


HASTIE, Chief Judge.

Allegheny Contracting Industries was under contract with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to construct a bridge across Chartier's Creek in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. The bridge was part of an extensive redevelopment project covering approximately 20 to 30 square blocks. Chartier's Creek runs from east to west, and the bridge spanned it in a north to south direction. On the south side of the bridge, set back from the bridge and running parallel to the creek, was a 69,000 volt power line owned and maintained by the appellant Duquesne Light Company. The power line was suspended from towers 500 feet apart and was 39.4 feet from the ground at the point where the accident occurred. The height required by safety regulations was 23 feet.

Construction on the bridge began early in 1965. In late spring, about four to six weeks before the accident, a crane was employed to pour the three piers or support columns of the bridge. About a week to ten days before the accident, Allegheny's general superintendent and job superintendent decided to utilize a crane to pour the concrete floor of the bridge. For this purpose a new section was added to the boom of a crane on the north side of the creek, extending its length to 100 feet, approximately double its former length. The northern portion of the bridge floor was poured first. On either the night before or the morning of the accident, this newly lengthened crane was walked around to the south side of the bridge. The crane was positioned underneath the wires, with the cab to the south of the wires and the boom extending north over the bridge at any angle of 35 to 40 degrees. The crane was equipped with a bucket attached to the boom by steel cables. The bucket would be filled with concrete from trucks on the bank of the creek and then swung back over the bridge to be dumped. Joseph McKnight, along with several of his fellow workers, all employed by Allegheny, would manually guide the bucket to the proper spot to be dumped. As each load of concrete was released from the bucket the boom would naturally rise.

The pouring began in the middle of the bridge and continued back toward the south shore. When one line of pavement was completed, the crane would be backed up to position it for the next line. The angle of the boom was never changed and, as the work progressed, it was brought inevitably closer to the overhead wires. The accident occurred around noon while the workmen were in the process of releasing concrete from the bucket. The boom came in contact with the electrical line and the resulting charge travelled down the steel cables to the bucket electrocuting workman McKnight.

Plaintiff, a Tennessee administrator, brought this suit against Duquesne Light Company, a Pennsylvania corporation, claiming damages under the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death and Survival statutes for the death of Joseph McKnight. Duquesne joined decedent's employer Allegheny Contracting Industries as a third-party defendant. The jury found that both defendants negligently caused the accident, and returned a verdict of $75,000 for the plaintiff. Duquesne Light Company moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and in the alternative, for a new trial. This is an appeal from the denial of those motions.

Federal jurisdiction in the present case is based upon diversity of citizenship. Therefore, the law of Pennsylvania provides the legal rules and principles in accordance with which liability must be determined.

Duquesne contends that there was insufficient notice of the dangerous situation to place it under a duty to act, and that, assuming sufficient notice existed, Allegheny's awareness of the dangerous situation relieved Duquesne of liability for the accident.

In support of its second contention, Duquesne asserts that under Pennsylvania law an electric company with notice of a person in dangerous proximity to its wires can satisfy its duty by merely warning the person of the danger involved, but that, in the present case, such a warning would have been superfluous and was, therefore, unnecessary because Allegheny knew the exact voltage carried by the electric line and was fully aware of the danger involved in operating a crane beneath it.*fn1 However, Duquesne's interpretation of Pennsylvania law is incorrect. A warning does not automatically discharge an electric company of its duty to those in proximity to its wire. Rather, a warning is only one element to be considered by the jury in determining whether the electric company has exercised reasonable care*fn2 to protect against the danger. Hamilton v. United States, W.D.Pa.1956, 143 F. Supp. 179; Commonwealth Trust Co. of Pittsburgh v. Carnegie-Illinois Steel Co., 1945, 353 Pa. 150, 44 A.2d 594.

The adequacy of a warning in relieving an electric company from liability must depend on both the expected efficacy of the warning and the availability of more effective alternate precautions. Experience has taught that from time to time a crane operator with full knowledge of the danger will bring the boom in contact with overhead wires.*fn3

In the present case, as in Commonwealth Trust Co. of Pittsburgh, supra, the electric company could have taken a simple alternate precaution which would have completely eliminated the danger. Duquesne's Superintendent of Personnel, Transmission, and Distribution testified that the electric line could easily have been de-energized with no resulting strain on the system. We agree with the court below that it was for the jury to decide whether in all of the circumstances precautions short of de-energizing the line met the high standard of care which the law imposed upon Duquesne.

Different considerations control the separate issue whether Duquesne had such notice of the danger as would obligate it to take preventive action. Of course an electric company is bound to anticipate the customary uses of the land beneath its wires. Duquesne provided normally adequate protection against those uses by locating and maintaining its lines some sixteen feet above the height required by safety regulations. But the accident in the present case was the result of a very unusual occurrence, the operation of a crane with a 100 foot boom beneath the lines. Thus, a critical question arose whether the facts were sufficient to charge Duquesne with notice of such a dangerous situation.

Duquesne had no actual knowledge of the crane's actual or prospective use immediately beneath its wires. The crane had not been in position under the lines a sufficient length of time to have been discovered in ordinary course of inspection or observation. However, the question remains whether Duquesne, through other facts of which it had knowledge, should have ...

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