Out of Control? – Woman Injured by Display at Conference Wins Jury Verdict; Evidence Properly Excluded at Trial (MO)

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Medley v. Joyce Meyer Ministries, Inc. (Missouri)

The plaintiff attended a conference that was hosted by the defendant, and she was injured when she tripped over a window display set up in a boutique vendor area at the conference.  Plaintiff filed an action against the defendant for premises liability, alleging (1) that she was an invitee of the defendant, (2) the defendant controlled (or had the right to control) the boutique area that included the display, (3) the defendant negligently placed the window display in a crowded and congested area, and (4) plaintiff suffered injuries and damages as a result of the defendant’s negligence.

During trial, the defendant attempted to introduce documentary evidence, including a license agreement, between the defendant and the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission (“CVC”) showing CVC’s involvement in the conference.  Plaintiff objected to the evidence  as irrelevant, and the trial court sustained the objections.  Defendant also sought to introduce witness testimony about CVC’s involvement in the conference and CVC’s relationship with the defendant.  However, the trial court held: “(1) there was no evidence to suggest that Defendant was not in possession of the premises where Plaintiff’s injury occurred; (2) the only relevant relationship in the case was the relationship between Plaintiff and Defendant; and (3) the evidence presented by Defendant in its offer of proof was not relevant.”  Thereafter, the defendant sought the introduction of a jury instruction that stated: “Your verdict must be for [D]efendant if you believe that [D]efendant was not in possession or control of the premises.” However, the trial court refused to submit the instruction.

Upon the conclusion of the trial, the jury entered a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, finding that plaintiff’s total damages were $400,000.  The verdict assessed defendant seventy percent at fault and plaintiff thirty percent at fault, thereby awarding plaintiff $280,000 in damages.  The court entered a judgment consistent with the verdict, and defendant filed a motion for a new trial.  The motion was denied, and the defendant appealed.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the court erred in excluding evidence relating to CVC.  The Missouri Court of Appeals disagreed.  The Court noted that there was ample evidence of the defendant’s intent to control the boutique and window display.  The Court also noted that there was uncontroverted evidence during trial that the defendant exercised itrs right to admit people to the boutique and exclude people from it.  The defendant’s employees were managing the traffic flow in and out of the boutique.  The defendant pointed to the license agreement with CVC, claiming that CVC actually controlled the boutique and window display area.  However, the Court explained that the license agreement provisions “merely demonstrate[d] that the CVC had a right to control the premises . . . if it chose.”  However, the provisions did not indicate that CVC actually exercised any right of control.  The Court reiterated that “only a party who actually exercises control over the premises is considered a possessor of land who owes a duty to an invitee” and that ” a party who merely has a right to control the premises but does not exercise that right owes no such duty.”  Ultimately, the Court concluded that “the evidence regarding the CVC’s involvement in the conference did not tend to prove that Defendant was not the possessor of the boutique and window display area,” and, therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the evidence.

On appeal, the defendant also argued that the trial court erred in refusing to give the defendant’s requested instruction regarding control (or lack thereof) of the premises.  However, the Court held that “there was no evidence adduced at trial or presented in Defendant’s offer of proof demonstrating that any party other than Defendant exercised control over the boutique and window display area.”  As a result, “the facts surrounding the status of Defendant [were] not in dispute, Defendant occupied the boutique and window display area with the intent to control it, and therefore, Defendant was a possessor of the boutique and window display area as a matter of law.”

The judgment in favor of the plaintiff was affirmed.

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