No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

by: Bryson R. Brown

Have you ever loaned a tool to a neighbor to assist with a household project? Or how about a car to a relative to assist with getting to work or school? Or how about provided a homecooked meal to mother who recently gave birth to a new baby? In doing so, did it even cross your mind that your good intentions could expose you to legal liability? If not, it should have. Under Utah law, a person who supplies a “chattel” – a fancy legal term for personal property – to another potentially faces legal liability, if the chattel causes physical injury to the person who uses the chattel.

The supplier of a chattel incurs liability for injury caused thereby if three conditions are met. First, the supplier knows of the chattel’s dangerous potential.[1] Second, the supplier knows or reasonably should know that the user will not realize the danger.[2] Third, the supplier fails to use reasonable care to safeguard against the danger or to inform the user of the facts which make it likely to be dangerous.[3]

The seminal case in Utah is Schneider v. Suhrmann, in which a wholesaler provided a retailer with raw, unprocessed pork.[4] The retailer then sold the pork to a consumer, who contracted trichinosis, a food-borne disease caused by a parasite, after eating the pork. The consumer sued the wholesaler for compensation for the injuries suffered. The Utah Supreme Court affirmed a jury verdict in the wholesaler’s favor on grounds that the retailer knew that the pork was raw and unprocessed and otherwise had assured the wholesaler that the retailer would cook the pork before selling it to others. In other words, the wholesaler escaped liability because the wholesaler had no knowledge that the retailer intended to sell the pork raw or uncooked.

While the wholesaler in Schneider escaped liability, scenarios that potentially could give rise to liability are myriad. For instance, suppose you loaned a ladder to a neighbor knowing that one of the steps routinely comes loose. Or suppose you let your nephew borrow your car knowing that the tires are bald. Or suppose that you provide a home-cooked meal that contains common allergens like peanuts. All three scenarios could expose you to liability under the framework set out in Schneider.

So, what can you do to mitigate your risk? A few tips. First, keep your things in good repair. Second, do not allow others to use things that are not in good repair. Third, all else failing, always warn those using your things about any known problems or defects.



[1] Schneider v. Suhrmann, 8 Utah 2d 35, 37, 327 P.2d 822, 823 (1958).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] 8 Utah 2d 35, 327 P.2d 822 (1958).


Bryson R. Brown