Plaintiff Rides Again: Dude Ranch’s Motion for Summary Judgment Denied (NY)

In SARA W by HENNY W v Rocking Horse Ranch Corporation, plaintiffs commenced an action seeking to recover damages for injuries sustained by plaintiff, who was 16-years-old, when she fell from a horse while at defendant’s dude ranch. Defendant moved for summary judgment on the theory of assumption of the risk, but was denied by the lower court. Defendant appealed.

Under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, although “participants in the sporting activity of horseback riding assume commonly appreciated risks inherent in the activity, such as being kicked …, ‘[p]articipants will not be deemed to have assumed unreasonably increased risks’ ”

In support of its motion, defendant submitted the deposition testimonies of the infant and Robert Gilbert, a certified horse wrangler employed by defendant who assisted the infant, to show that it exercised care in ensuring that the horse riding conditions were as safe as they appeared to be. Gilbert’s testimony established that the infant was provided with an appropriate horse for a beginner’s trail, helmets were required of infants participating in the ride, the infant was provided with instructions prior to the ride and a horse wrangler accompanied the riders during the trail ride and also assisted the riders when dismounting. Importantly, the infant herself testified that she was aware that there were risks involved in the activity, as she had been on horseback riding trails prior to the incident.

Plaintiff contended that defendant was negligent in helping her dismount the horse. The infant’s description of the incident differs from Gilbert’s description. Specifically, the infant testified that Gilbert moved away from her and towards the horse’s head to tame it and that it was this movement by Gilbert that caused the horse to move, leading to the infant’s fall.

The Appellate Division, Third Department agreed with lower court and upheld their decision finding a question of fact. The Appellate Division held that although defendant attempted to provide adequate assistance on dismount, there still remains a question of fact as to whether defendant’s response to the situation, in light of evidence that the infant was a novice and that the horse was jittery and jumpy, heightened the risk of her fall, thereby unreasonably increasing the risks of horseback riding.

As we highlighted some years ago reporting on Corcia v. Rocking Horse Ranch, there will be a question of fact whenever a plaintiff presents evidence that the defendant increased the risk at hand.

Thanks to Paul Vitale for his contribution to this post.

Plaintiff’s Claim Against Movie Theater Flops at Box Office (NJ)

Anyone who has gone to the movie theater to catch the latest flick knows to tread carefully when exiting the theater. No matter how many ushers and cleaning crew are available, it’s a challenge to keep the floors completely free of any loose popcorn, snacks, or general debris in between movie showings.

In Frankel v. Edgewater Multiplex Cinemas, et. al., plaintiff filed a claim seeking damages for injuries sustained after a slip and fall in defendant’s movie theater. It was a crowded night at the theater, so plaintiff decided to sit in the dreaded first seat of the first row which was adjacent to an emergency exit door. When the movie ended, plaintiff attempted to exit towards the lobby, when he slipped and fell into the metal bar of the emergency exit door suffering a crush avulsion and laceration to his forehead.

Plaintiff testified that he had seen “litter” when he first sat down in the theater before the movie began, but “paid it no mind.” However, plaintiff was unable to identify what he had fallen on at the time of the accident. The defendant indicated that not only did the theater have ushers that would clean the theaters between movie showings, a “breach person” is responsible for inspecting auditoriums each hour to check sound levels, lighting levels, cell phones, talking patrons, or any items posing a tripping hazard. The theater showed evidence that the breach person had inspected the theater on an hourly basis, including two inspections which took place approximately half an hour before plaintiff’s accident.

The appellate court found that although there is a duty of care of business owners to eliminate dangerous conditions and keep the premises reasonably safe, plaintiff failed to show that defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition that caused the accident. Plaintiff could not identify what he had slipped on, and therefore could not establish that defendants were aware of the condition that caused plaintiff to fall. As such, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision and affirmed defendant’s dismissal from the lawsuit.  Thanks to Steve Kim for his contribution to this post. Please email Brian Gibbons with any questions.

Injured Snow Tuber Successfully Maneuvers through Summary Judgment Motions (NY)

In Jamjyan v. West Mountain Ski Club, Inc., the plaintiff was injured at a snow tubing park. She commenced this personal injury action against the defendants, the owners and operators of the tubing park, alleging that a park attendant caused the accident by prematurely unhooking the tow rope from the snow tube the plaintiff was sitting in while being towed to the top of the hill. The defendants moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint on the ground that the action was barred by the doctrine of assumption of risk. The Supreme Court denied the motion, and the defendants appealed.

The Appellate Division, Second Department reviewed the facts and concurred with the lower court’s decision in its granting of summary judgment. Although there is an inherent danger in skiing and snowboarding, the other prong of the test was that the defendant was not reckless or engaged in conduct not inherent in the activity.

Assumption of risk is not an absolute defense, but a measure of a defendant’s duty of care. Here, in opposition to the defendants’ prima facie showing, the plaintiff raised a triable issue of fact as to whether the allegedly unexpected action of the tubing park attendant, in prematurely unhooking the plaintiff’s snow tube from the tow line, created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport of snow tubing.

Plaintiff also provided an affidavit from an expert stating that the defendants’ actions were not reasonable and would foresee a dangerous condition.

Thanks to Paul Vitale for his contribution to this post.

Winter is Coming…Game of Snows (NJ)

Business owners in New Jersey owe a duty of reasonable care to invitees on their property. The area to which the duty applies extends to the premises’ parking lot.  A New Jersey Appellate Court considered whether that duty of care extends to the removal of snow in the parking lot during an active snowstorm.

In Oyebola v. Wal-Mart and Tree Fellas, the plaintiff sued Wal-Mart and their snow removal contractor Tree Fellas, LLC, for injuries she sustained when slipping on snow and ice near her car in the parking lot.  It was undisputed between the parties that it was actively snowing at all times that the plaintiff was present at the store.   Additionally, it was undisputed that the snow removal contractor was actively removing snow at the time of the incident.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim, finding that no rational jury could find the defendants negligent, because plaintiff fell during an ongoing snowstorm, and Tree Fellas was already engaged in snow removal efforts at the time of her fall.  The plaintiffs appealed, relying on a report prepared by their liability expert, stating that the snow removal contractor should have cleared the lot in a sequential manner.

The Appellate Court upheld the dismissal, noting that, even if we accept the opinion of the plaintiff’s expert, it was still snowing at all times that the plaintiff was present at Wal-Mart. Thus, even if the snow was removed sequentially, it still would have continued to fall next to the plaintiff’s car.  The Appellate Court confirmed that the defendants’ duty to remove the snow did not arise until a reasonable passage of time after the snowstorm.

This case is important because it highlights the importance of determining the timing of snowfall in any case involving a slip and fall on snow/ice, since a business owner does not have a duty to remove the snow during an active storm.

Thanks to Heather Aquino for her contribution to this post.

Natural Accumulation is Key to Application of “Hills and Ridges Doctrine” (PA)

On January 24, 2019, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed an entry of summary judgment in favor of Turkey Hill Minit Markets, the Kroger Co., and D670 Kroger C Stres/Turkey Hill/Minit Mr’s (Collectively “Appellees”) in Brock v. Turkey Hill Minit Markets.  The case stems from a slip and fall, when plaintiff Rebecca Brock was walking toward the entrance of the Store when slipped and fell on ice in the parking lot.  However, whether the slipping hazard was man-made or made naturally became a point of contention.

The “Hills and Ridges Doctrine” precludes liability “where the accident occurred at a time when general slippery conditions prevailed in the community as a result of recent precipitation.”  However, the hills and ridges doctrine can only be applied in cases where the snow and ice complained of are the result of an entirely natural accumulation following a snowfall.  Therefore, on appeal, Appellant attempted to argue that the accumulation of ice in the parking lot was due to employees of the Appellees plowing and salting the parking lot.

The defendant-appellees produced an expert report, which cited that the snow/ice was the result of natural accumulation — and this report was unopposed by the plaintiff-appellant.  As such, the Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling.  Still, the underlying argument in this case is a reminder that a court reading the phrase “natural accumulation” very narrowly could pose problems for defense counsel. Thanks to Garrett Gittler for his contribution to this post.  Please email Brian Gibbons with any questions.

Plaintiff’s Suit against Golf Course Not Up to Par (NJ)

Plaintiff, a New Jersey resident, visited Greenbrier golf course in West Virginia after seeing advertisements during golf events broadcast on national network television  and in nationally circulated golf magazines. While staying at Greenbrier, plaintiff slipped and fell on the golf course, suffering significant injuries. He treated for his injuries in New Jersey and New York City.

Plaintiff sued Greenbrier in New Jersey, and Greenbrier subsequently moved to dismiss based on lack of jurisdiction. During discovery, Greenbrier asserted it had no direct advertisements on any New Jersey television stations or in any New Jersey magazines. Its advertisements were limited to nationally televised media sources, national golf magazines, and social media pages. Greenbrier’s only direct contact with New Jersey was through letters and e-mails sent to New Jersey residents who had previously stayed at Greenbrier.

Following discovery exchange, Greenbrier renewed its motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction in New Jersey. The trial court, upon reviewing Greenbrier’s position, granted the motion and dismissed plaintiff’s claim because Greenbrier did not have any direct contact with New Jersey, and there was no evidence of the minimum contacts required from Greenbrier to permit New Jersey Courts to exercise jurisdiction over the golf course located in West Virginia.

Plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing general jurisdiction, rather than specific jurisdiction, permitted their claims against Greenbrier in New Jersey courts. Even with the change in plaintiff’s legal position, Delgatto v. Greenbrier that general jurisdiction required systematic and continuous activity in New Jersey, and plaintiff failed to demonstrate such activity.  Thanks to Steve Kim for his contribution to this post.  Please email Brian Gibbons with any questions.

When is a Win Not a Win? (NY)

In Mitchell v Quincy Amusements Inc. (2019 NY Slip Op 00430), plaintiff sought to recover for personal injuries sustained from a slip and fall on popcorn oil present on the floor of one of the auditoriums in defendant’s multiplex theatre. Plaintiff did not realize she was injured until the movie was over and she realized she was having difficulties rising from her seat.

After the trial was completed, the jury rendered a verdict finding that the defendant was negligent, but that such negligence was not a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s injuries. The plaintiff then moved to set aside the jury verdict as contrary to the weight of the evidence and for a new trial. The Supreme Court denied the motion and thereafter entered judgment in favor of the defendant and against the plaintiff dismissing the complaint. The plaintiff appealed from the judgment.

The Second Department Appellate Division found that the issues of negligence and proximate cause were so inextricably interwoven, that the jury’s finding that the defendant was negligent, but that such negligence was not a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s injuries, could not have been reached on a fair interpretation of the evidence. The plaintiff, and her friend who accompanied her on the day of the accident, both consistently testified that the plaintiff slipped and fell on an oily substance on the floor of the auditorium, and the defendants failed to submit any evidence to refute this testimony. Accordingly, the plaintiff’s motion to set aside the jury verdict should have been granted.

The case illustrates that certain fact patters almost require appellate practice before either side can discuss resolution.

Thanks to Meg Adamczak for her contribution to this post.

General Notice of Frequent Occurrence Not Sufficient to Show Actual Notice of Current Transitory Spill (PA)

In Karten v. Shop Rite the plaintiff claimed that she slipped and fell on some debris that was dark, slippery and smelled of rotten banana on the main walkway of the parking lot as she was leaving a Shop Rite grocery store.  The plaintiff sustained injuries to her knee, ankle and lower back, and filed suit for negligent maintenance of the premises.  Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the store had no actual or constructive notice of the spill.

In opposition to the motion, the plaintiff argued that the substance that caused her to fall constituted a dangerous condition of lasting duration.  Plaintiff further argued that Shop Rite had actual notice of a dangerous condition because it had received general complaints regarding debris near the parking lot garbage cans.  However, the Court found that general notice of a frequent occurrence was not sufficient to show actual notice of a current transitory spill.  The Court, in concluding that the substance amounted to a transitory spill, found no evidence of actual notice to the store of the banana’s presence, and concluded that a jury would have to resort to improper speculation.

In the alternative, plaintiff complained that Shop Rite failed to produce information regarding a store employee and the surveillance film of the incidence.  However, the Court found that the plaintiff manufactured these issues solely for the purpose of opposing summary judgment, as they were never pursued by the plaintiff within the discovery period.  Further, the Court found that the allegations in plaintiff’s opposition to summary judgment contradicted her prior pleadings and deposition testimony.

In granting summary judgment, the Court found that Pennsylvania law did not support the presumption that damaged debris served as sufficient circumstantial proof for the duration of a transitory spill, and concluded that the plaintiff failed to meet her burden of establishing constructive notice.  Therefore, summary judgment was granted in favor of Shop Rite.

Thanks to Alexandra Perry for her contribution to this post.

Plaintiff’s Death, before his Deposition, also Fatal to His Estate’s Cause of Action (NY)

The death of a plaintiff can be devastating to that decedent’s cause of action — especially where the decedent dies before being deposed, as in Thompson-Shepard v. Lido Hall Condominiums.  This 2019 First Department decision granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment because there was no way for the cause of plaintiff’s un-witnessed accident to be surmised.

Decedent was allegedly injured when he fell on the stairs at defendant’s premises.  His pre-deposition death, unrelated to the unwitnessed fall, precluded plaintiff’s estate from asserting a conclusive the cause of the accident.

Plaintiff attempted to remedy this defect by submitting an expert affidavit claiming that the irregular and excessive riser heights coupled with plaintiff’s testimony that she saw decedent’s leg lodged in a riser showed that the defective riser heights caused decedent’s accident.  The court found that the expert failed to raise an issue of fact as there was no witness to link the claimed defect to decedent’s accident as there was no sworn statement or testimony by decedent claiming he fell due to riser height.

It is crucial to remember in trip and fall cases that a plaintiff’s cause of action hinges on the cause of the accident.  When plaintiffs are unable to conclusively determine what caused them to fall, there is no way for defendants to be on notice.  As a practice point, locking in inconclusive testimony as to proximate cause is fatal to a plaintiff’s negligence action.   Thanks to Mehreen Hayat for her contribution to this post.  Please email Brian Gibbons with any questions.

Improper Service: No Harm, No Foul (PA)

A Pennsylvania Court determined that a plaintiff’s good faith attempts to effectuate service tolled the statute of limitations.

In Mandarano v Plink, the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas in Lackawanna County heard an interesting case regarding a failure to comply with the Pennsylvania service statute.  In Mandarano, the Plaintiff commenced a premises-liability action one day before the statute of limitations expired by serving the President of the Defendant company via a detective agency.  Under Pa.R.C.P. 400(a), original service in Pennsylvania is only to be effectuated by a Sheriff.  As a result, the Defendant filed preliminary objections seeking that the complaint be dismissed for failure to comply with Pa.R.C.P. 400(a).  The Defendant argued the statute of limitations is tolled only if the plaintiff makes a good faith effort to effectuate service of process on the opposing party, which he argued did not occur. Plaintiff countered, stating that Pa.R.C.P. 126 enables a court to “disregard any error or defect of procedure which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties.”

In analyzing the situation, the Court first relayed the standard for evaluating untimely service.  To warrant the dismissal of an action based upon the untimely service of original process, the record must reflect that either (1) plaintiff demonstrated an intent to stall the judicial machinery by delaying the proper service of process, or (2) the defendant was prejudiced by plaintiff’s failure to comply with the procedural rules governing service.  The type of prejudice required to warrant a dismissal based upon improper service of process involves a “substantial diminution of the defendant’s ability to present factual information in the event of trial which has been brought about by plaintiff’s delay” in the proper service of original process. The Court found no evidence of any prejudice nor that the plaintiff intentionally acted in a manner that was designed to stall the judicial process.  Moreover, since the Defendant’s officer was furnished with timely notice of the filing of this suit, the Court found that the purpose of the statute of limitations was satisfied.

This case poses an interesting situation, where the specific requirements of a statute were not met, but where the Plaintiff’s action complied with the spirit and purpose of the statute.  Most states contain statutes and regulations allowing Courts to disregard any defect of procedure that does not prejudice another party.  The Defendant could not provide any evidence that he was prejudiced, and the Plaintiff was allowed to proceed in his lawsuit.  There was no-harm, and, thus, the Court found no-foul.

Thanks to Malik Pickett for his contribution to this post. Please email Colleen  E. Hayes with any questions.