In the United States, the US Supreme Court established the Turntable Doctrine, in R.R. Co. v. Stout, 84 U.S. 657. As I understand it, In general, if a person is injured while trespassing on someone’s property then, unless the injury is due to some specific fault of the landowner, the landowner isn’t liable. After all, if someone trespasses on your property, you shouldn’t be liable for poor judgment exercised by the trespasser, especially since he shouldn’t have been trespassing in the first place. But Stout created an exception to this, initially termed the “turntable doctrine” (named after the piece of railroad machinery that that the child Stout was playing on when injured). The idea was that young children are a special case requiring a higher duty of care.

Stout was cited soon after in a similar turntable case, Keffe v. Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Co., 21 Minn. 207 (1875). The term “attractive nuisance doctrine” originated in Keffe, which explained the attractiveness concept thus:

To treat the plaintiff as a voluntary trespasser is to ignore the averments of the complaint, that the turn-table, which was situate[d] in a public (by which we understand an open, frequented) place, was, when left unfastened, very attractive, and, when put in motion by them, was dangerous to young children, by whom it could be easily put in motion, and many of whom were in the habit of going upon it to play. The turn-table, being thus attractive, presented to the natural instincts of young children a strong temptation; and such children, following, as they must be expected to follow, those natural instincts, were thus allured into a danger whose nature and extent they, being without judgment or discretion, could neither apprehend nor appreciate, and against which they could not protect themselves. The difference between the plaintiff's position and that of a voluntary trespasser, capable of using care, consists in this, that the plaintiff was induced to come upon the defendant's turn-table by the defendant's own conduct, and that, as to him, the turntable was a hidden danger, a trap.

Twenty years later, the New York Court of Appeals discussed the turntable doctrine in Walsh v. F.R.R. Co., 39 N.E. 1068 (NY 1895) and said Stout didn't apply in that case. Maybe I'm reading Walsh wrong, but it seems to me to be saying that Stout might apply in some cases, but it doesn't in that specific case.

But then Morse v. Buffalo Tank Corp., 19 N.E.2d 981, 280 N.Y. comes along in 1939 and says

The general rule which has prevailed since the well-known turntable case (Walsh v. Fitchburg R.R. Co., 145 N.Y. 301) is that the so-called doctrine of attractive nuisance does not apply in New York, and that the only duty which an owner of land owes to a trespasser or bare licensee is to abstain from affirmative acts of negligence or not to injure intentionally such person.

And from there to the present, supposedly New York doesn't follow the Attractive Nuisance Doctrine.

How can some states follow it and some others not? I've heard of circuit splits, but they can be resolved by a Supreme Court decision. In this situation, a Supreme Court decision already exists, so I don't see how there can be a circuit split on this.

(Reason for question: I am taking a paralegal class and one of the exercises asks the student to determine whether the attractive nuisance doctrine holds in the state where the student lives.)

1 Answer 1


The US Supreme Court only has jurisdiction in federal matters. So if someone is suing under federal law, or there is a constitutional question, the Supreme Court is the place to go for a definitive answer.

However, states have their own laws. The Supreme Court cannot tell New York that it must apply the attractive nuisance doctrine, as it is neither a matter of federal law nor a constitutional matter. New York is free to make its own laws on the subject, and the New York courts are free to interpret those laws as they see fit. In fact, federal courts are required to defer to New York's interpretation if New York's laws apply to the case, even if the case is in federal court for some reason (like diversity of parties.) See the Erie doctrine (which, coincidentally, involves yet another case about railroad injuries.)

  • Thank you! But in the case of the attractive nuisance doctrine, there's no state law involved, as far as I can tell. Is the absence of a federal law the thing that takes it out of the Supreme Court's purview? (Can I say "jurisdiction"?) // What about my question about Walsh? The way I read it, it didn't seem to me to be setting a general standard -- but that's what Morse took it. I feel like I must be missing something. // I'm adding links to those two cases in the question. Dec 2, 2017 at 21:19
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    State law, in this case, also includes state interpretations of common law.
    – D M
    Dec 2, 2017 at 22:17
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    @aparente001 "State law" doesn't just include statutes. Each state also has its own common law which evolves out of cases in that state's courts. Most law that governs everyday life in the US is state law.
    – cpast
    Dec 3, 2017 at 0:50

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