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JONES v. UNITED STATES

September 23, 1969

Herman J. JONES, as Administrator of the Estate of Lawrence P. Jones, Deceased; Herman J. Jones and Genevieve Jones, Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES of America, Defendant. UNITED STATES of America, Third-Party Plaintiff, v. HAWKES AMBULANCE SERVICE, INC., Third-Party Defendant. HAWKES AMBULANCE SERVICE, INC., Fourth-Party Plaintiff, v. METROPOLITAN EQUIPMENT CORPORATION and Superior Coach Corporation, Fourth-Party Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: WEINFELD

EDWARD WEINFELD, District Judge.

 This Court found plaintiffs had sustained their burden of proof that the defendant, United States of America, "was negligent in allowing the trip to be undertaken without a trained, experienced ambulance attendant, and that Jones was not such a trained attendant, of which the defendant was aware," *fn1" but had failed to sustain their burden on the issue of proximate cause and accordingly dismissed the complaint upon the merits and awarded judgment in favor of defendant. Upon plaintiffs' appeal, the Court of Appeals disagreed with this Court's finding on the issue of proximate cause. It held, "there was sufficient evidence that Hefko caused Jones' fall from the ambulance and we reject the trial court's conclusion that the plaintiffs had failed to meet their burden of proof on the issue of proximate cause." *fn2" Seemingly, with both negligence and proximate cause decided in plaintiffs' favor, the only issue remaining was that of damages. But the Court did not remand for assessment of damages. Instead, citing its own authorities *fn3" that New York law makes a distinction between duties owed to the public at large and duties owed to employees of independent contractors, the Court held that as to Hefko and the general public the government was under a nondelegable duty to see that adequate precautions were taken to restrain Hefko during the trip, but that "[as] to Hawkes' employees, the United States is not liable if its contractual relations with Hawkes justified it in assuming that Hawkes' employees would be capable of handling dangers such as this, as to which they had been alerted." *fn4" The Court, however, was of the view that it was not clear whether Hawkes was obligated under the contract to provide such an adequately trained ambulance attendant; accordingly, it reversed and remanded for consideration of this and other issues related to the defendant's duty to Hawkes' employees. These issues include (1) whether Hawkes was obligated under the contract between it and the defendant to provide an ambulance attendant qualified to handle potentially violent and assaultive mental patients such as Hefko, and (2) if Hawkes was so obligated, whether the defendant gave adequate notice to Hawkes of Hefko's condition.

 Preliminarily, the defendant questions the scope of the judgment of reversal. It contends: "The Court of Appeals did not hold that defendant's negligence was a proximate cause of the accident"; it urges that the issue is still open. The hard core of the government's position is that although the Court of Appeals held the evidence was sufficient to establish that some act or conduct of Hefko caused the accident, it did not decide that the defendant's negligence in allowing the trip to be undertaken when it knew that Jones was an inexperienced attendant was the proximate cause of Jones' death. In this Court's view, the issue was concluded by the Court of Appeals. The broad language that "we reject the trial court's conclusion that the plaintiffs had failed to meet their burden of proof on the issue of proximate cause" leaves no room for such argument. *fn5" A fair reading of the opinion and the above quoted language make it clear the Court deemed that a trained and experienced attendant would have been equal to the task of handling and, if necessary, restraining Hefko, thereby forestalling the cause or causes which resulted in the disastrous event. In short, the fatal accident would not have occurred but for Jones' lack of training and experience in the handling of potentially dangerous patients. Thus, we turn to the remanded issues referred to above.

 Under the remand, the construction of the contract between Hawkes and the government is crucial, since the Court of Appeals held that defendant's liability rests upon "whether it was Hawkes' obligation under the contract to provide an ambulance attendant with adequate experience to handle Hefko." *fn6" But, after reviewing the applicable provisions of the contract and testimony relevant to the issue, that Court also held that "the present evidence does not provide any sufficient basis for concluding that the contract required an attendant trained to handle potentially violent and assaultive mental patients." *fn7" In the absence of additional proof, this Court would not be justified in reaching a different conclusion. At the remand hearing all parties rested without offering additional evidence. Thus the question of which party bears the burden of proof on the terms of the contract is of vital significance.

 The United States and Hawkes were parties to the contract; they, and not Jones, are responsible for any ambiguities or lack of specificity therein. The defendant offered no proof that the contract, or any practice or custom, or any other circumstance obligated Hawkes to provide attendants who would be capable of handling dangerous patients or justified the defendant in assuming that Hawkes was so obligated. Plaintiff, a total stranger to the agreement, should not have the burden of establishing its interpretation or the intention of those who brought it into being. By any standard of fair play, let alone logic, the parties to a questioned document, and not a stranger, should carry the burden of establishing its meaning. And this is particularly so where, as here, the defendant seeks to shield itself from liability by contending that, having hired an independent contractor and delegated functions to it, it thereby relieved itself of a duty otherwise owing to Jones. The defendant must, "if responsibility is to be escaped * * * show how and why it was shifted to some one else. Escape from responsibility through the delegation of duty to another is a defense to be proved, not a privilege presumed." *fn8"

 Absent additional evidence on the contract, and in light of the Court of Appeals' ruling that the record before it did not support a finding favorable to defendant on this issue, this Court holds that the defendant has failed to carry its burden of proof that it delegated to Hawkes the duty it owed to Hawkes' employees to safeguard them from the unpredictable actions of potentially violent and assaultive patients. *fn9" It has also failed to establish its defense that Jones was contributorily negligent. *fn10" Accordingly, the defendant is held liable and plaintiffs are entitled to recover damages.

 New York law limits damages in a wrongful death action to the pecuniary loss sustained by the next of kin for whose benefit the action is brought. *fn11" At the outset it is to be recognized that the determination of the future pecuniary benefits of which next of kin have been deprived does not lend itself to mathematical precision and invokes elements necessarily uncertain in nature; nonetheless, when warranted by evidence, an award is justified. *fn12"

 Lawrence Jones at the time of the accident and his death was within two months of his eighteenth birthday. He was survived by his father, then aged forty-seven years, and mother, whose age was forty-one. He lived at home with his parents, a twin brother and three sisters.

 Lawrence dropped out of high school in June 1961, when he was just sixteen years of age. He was an unskilled worker; his work record was episodic and earnings were on the low side. Until he started to work for Hawkes as an apprentice oxygen attendant, he held five jobs, from September 4, 1961 to January 22, 1963, principally as a stock clerk or stock boy. His earnings over that entire period, about seventeen months, totalled $1,507, which, pro rated, reflects earnings of approximately $21 per week, although his weekly earning capacity when actually employed was higher. While employed by one of the five firms, where he remained for two months, Lawrence's mother testified he gave her $15 per week.

 Lawrence's employment with Hawkes was at a higher salary than in any previous job. It commenced on March 14, 1963, and the accident occurred eleven days thereafter. Within that period his earnings amounted to $138. His mother testified that while employed by Hawkes he contributed $25 per week derived from his unemployment insurance check, since he had received only $21 from Hawkes up to the time of the accident; the balance of his wages, $117, was paid after his death.

 Plaintiffs' contention that Lawrence's contributions had been at the rate of $1,250 per year, or $25 per week, is not supported by the record. There were periods of unemployment. He was the recipient of unemployment insurance payments, and the mother, who was employed, as was the father (except for a brief period), acknowledged she gave him funds when he was out of work. On the other hand, it appears that he was a devoted son and made contributions whenever he worked, consistent with his earnings, which, as already noted, prior to his working for Hawkes, were limited. His job with Hawkes as an apprentice oxygen attendant interested him and appears to have set him for the first time on a course of regular employment, and at a substantially higher wage than he had previously earned. In the light of these higher wages, it is probable that his contributions at the beginning would have been not less than $25 per week and gradually increased, from which contributions should be deducted, during his minority, $10, the expense of his support and maintenance. *fn13"

 Lawrence was single at the time of his death. His devotion to his parents, both of whom worked to meet the family needs, suggests that after reaching his majority he would have continued to make payments to them, and as his earnings increased, in additional amounts *fn14" until such time as he married, when, in view of his limited earning capacity, most of his income would be required for the support and maintenance of his new family. While no evidence was offered as to likely matrimony, there was testimony that Lawrence was not without interest in the distaff side; matrimony was a reasonable probability by the time he reached his late twenties. *fn15" Accordingly, the Court finds that from March 26, 1963 to June 3, 1966 (decedent's twenty-first birthday), the parents were deprived during half that period of $15 per week (net) and the remaining half of $20 per week (net), a total of $2,905; that thereafter and until the date hereof they were deprived of contributions of $30 per week, a total of $5,130. In addition, the Court finds that thereafter, i.e., from the date hereof, the decedent would have continued such $30 weekly payments to his parents, or to the survivor, until approximately June 3, 1973, his twenty-eighth birthday, a total of $5,820, which, discounted appropriately, yields a present value of $5,277; *fn16" that upon his probable marriage, no later than his twenty-eighth birthday, in view of his increased obligations as head of his own family, payments to his parents would have been discontinued. Plaintiffs' funeral and medical expenses of $2,098.28 are not in dispute. Accordingly, the total award for pecuniary damages is $15,410.28.

 In addition, plaintiffs are entitled to an award for decedent's conscious pain and suffering. Lawrence was partially conscious immediately after the accident and was moaning and groaning, which may be taken as an indication of pain, even in his semi-conscious condition. *fn17" The doctor who examined and operated on decedent, whose opinion this Court accepts, was of the view that Lawrence experienced and was conscious of pain immediately after the accident. He died one day thereafter following brain surgery. The Court awards $1,500 for conscious pain and suffering. *fn18"

 Accordingly, judgment may be entered in favor of the plaintiffs and against the defendant in the ...


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