Farwell v. Keaton – Case Brief
Farwell v. Keaton, 396 Mich. 281, 240 N.W.2d 217 (1976).
Parties: Farwell – plaintiff, father of Farwell, deceased; Keaton – defendant, attacker; Siegrist – defendant, Farwell’s companion.
Facts: Farwell and Siegrist (D1) consumed beer at a trailer rental lot while waiting for a friend to finish work. They unsuccessfully attempted to engage in conversation with two females and followed the girls to a drive-in restaurant. They were chased back to the lot by six boys including Keaton (D2) after the girls complained to some friends. Siegrist escaped but Farwell was severely beaten.
D1 found Farwell, applied ice to his head, and drove around with him in Farwell’s car for about two hours. Farwell fell asleep in the back of the car and D1 left the car in Farwell’s grandparents’ driveway at midnight. D1 left after unsuccessfully attempting to rouse Farwell. Farwell’s grandparents found him and took him to the hospital where he died three days later.
Farwell’s father (P) sued D1 for wrongful death and the jury awarded P $15,000. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that D1 had not assumed the duty of obtaining aid for Farwell, and neither knew nor should have known of Farwell’s need for medical treatment. P appealed.
Issues: 1) Does a special relationship exist between parties engaged in a common undertaking that imposes an obligation to render assistance when one is in peril? 2) Is a determination of whether a duty exists an issue of fact or of law?
Holding and Rule (Levin): 1) Yes. A special relationship exists between parties engaged in a common undertaking that imposes an obligation to render assistance when one is in peril. 2) The existence of a duty is ordinarily a question of law; however where there are factual circumstances which give rise to a duty, the finder of fact must determine the existence or non-existence of those circumstances.
Every person has a duty to avoid any affirmative acts which may make a situation worse. If a party attempts to aid another and takes charge and control of the situation, he is regarded as having voluntarily assumed responsibility for that person.
The jury must determine, after considering all the evidence, whether the defendant attempted to aid the victim. The court held that in this case there was ample evidence to show that Siegrist breached a legal duty owed to Farwell. The jury found that Siegrist did not act reasonably and that his negligence was the proximate cause of P’s death.
Public Policy: There is no legal obligation to be a Good Samaritan. Where such a duty has been found, it has been predicated upon the existence of a special relationship between the parties: carriers to passengers, employers to employees, innkeepers to guests, jailers to prisoners, and masters to crewmen at sea who fall overboard. In this case the special relationship is that they were companions on a social venture and that if it were found that Siegrist had no duty it would be shocking to humanitarian considerations and fly in the face of the commonly accepted code of social conduct.
Disposition: Reversed, jury verdict reinstated.
Dissent (Fitzgerald): D1 did not voluntarily assume the duty of caring for Farwell’s safety. D1′s inability to arouse the decedent upon arriving at his grandparents’ home does not permit us to infer that he knew or should have known that the deceased was seriously injured.
Under Michigan law the question of duty is to be resolved by the court rather than the jury. The Court of Appeals properly decided as a matter of law that defendant owed no duty to the deceased. We would affirm.