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Articles Posted in Land Owner Liability

The Indiana Supreme Court recently opined on a certified question from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana that a Wal-Mart store manager could not be held liable for negligence for a trip-and-fall incident that occurred in the store on account of alleged failures to properly hire, train, and supervise Wal-Mart’s employees, as well as alleged failures to implement proper safety policies and procedures. In Branscomb v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., the Court considered the certified question when Wal-Mart and the store manager sought to remove the case from state court to federal court under federal diversity jurisdiction upon the basis that the store manager, Clark, an Indiana citizen, was fraudulently joined to the lawsuit, was not a proper party to the case, and, therefore, his citizenship should be ignored, leaving only Wal-Mart, a non-Indiana citizen, as a defendant. After Wal-Mart removed the case to federal court on diversity grounds, Plaintiffs sought to remand the matter back to state court, alleging questions of fact existed as to the store manager’s role in the negligence giving rise to the Plaintiffs’ injuries. The federal court noted there was no clear precedent on the issue and, therefore, certified the question to the Indiana Supreme Court.

In analyzing the question, Indiana’s Supreme Court noted that although Indiana recognizes the tort of negligent hiring, training, and supervision, the tort is not applicable if the tortfeasor employee is acting in the course and scope of employment. Branscomb had suffered injuries when he tripped over a pallet in the Wal-Mart garden center, leading to his fall. Looking at the allegations of the case, the court observed that the facts made no suggestion that the individual who placed a pallet on the floor in Wal-Mart’s garden center had been acting outside the scope of their employment and the Plaintiffs had made no such allegation. Consequently, under these particular allegations, the court found the Plaintiffs could only possibly hold Wal-Mart liable for the personal injuries sustained for which they were seeking recovery in their lawsuit.

As for the other allegations—that the store manager failed to implement proper safety policies and procedures to prevent the trip-and-fall event—the store manager submitted an affidavit stating that managers in his position do not have any discretion to unilaterally determine safety policies and procedures for the store, which discretion is, instead, given by “managers from higher up the Wal-Mart corporate ladder.” The court then turned to Indiana premise liability law, which provides only a possessor, controller, or person entitled to “immediate occupation” of the land has a duty to business invitees, like Branscomb, to prevent foreseeable harm from dangers on the land that were known or should have been known by the person. Because the Wal-Mart store manager accused of negligence did not possess the land, was not in control of the land when the fall occurred (it was his day off), and there were others who were entitled to occupy the land with intent to control it while the manager was off duty, the manager did not owe Branscomb a duty at the time of his fall under Indiana law.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a cemetery in an Indiana premise liability case. In Lowrey v. SCI Funeral Servs., Inc., Donald Lowrey and Barbara Lowrey were visiting their daughter’s interment site at the Elm Ridge Funeral Home & Memorial Park in Muncie, Indiana. As the Lowreys were walking on a sidewalk around a mausoleum in an attempt to return to the cemetery’s parking lot, Donald attempted to step across the grassy corner of two perpendicular sidewalks stepping from one sidewalk to the other sidewalk. However, when Donald stepped his foot did not make it completely onto the intersecting sidewalk, and as a result, his ankle rolled and he fell to the ground, striking his wife Barbara, who also fell. Donald and Barbara were both injured as a result of their falls and they sued the cemetery.

In their personal injury lawsuit, the Lowreys alleged the cemetery was negligent in maintaining its sidewalks due to ground/soil erosion at the corner of the two intersecting sidewalks. In support of their claims, the Lowreys presented a report from a professional engineer who determined there was a two-to-three-inch drop-off from the sidewalk to the ground at the corner of the sidewalks, the erosion of the ground at the corner of the sidewalks was due to the direction of drainage, and the cemetery’s failure to keep the ground flush with the sidewalks caused Donald’s fall. The cemetery filed a motion for summary judgment arguing it was not negligent as a matter of law. After holding a hearing, the trial court granted the cemetery’s motion, and the Lowreys appealed.

Indiana has adopted Section 343 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts in premise liability cases, which provides that a property owner is liable for injuries to persons invited onto their property caused by a condition on their property if the owner (1) knew of, or should have discovered, the condition and that it involved an unreasonable danger, (2) should have expected persons invited onto the property would not realize the danger or protect themselves against it, and (3) the property owner failed to exercise reasonable care to protect such persons against the danger. However, under Section 343A of the Restatement, if a danger is known or obvious to an invitee, a property owner will not be liable unless the property owner should have anticipated the harm despite such knowledge or obviousness. Importantly, property owners are not insurers of their invitees’ safety, and the fact that a fall occurred is not sufficient in and of itself to prove negligence.

Governmental entities in Indiana have a duty to exercise reasonable care to keep roadways and sidewalks reasonably safe for travel. However, governmental entities also enjoy immunity under certain circumstances. In two recent cases dealing with governmental immunity for losses caused by temporary conditions of roadways resulting from weather, the Indiana Court of Appeals has questioned and raised concerns with the Indiana Supreme Court’s analytical framework set forth in the 2002 decision of Catt v. Bd. of Comm’rs of Knox Cty., 779 N.E. 2d 1 (Ind. 2002).

The plaintiff in Catt was injured when his vehicle slid and crashed into a ditch in Knox County caused by a washed-out culvert following a rainstorm the night before. The culvert had washed out many times prior to Catt’s car accident and had been repaired. The plaintiff alleged Knox County had negligently inspected, designed or maintained the roadway. However, the Indiana Supreme Court held Knox County, despite any negligence, was immune from liability under section 34-13-3-3(3) of the Indiana Tort Claims Act, which provides “[a] governmental entity… is not liable if a loss results from… [t]he temporary condition of a public thoroughfare… that results from weather.” Ind. Code § 34-13-3-3(3). The Court framed the question as whether the washed-out culvert was due to weather and whether Knox County had the opportunity to repair the washed-out culvert and failed to do so (i.e., whether it was temporary versus permanent), regardless of any prior negligent inspection, design or maintenance or the frequency with which the culvert may have washed out on prior occasions. Since the washed-out culvert was caused by weather, Knox County had not received notice that it had washed out on this occasion prior to the collision, and Knox County was busy repairing other washed-out culverts and had previously repaired this one, the Court found the washed-out culvert was caused by weather and was a temporary condition.

In subsequent cases based on Catt, the Indiana Supreme Court has further explained that governmental immunity for temporary conditions resulting from weather applies during the “window of reasonable response” to the road condition. That window lasts until the condition stabilizes. That is, if the condition continues to worsen or is still evolving, the condition has not stabilized and is therefore deemed temporary, and the government is immune.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a property owner finding it had no duty to the traveling public as a result of tall grass on its property. In Reece v. Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., a 92-year-old motorist, Harold Moistner (“Moistner”), pulled out into an intersection and collided with a motorcycle being driven by Walter Reece. Walter suffered catastrophic brain injuries in the motorcycle-vehicle collision. The investigating police officer completed a report and documented that tall grass on the northwest side of the intersection would have limited or prohibited Moistner’s view of Walter on his motorcycle. Judy Reece (“Reece”), individually and as Walter’s guardian, filed a lawsuit against various defendants, including Moistner and Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc. and Tyson Foods, Inc. (collectively “Tyson”), which owned a plant on the northwest side of the intersection. Tyson moved for summary judgment as to duty, which the trial court granted.

To prove negligence in Indiana, a plaintiff must show the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff, the defendant breached that duty, and the breach proximately caused injuries to the plaintiff. Whether one party owes another party a duty is generally a question of law for the court to decide. If there is no duty owed by the defendant, there can be no breach and therefore no negligence.  Although Moistner certainly owed Reece a duty under the rules of the road applicable to motorists, whether a landowner owes a motorist operating a vehicle on a public roadway presents an interesting question for auto accident attorneys and the courts.

Under well-established Indiana law, a landowner owes a duty to the traveling public to exercise reasonable care in the use of his property so as not to interfere with the safety of public travelers on adjacent roadways. Courts have, for instance, found a duty of care on behalf of a railroad when its employees started a fire that caused smoke to blow over a nearby road obstructing the view of motorists, on behalf of a manufacturing plant that created a congestion of vehicles exiting the plant resulting in a collision, and on behalf of a landowner whose tree fell on a roadway. However, there is generally no liability for harm caused outside land by a natural condition on the land, except for unreasonable risks of harm from trees in urban areas, and even with respect to artificial conditions, there is no liability except for the creation of hazardous conditions that intrude upon a roadway. Thus, there is no duty where the activity is wholly contained on a landowner’s property.

As cold weather with the potential for snow and ice accumulations in store parking lots and on sidewalks approaches, the Indiana Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Pioneer Retail, LLC v. Jones is a reminder to businesses that despite not being an owner of the property, businesses can still be held liable for injuries to their invitees. In this case, the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld a significant jury verdict for a woman who suffered severe injuries in a fall on ice on a sidewalk outside a Wiseway Food grocery store in Crown Point, Indiana. Plaintiff Jane Jones (“Jones”) filed suit against Pioneer Retail, LLC (“Pioneer”), which owned and operated the Wiseway Food grocery store, the owner of the property where the Wiseway Food grocery store was located, a management company for the property, and a snow and ice removal contractor. Prior to trial, Pioneer filed a motion for summary judgment arguing it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because it did not owe any duty of care to Jones. After conducting a hearing on the matter, the trial court denied Pioneer’s motion for summary judgment and the Court of Appeals denied its interlocutory appeal. The case proceeded to a jury trial and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Jones, with 25% fault apportioned to Pioneer and 75% fault apportioned to the other defendants.

Pioneer appealed and argued on appeal that the trial court erred by denying its motion for summary judgment. Pioneer argued it neither owned nor controlled the sidewalk where Jones fell. Pioneer argued the property owner was the exclusive owner of the sidewalk with ultimate responsibility for keeping it clear of snow and ice. Pioneer pointed to the fact that the property owner had contracted with a snow and ice removal contractor to clear snow and ice from the sidewalk.

Under Indiana law, to recover damages in a slip and fall negligence case, a plaintiff must show 1) the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff, 2) the defendant breached that duty, and 3) the plaintiff’s injury was proximately caused by the defendant’s breach of duty. Landowners and possessors of land owe persons they invite onto their premises a duty to exercise reasonable care for their protection while they are on the premises. An inviter is subject to liability for physical harm caused to its invitees by a condition on land if it (a) knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees; (b) should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and (c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently found in favor of a restaurant and winery in an Indiana slip-and-fall case. In Cooper’s Hawk Indianapolis, LLC v. Ray, the Plaintiff, Katherine Ray, while at Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant (“Cooper’s Hawk”), went to use the restroom and slipped and fell on her way out of the restroom door. Ray filed a complaint against Cooper’s Hawk alleging she slipped and fell on an accumulation of water and was injured as a result of her fall. Cooper’s Hawk filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court denied, arguing that Cooper’s Hawk did not have actual or constructive notice of the defective condition that allegedly caused Ray to fall and that any breach of any duty was not the proximate cause of Ray’s injuries.

Under Indiana premises liability law, property owners must maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition for business invitees. A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to its invitees by a condition on land if it (a) knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees; (b) should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and (c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger. An inviter must exercise reasonable care to discover defects or dangerous conditions on the premises, and will be charged with knowledge of, and held liable for injuries that result from, any dangerous conditions that could have been discovered in the exercise of reasonable care. However, inviters are not insurers of their invitees’ safety and must be shown to have actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous conditions on their premises before liability will attach. Negligence cannot be inferred from the mere fact of a fall and constructive knowledge can only be found if it is shown that a condition had existed for such a length of time that under the circumstances it would have been discovered if the inviter or its agents or employees had used ordinary care.

In this case, it was raining outside around the time of Ray’s fall. Ray testified she did not observe anything, any water, or any wet spots on her way to the restroom. She did not observe any slippery substance or wet spot outside the women’s restroom in the hallway after she exited the restroom. She did not feel any liquid substance or anything like that on her body after she fell. She did not see any wetness on her clothing. While Ray’s husband testified that after EMS arrived he noticed that one of the EMS personnel had a damp knee, Ray’s jeans were damp, and there were a few very small puddles or mist on the floor, he could not testify as to what the liquid was, where it came from, and how long it would have been there, and he did not recall seeing it when he first got to the area of the fall. An employee of Cooper’s Hawk submitted an affidavit stating she was working on the day of the fall, did not know how Ray fell, neither she nor Cooper’s Hawk were notified of the presence and had no knowledge of any type of hazard or liquid substance, employees would inspect the restrooms and hallways every twenty to thirty minutes, and when she inspected the area of the fall, she found no sign of a hazard, water, or other liquid on the floor.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently reversed a trial court’s decision allowing a slip-and-fall claimant’s case to move forward against a governmental entity despite non-compliance with the Indiana Tort Claims Act (ITCA). In City of Columbus v. Londeree, the Plaintiff, Debra Londeree, slipped and fell on ice in the parking lot of the Foundation for Youth of Bartholomew County (FFY). The City of Columbus (City) provided snow removal services for FFY. After the fall, Debra filed an incident report with FFY. She then spoke with the City’s risk office and was told that the City had not received her incident report. A few weeks later, a City employee called Debra and told her the insurance company would contact her. However, the City’s insurance carrier, Tokio Marine Insurance, never contacted her. FFY’s insurance carrier, Cincinnati Insurance, did contact her, but the claims representative was not working for the City or its insurer and did not tell Debra, who was relying upon the claims representative, that she was working for the City or its insurer.

After Cincinnati Insurance denied the claim on behalf of FFY, Debra and her husband Dan filed a lawsuit against FFY and the City. Neither Debra nor Dan served a notice of tort claim on the City within 180 days from the fall as required by the ITCA. Under the ITCA, a notice of claims against a political subdivision, which includes cities, must be filed with the governing body of the political subdivision and the Indiana political subdivision risk management commission within one hundred eighty (180) days after the loss. Ind. Code § 34-13-3-8. A claimant must describe “in a short and plain statement the facts on which the claim is based,” including the circumstances which brought about the loss, the extent of the loss, the time and place the loss occurred, the names of all persons involved if known, the amount of the damages sought, and the residence of the person making the claim at the time of the loss and at the time of filing the notice. Ind. Code § 34-13-3-10.

The City filed a motion for summary judgment against Debra and Dan due to their non-compliance with the notice requirements of the ITCA. The trial court denied the City’s motion as to Debra finding there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the City should be estopped from raising the ITCA notice defense due to Debra’s understanding of the relationship between the City and FFY and whether her reliance on the representations of FFY and the City were reasonable. As to Dan’s derivative claim, the trial court granted the City’s motion based upon precedent providing that a spouse claiming loss of consortium must file a separate notice of tort claim.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently resolved a dispute between an apartment complex property manager, Buckingham Management, L.L.C. d/b/a Bradford Place Apartments (Bradford), and a snow-and-ice removal contractor, Tri-Esco, Inc. (Tri-Esco), arising out of a slip and fall injury that Deborah Perez (Perez) suffered when she slipped and fell on ice at the Bradford Place Apartments in Lafayette, Indiana on February 23, 2015. According to a services agreement for snow removal, Tri-Esco was to remove snow and ice from the parking lot where Perez fell. If it snowed two inches or more, Tri-Esco was to clear ice and snow without an explicit request by Bradford to do so. While the agreement stated that Tri-Esco would otherwise perform salting without a request as warranted by ice and snow conditions, the agreement also had conflicting provisions providing that Tri-Esco would salt the parking lot only upon Bradford’s specific request and salting would be authorized by the maintenance supervisor or the property manager of the apartment complex.

Tri-Esco performed snow removal at the apartment complex on February 21, 2015, two days prior to Perez’s fall. Bradford, which had an on-site maintenance crew and snow and ice removal equipment, applied nine bags of ice melt. Neither Tri-Esco nor Bradford performed any additional snow and ice removal services in the two days prior to Perez’s fall. Bradford did not request that Tri-Esco perform any additional snow and ice removal services. It was undisputed that Tri-Esco never performed any discretionary salting at the apartment complex, was not required to make periodic inspections of the property, had no contractual obligation to be on site after the snow or ice removal services it performed on February 21, 2015 because the two-inch snowfall provision was not thereafter triggered, and Bradford had no expectation that Tri-Esco would provide any snow or ice removal services after February 21, 2015 on February 22 or February 23, 2015.

Perez filed a lawsuit for the personal injuries she suffered as a result of her fall on ice, which necessitated various surgeries. Tri-Esco moved for summary judgment. Tri-Esco argued that it had no duty to apply salt to the parking lot during the two days prior to Perez’s fall; there had been no additional snowfall and no explicit request by Bradford to provide additional services and it was not obligated to preemptively inspect the property or provide services. The trial court granted Tri-Esco’s motion for summary judgment, and Bradford appealed.

Slip and Fall Accident
The Tri-State’s first accumulating snow of the season is melting. The wintry conditions we just experienced inevitably lead to slips and falls, some of which will lead to traumatic brain injuries, neck and back injuries, broken ankles and wrists, fractured hips, and muscle and ligament tears, strains and sprains.

For many who slip and fall, their first emotion is embarrassment and their first instinct is to blame themselves. After-all, we know that we learned to walk long ago and the idea that we have somehow failed to stay on our feet as an adult perhaps suggests some sort of weakness or failure on our part. Similarly, many premises owners will be quick to claim they cannot be at fault for folks who venture out into wintry conditions and happen to slip and fall. Thus, for many guests and premises owners alike there is a perception that a premises owner will not be liable when a guest does slip and fall in wintry conditions. Reaching such a conclusion without consideration of Indiana law and surrounding circumstances could be costly.

Personal injury lawyers in Indiana have several significant decisions to rely upon when making out a case of negligence against a premises owner for a winter-weather related slip and fall.  The Indiana Court of Appeals proclaimed in Rossow v. Jones that:

Many people may already associate premises liability claims with what is referred to as slip and fall injuries. However, these claims can involve a lot more than slipping on a store floor and getting hurt. In Indiana, there are a wide variety of situations that can lead to a premises liability case.

If a store or establishment has the ability and means to protect against a preventable injury, that place has the legal responsibility to enforce those protections. This can mean ensuring an uneven sidewalk is fixed or labeled as broken or uneven. If you break an ankle on an uneven sidewalk, you could have a a viable claim for monetary damages.

Banisters and sidewalks can be the source of injury just as easily as a store floor that is wet without a warning sign. If a banister leading up the stairs — inside or outside — breaks and gives way, an unexpected fall can lead to serious injuries. Also, a single step in a state of disrepair or otherwise unsafe can collapse and also lead to serious injuries.

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