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Premises Liability Claims: Does Proximity Establish a Duty?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on June 29, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Truck driver Michael Daniel was exiting the Airgas Carbonics plant in Star, Mississippi in 2009 when he collided with a passing train operated by Illinois Central Railroad Company. He died two days later.

Illinois Central, Airgas, and Michael's widow, Clydine Daniel, filed claims and counterclaims against each other, trying to assign blame in the case. This week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Clydine's negligence claims against Airgas, finding that the company owed no duty to Michael Daniel at the time of the collision.

Under Mississippi law, the duty a premises owner owes to entrants depends on whether the entrants are invitees, licensees, or trespassers. Here, Michael Daniel was Airgas's business invitee, so Airgas owed Daniel a duty "to keep the premises reasonably safe and ... to warn only of hidden dangers not in plain and open view." Airgas's duty extended to all areas substantially under its control that it invited the public to use.

In other words, Clydine's premises liability claim against Airgas hinged on whether the collision occurred at a location under Airgas's control.

Clydine's counterclaim describes three sets of railroad tracks outside the Airgas plant exit: One set is a "private crossing owned by Airgas," a second set is a "public crossing ... owned by Illinois Central," and a third set is a "public crossing. Each set of tracks intersects Andrew Jackson Circle, a road adjacent to the Airgas plant.

The counterclaim alleged that the collision occurred when "the front cab of [Daniel's] truck had crossed over the second set of tracks but the trailer was in the process of crossing over the second set of tracks." That means the collision occurred on tracks owned by Illinois Central intersecting a public road, not on Airgas' property. The Fifth Circuit concluded that there were no allegations from which one might infer that Airgas had control over the public crossing.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals similarly rejected Clydine's second argument: that Airgas breached its duty to furnish a safe exit by requiring Michael Daniel to exit in the direction of railroad tracks. The court noted that the Mississippi Supreme Court's decision in Albert v. Scott's Truck Plaza, Inc. foreclosed that claim.

Family members often look for someone to blame following a tragic accident. Here, it seems natural that Michael's wife would blame Airgas because Michael was exiting the Airgas property when he collided with the train. But proximity to the site of the accident doesn't mean that Airgas had a duty to warn Michael about the tracks.

If you have a client who wants to file a similar claim in a Mississippi federal court, consider whether a prospective defendant actually controlled the site of the accident before filing your premises liability claim.

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