Archive for the ‘State’s Highest Court’ Category

Free of Charge – City Immune Under Statute From Premises Liability Claim by Injured Youth Football Spectator (ID)

November 10, 2015

Hayes v, City of Plummer (Idaho)

The plaintiff was a spectator attending a youth tackle football game at a park owned by the defendant City of Plummer.  He was seriously injured after stumbling on uneven ground hidden by grass, and he filed a premises liability claim against the defendant for his injuries.  The defendant then filed a motion for summary judgment based on Idaho’s Recreational Use Statute.  The trial court granted the City’s motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

On appeal. the Supreme Court of Idaho affirmed the trial court’s decision.  Under the Idaho Recreational Use Statute, “[a] ‘landowner’ who provides property for public recreational use is afforded a limitation of liability and ‘owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry by others for recreational purposes, or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on such premises to persons entering for such purposes.'”  This liability limitation applies when the property is offered “without charge.”  The plaintiff asserted that the school district’s payment of utilities and other expenses related to the park for the benefit of the defendant should be considered a “charge” such that the liability immunity did not apply.  However, the Court disagreed, explaining:

“The intent and purpose of Idaho’s Recreational Use Statute is to provide recreational access at no cost to the general public. I.C. § 36–1604(a) . In this case, the City and the School District have done that by allocating resources in order to provide and maintain the Park for all to enjoy. Because the City did not charge or receive compensation from [plaintiff] or the public for their use and enjoyment of the land, Idaho Code section 36–1604  provides a limitation on liability for [plaintiff’s] injuries. The district court properly granted summary judgment.”

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Failure to Warn – Supreme Court Find Triable Issue Regarding School District’s Breach of Duty to Deceased Youth (WY)

October 21, 2015

Amos v. Lincoln County School District No. 2 (Wyoming)

A five-year-old boy was attending a basketball game at a school that had been converted to a community center.  He was playing with other children on a stage near the basketball court when a lunchroom bench tipped over and fell on top of him, causing a basal skull fracture and killing him instantly.  The lunchroom bench had been removed from the gymnasium wall and had been placed against the wall in a storage room adjacent to the stage.  A year later, the boy’s personal representative filed a wrongful death action against the school district, along with the town and county where the facility was located.

The county filed an “affidavit of noninvolvement” with the trial court in lieu of an answer.  In response, the trial court entered an order dismissing the county from the action without prejudice.  The court explained that it found that “there [were] not enough facts to show that [the county was] responsible but if facts come forward or are discovered that show that [the county was] responsible, either directly or indirectly, [the county] shall be reinstated as a Defendant.”

The school district filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it had turned over possession and maintenance of the building to the community group such that it did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care and was, therefore, entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  The trial court denied the school district’s motion, holding: “Viewing these basic facts in a light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the School District, as the owner, is in the same position as a landlord is to its tenants and their invitees. As such, it owed all persons entering the building as invitees the duty of reasonable and ordinary care under the circumstances.”  Notwithstanding the ruling, the trial court did express concern that the facts may not ultimately establish a breach of the school district’s duty or that the district’s actions were the proximate cause of the incident.

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No Free Lunch (or Vacation) – Florida Supreme Court Confirms Decision to Enforce Release Despite Lack of “Negligence” Language (FL)

May 13, 2015

Sanislo v.Give the Kids the World, Inc. (Florida)

The defendant non-profit organization provided free vacations to seriously ill children and their families.  The plaintiff went with her ill child on one of the defendant’s vacations, and she suffered an injury when a wheelchair lift collapsed at a resort village.  The plaintiff filed a negligence lawsuit against the defendant, and the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based upon a both release of liability that was included in in the wish request form filled out by the plaintiff and a liability release form signed by the plaintiff after she arrived at the resort village.  Plaintiff countered with her own motion for partial summary judgment on the defendant’s affirmative defense of release.  The trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion and denied the defendant’s motion, and the case proceeded to trial.

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Unreasonable Eviction – Colorado Supreme Court Finds That Hotel Owed a Duty to Evicted Drunk Guests (CO)

May 6, 2015

Westin Operator, LLC v. Groh (Colorado)

The issue raised by the case (an issue of first impression for the Supreme Court of Colorado) was: “What duty of care, if any, does a hotel owe to a guest during a lawful eviction?”

Following a late night out in downtown Denver, the plaintiff brought a group of friends back to a hotel room she had rented at the hotel operated by the defendant.  Thereafter, security guards from the hotel confronted the group about the noise level coming from their room, and the hotel eventually evicted them from the premises.  Plaintiff and her group were evicted “even though [they] advised the guards that they were drunk and could not drive.”  One of the members of the party asked if he could stay in the lobby to wait for a taxicab because it was cold outside, but the security guarded refused.  Plaintiff and six others got into plaintiff’s car, with a drunk driver behind the wheel.  Fifteen miles later, the car rear-ended another car.  The resulting crash killed a third party and left the plaintiff in a persistent vegetative state with traumatic brain injuries.

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The Art of Recreation – University Not Permitted to Assert Recreational Use Statute Protection Against Spectator Claim (TX)

April 21, 2015

University of Texas at Arlington v. Sandra Williams (Texas)

The plaintiff and her husband attended their daughter’s soccer game played at the football stadium at the University of Texas at Arlington.  She leaned against a gate that separated the stands from the playing field, and the gate unexpectedly opened, causing her to fall five feel to the artificial turf below.  Plaintiff injured a rib and her left arm and sued the University for premises liability, alleging negligence and gross negligence.  As part of its responsive pleadings, the University filed a motion to dismiss claiming (among other things) liability protection under the Texas recreational use statute.

Texas’ recreational use statute (like many similar statutes in other jurisdictions) protects landowners who open property for recreational purposes, limiting their liability to the recreational user.  In such cases, the burden of proof is elevated, requiring either gross negligence or an intent to injure.  Ultimately, the Texas Supreme Court affirmed the decision of both the trial court and the court of appeals and determined that a spectator at a competitive sports event is not “recreation” under the statute such that the liability protection did not apply.

Rough Neighborhood

September 24, 2012

Landings Association, Inc. v. Williams (Georgia) (The estate of a victim fatally injured during an alligator attack brought an action against the association that owned the property were the attack occurred; the Supreme Court of Georgia ultimately held that the victim assumed the risk of harm or failed to exercise ordinary care.)

The 83-year-old decedent was house sitting for her daughter and son-in-law at a planned residential development with a golf course.  Prior to the construction of the development, the land was largely marsh, where indigenous alligators lives and thrived.  As part of the development, the defendant association installed a lagoon system which allowed enough drainage to create an area suitable for residential development.  Alligators inhabited the area both before and after the development, although no person had ever previously been attacked.  The decedent went for a walk near one of the lagoons one evening in 2007 and was attacked and killed.

Under Georgia’s premises liability law, the estate of the decedent argued that the association failed to take reasonable steps to protect the decedent from being attacked.  The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which was denied by the trial court.  The defendant filed an interlocutory appeal, and the Court of Appeal affirmed the denial.  The defendant then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of Georgia, which was granted.

The Supreme Court reversed the ruling finding that the decedent “had equal knowledge of the threat of alligators within the community.”  The Court explained that decedent “either knowingly assumed the risks of walking in areas inhabited by wild alligators or failed to exercise ordinary care by doing so.”  According to the Court,

“The record shows that, prior to the attack, [decedent] was aware that the property was inhabited by alligators. [Decedent’s] son-in-law testified that, on at least one occasion, he was driving with [decedent] on property in [the development] when he stopped the car to allow [decedent] to look at an alligator. [Decedent’s] son-in-law also testified that [decedent] was, in fact, aware that there were alligators in the lagoons at [the development] and that he believed that [decedent] had a ‘normal’ respect for wild animals.”

Like the Court of Appeal, the dissent from the Supreme Court questioned the extent of the knowledge of the danger by the decedent arguing that there was “no ‘competent evidence that the decedent knew there were alligators over seven feet in size living in the community or living in the lagoon in which [decedent’s] body was found.’”  However, the majority countered by stating that “A reasonable adult who is not disabled understands that small alligators have large parents and are capable of moving from one lagoon to another, and such an adult, therefore, assumes the risk of an alligator attack when, knowing that wild alligators are present in a community, walks near a lagoon in that community after dark.” The dissent also questioned the published policies of the defendant association and the effectiveness of its patrols, inspections, and security.  The dissent expressed that reasonable minds could differ, and that the issue of negligence, contributory negligence, and lack of care for one’s own safety should have been resolved by trial.

NOTE: Considering the discussion in the dissent, the significance of the claim, and the court’s tendency to allow matters of negligence to be determined by a jury as a matter of fact, this is a pretty bold decision.

Root of the Problem

August 3, 2012

Connelly v. City of Omaha (Nebraska)
(Children were injured while sledding at a public park when they struck a tree, and their parents filed an action agains the city for negligence; liability was imposed against the city for failing to remedy an unreasonable risk of harm.)

The Nebraska Supreme Court determined that the City of Omaha should have realized that the trees in the area of the park used by the public for sledding posed an unreasonable risk of danger.  Moreover, the Court explained that the city should have expected that lawful visitors to that area of the park for sledding would fail to protect themselves against the danger posed by trees in the area.  Key facts in the litigation revolved around the city’s efforts to restore and renovate the subject park where the incident occurred about 10 year prior to the incident.  The city held public hearing opportunities, and issues relating to “sledding opportunities” were discussed in detail.  City officials also specifically debated issues regarding the placement of trees and how such placement could affect the sledding activities.  Several years later, many trees were planted at the park in an area previously identified as the location for sledding.  There was also an indication of prior similar incidents in the area.

The verdict from a bench trial was affirmed, and the children and parents were awarded damages.  The damages of all parties were subject to damage caps pursuant to Nebraska’s statutory scheme limiting the liability exposure of political subdivisions.

NOTE: Cases like this are a reason that government entities are hesitant to fully embrace recreational activities on public lands.  It ia also a lesson to government entities to carefully select their words while making a public record on issues relating to potentially dangerous conditions on public lands.  Unfortunately, the impact of cases like this extends far beyond these parties and the City of Omaha.

Wreck-less Behavior

July 20, 2012

Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corporation (Pennsylvania)
(A snow tuber involved in a collision sued a ski resort for negligence and reckless conduct;  the trial court granted the defendant’s motion, dismissing the entire action based on the waiver and release signed by the plaintiff; the decision was overturned on appeal as to the reckless conduct allegations.)

The plaintiff was participating in snow tubing activities at the defendant’s ski resort.  On her fifth run of the day, she was struck by another participant coming down the run.  She was also narrowly missed by others.  Plaintiff filed a complaint against the ski resort, which filed a motion for summary judgment based upon a pre-printed release form that plaintiff had signed prior to participation.  The release applied to all liability that was “the result of negligence or any other improper conduct on the part of the snowtubing facility.”

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More Bad News for Minor Sports

December 17, 2010

Galloway v. State (Iowa)
(14-year-old injured on an educational field trip; Supreme Court of Iowa rules that public policy precludes enforcement of parents’ pre-injury waiver on behalf of minor.)

The 14-year-old plaintiff was struck by a car while crossing the street during an educational field trip organized by the University of Northern Iowa and the State of Iowa. Prior to participation in the event, the plaintiff’s mother signed both a “Field Trip Permission Form” and a “Release and Medical Authorization.” Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the State, alleging negligence. The State filed a motion for summary judgment based on the documents signed by the mother, and the District Court ruled that the released constituted a valid waiver of claims, granting the motion. Plaintiff appealed, and the Iowa Supreme Court ultimately reversed the ruling. After balancing public policy interests against the need to enforce contracts, the Supreme Court explained that although deference is given to parents’ decisions affecting the control of their children, such deference has limitations in some contexts.

The court noted that “children must be accorded a measure or protection against improvident decisions of their parents.” The Court also considered the “harsh consequences of preinjury releases,” and noted that there is “a clear majority of other courts deciding such releases are unenforceable.” The State argued that as a result of the Court’s ruling, “recreational, cultural, and educational opportunities for youths will cease because organizations sponsoring them will be unable or unwilling to purchase insurance or otherwise endure the risks of civil liability.” However, the Court asserted that “the fear of dire consequences from our adoption of the majority rule is speculative and overstated,” noting that they found no reason to believe that such opportunities had been comprised in those other jurisdictions.

NOTE: With this ruling, Iowa joins more than 15 other jurisdictions with similar reulings against minor waiver and release agreements. Approximately 11 jursidictions have case law or statutes speaking favorably to minor agreements, while the remainder of jurisdictions remain undecided. The current trend across the country seems to be against enforcement of preinjury waiver and release agreements signed by parents on behalf of minors participating in recreational activities.

Home Court Disadvantage

September 17, 2010

Galaxy Cable, Inc. v. Davis (Alabama)
(11-year-old playing basketball at a friend’s house tripped over a guy wire maintained by a cable company; liability found for the cable company due to a missing yellow cable guard, but lower court’s ruling as to punitive damaged overturned.)

An 11-year-old boy tripped over a guy cable attached to a telephone pole while retrieving a basketball, lacerating his leg. The minor (through his parents) sued the cable company (among others) for creating a dangerous condition and failing to remedy the condition. A plastic yellow guard that wrapped around the guy cable and provided a visible warning of the cable had been moved, and the cable company had failed to replace or fix the condition despite having routinely inspected the pole. The defendant cable company argued that the condition was open and obvious, but the trial court found in favor of the plaintiff, awarding compensatory damages and punitive damages. The defendant appealed, and ultimately the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling of liability, but overturned the determination of punitive damages due to a lack of evidence establishing “wantonness.”

NOTE: Much of the discussion revolves around whether the plaintiff was an invitee on the premises where the incident occurred. The plaintiff was on land belonging to another, which land was the subject of an easement in favor of the defendant. The parties never agreed on plaintiff’s legal status and the court determined that the defendant had waived the issue as to whether it owed the plaintiff a specialized duty at trial.