Indiana Supreme Court Swimming Pool Injury Opinion Examines Appropriate Foreseeability Test

The Indiana Supreme Court recently issued a decision in a case involving a woman who was injured while swimming in a health and fitness center’s pool. The case, Pennington v. Memorial Hospital of South Bend, Inc., raised several issues of premises liability and negligence against the pool owner, operator, and designers.

The plaintiff, Dr. Jennifer Pennington, was a member of the fitness center owned and operated by Memorial Hospital of South Bend, doing business as Beacon Health and Fitness. The fitness center had a rectangular, multi-purpose swimming pool that was designed by Panzica Building Corporation and Spear Corporation. The pool had a long ramp and a concrete “wing-wall” on one side, separating the ramp from the main swimming area. The wing-wall had a gap at the bottom, allowing swimmers to pass through, and another shorter wing-wall at the end of the pool near the entry steps. The wing-walls were designed to sit at the pool’s water level through an automatic leveling mechanism. The ends of the wing-walls were unpadded, and no floating lane divider was placed across the gap. However, backstroke pennants were strung above and across the width of the pool approximately fifteen feet from each end.

Dr. Pennington visited the pool during its first week of operation and swam several laps of various strokes in the lane adjacent to the wing-walls. After switching from freestyle to backstroke, she collided with the corner of the wing-wall by the entry steps, causing her injury.

Dr. Pennington and her husband sued the hospital, the architects, and the designers, alleging various claims of defective design, failure to warn, negligent maintenance and operation, and loss of consortium. The trial court granted summary judgment to the architects and the designers on all counts, and to the hospital on some counts, but denied summary judgment to the hospital on the claim of negligent maintenance and operation for failing to provide adequate warnings or instructions to swimmers.

The plaintiffs appealed the summary judgment for the architects and the designers, and the hospital cross-appealed the partial denial of summary judgment on the maintenance and operation claim. The Court of Appeals consolidated the appeals and affirmed the trial court.

The Supreme Court granted transfer to the hospital and reversed the Court of Appeals in part. The Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs designated no admissible evidence that the architects or the designers breached their professional duty of care in designing the pool, and therefore affirmed summary judgment in their favor. The Court next determined that the hospital was not entitled to summary judgment on the maintenance and operation claim, as there were issues of fact as to whether the hospital should have foreseen the risk of harm posed by the wing-wall and whether it should have expected the plaintiff to protect herself against it. The Court applied the test for the foreseeability of dangerous conditions on the premises, rather than the test for activities on the premises, as the plaintiff’s injury stemmed from a physical object, not a conduct or behavior. Finally, the Court determined that the hospital was also not entitled to summary judgment on the design claim, as the plaintiff’s expert was qualified to give an opinion on the hospital’s standard of care as a landowner involved in the design process. The expert opined that the hospital acted negligently in failing to appoint a design team with aquatic safety expertise and in relying on the architects to design a safe pool.

The Supreme Court remanded the case for further proceedings on the claims against the hospital. The case is significant for clarifying the distinction between the two tests for foreseeability in premises liability cases and for applying the duty of reasonable care to landowners during the design phase of their premises. You can read the Supreme Court’s decision here.

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