Imposing the Duty to Maintain Existing Streetlights
In H.R. Moch Co. v. Rensselaer Water Co., 247 N.Y. 160, 159 N.E. 896 (N.Y. 1928), a water company breached its contract with the city to furnish water to the city's fire hydrants.
The plaintiff's building caught fire, and because of insufficient water pressure, the fire could not be extinguished.
The plaintiff sued, alleging that the water company breached a common law duty.
Justice Cardozo, writing for the court, reasoned:
In a broad sense it is true that every city contract not improvident or wasteful, is for the benefit of the public. More than this, however, must be shown to give a right of action to a member of the public not formally a party. the benefit, as it is sometimes said, must be one that is not merely incidental and secondary. It must be primary and immediate in such a sense and to such a degree as to bespeak the assumption of a duty to make reparation directly to the individual members of the public if the benefit is lost. 159 N.E. at 897.
The court distinguished between conduct of a utility that would impose a duty to the public at large and conduct that would not:
If conduct has gone forward to such a stage that inaction would commonly result, not negatively merely in withholding a benefit, but positively or actively in working an injury, there exists a relation out of which arises a duty to go forward. . . .The query always is whether the putative wrongdoer has advanced to such a point as to have launched a force or instrument of harm, or has stopped where inaction is at most a refusal to become an instrument for good.159 N.E. at 898.
The court noted that the indefinite number of potential beneficiaries "would be unduly and indeed indefinitely extended by . . . enlargement of the zone of duty." Id. at 899.
Many other jurisdictions also have refused to impose a duty to maintain existing streetlights.
Turbe v. Gov't of the Virgin Islands, 938 F.2d 427 (3d Cir. 1991) (finding no duty where the plaintiff was assaulted near a nonfunctioning streetlight);
Sinclair v. Dunagan, 905 F. Supp. 208 (D.N.J. 1995) (applying New Jersey law and finding no duty where a pedestrian was struck by a car while crossing an intersection);
White v. S. Cal. Edison Co., 25 Cal. App. 4th 442, 30 Cal.Rptr.2d 431 (Cal. Ct. App. 1994) (finding no duty where the plaintiff was driving a moped and was hit by a car at an intersection where the streetlights were not functioning, noting that the failure to maintain a streetlight does not create a risk greater than the risk created by the total absence of a streetlight);
Quinn v. Ga. Power Co., 51 Ga. App. 291, 180 S.E. 246, 248 (Ga. Ct. App. 1935) (finding no duty, despite a contract between the utility and the city, where two vehicles collided in an area where the streetlights were not functioning);
Shafouk Nor El Din Hamza v. Bourgeois, 493 So. 2d 112, 117 (La. Ct. App. 1986) (finding no duty where a pedestrian was hit by a car near an inoperative streetlight, even though the utility had contracted with the municipality to install and maintain streetlights);
Vaughan, 719 N.E.2d at 522 (finding no duty where a pedestrian was hit by a car at an intersection on which stood an inoperative streetlight);
E. Coast Freight Lines v. Consol. Gas, Elec. Light & Power Co., 187 Md. 385, 50 A.2d 246 (Md. 1946) (finding no duty, despite a contract between the utility and the city, where two vehicles collided at an intersection where the streetlights were not functioning);
Thompson v. City of New York, 78 N.Y.2d 682, 585 N.E.2d 819, 820, 578 N.Y.S.2d 507 (N.Y. 1991) (finding no duty where a pedestrian was struck by an automobile near a nonfunctioning streetlight because the street was not unusually dangerous in the absence of the streetlight);
Gin v. Yachanin, 75 Ohio App. 3d 802, 600 N.E.2d 836 (Ohio Ct. App. 1991) (finding no duty where a pedestrian was injured as a result of a de-energized traffic signal, even though the utility company may have breached its contract with the municipality to supply power to the signal);
Fishbaugh v. Utah Power & Light Co., 969 P.2d 403 (Utah 1998) (finding no duty where a pedestrian was struck by an automobile near a non-functioning streetlight because the street was not unusually dangerous in the absence of the streetlight);
Dattner v. Lamm, 5 Pa. D. & C.2d 552 (Pa. Com. Pl. 1955) (finding no duty where a pedestrian was struck by an automobile near a non-functioning streetlight);
White v. Tilcon Gammino, Inc., No. KC88-0618, 1992 WL 813636 (R.I. Super. Ct. July 28, 1992) (finding no duty was owed to the driver of an automobile because she was not an intended beneficiary of the contract between the utility company and the municipality).