From the desk of Jeffrey D. Eberhard: Whether it’s water on the mass transit bus floor or a spill on aisle 6, property owners generally have a legal obligation to find out about “foreign substances” and take steps to make sure that people don’t get hurt because of them. But what does an injured person have to prove to win on a claim involving a slip and fall on a foreign substance? Are puddles and spills always unreasonable? Read on to find out how the Court of Appeals clarified Oregon’s premises liability law.
Claims Pointer: In a case involving rainwater on a mass transit floor, the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s verdict, which decided that the transit department was not negligent for failing to warn passengers of rainwater on the floor. The court also held that the transit department was not negligent for not removing the rainwater where they had installed slip-resistant floors. In the jury’s view, the transit department fulfilled its duty to keep the floors reasonably safe for passengers. This case is a “win” for property owners because it clarifies that by taking reasonable precautions to make floors safe, a property owner may owe no additional duty to warn of or remove water from obviously wet floors.
Moorehead v. TriMet, 273 Or App 54 (August 19, 2015).
On a rainy Portland evening, Tina Moorehead got on a TriMet “MAX” (light rail) train on her way home from work. As she got on the train, she noticed that the floor was wet, but did not notice any puddles of water. The conductor later admitted that he knew that the floor of the train was wet, but did not warn anyone. (In Portland, where it rains 300 days out of the year, it is not unusual for public floors to be wet.) The floor was textured with a product called “Tungsten” in which TriMet had installed for its safety under wet conditions. As Moorehead moved to exit the train, she slipped and injured her ankle.
Moorehead filed suit against TriMet, claiming that TriMet was negligent in allowing water to gather on the train floor, permitting water to remain on the train floor, failing to warn the public of the water, and failing to prevent passengers from using the areas with wet floors. Plaintiff’s theory of the case was that TriMet had failed to keep water (a “foreign substance”) off of the floor of the train. TriMet’s theory of defense was that it had a duty to keep its trains reasonably safe, and argued that it did that by providing slip-resistant floors and hand rails.
The case went to trial before a jury. Prior to the jury’s deliberation, the parties submitted proposed jury instructions to the trial court. Moorehead submitted an instruction that essentially only required her to prove that TriMet’s conductor was aware or should have been aware of the water on the floor and that he failed to remove it.
TriMet on the other hand, submitted a jury instruction that was based on principles of reasonableness and required a finding that the water was “unreasonably dangerous.” In arguing for her proposed instruction, Moorehead explained that because her theory of the case was based solely on keeping foreign substances off of the train floor, the jury did not have to decide whether the rain water caused the floor to be unreasonably dangerous.
After hearing arguments from both sides, the trial court gave an instruction that incorporated both parties’ proposed instructions. Thus, the instruction required Moorehead to prove that TriMet (1) knew that water was on the train floor; (2) that it did not use reasonable care to eliminate or warn passengers of the risk; and (3) that its negligence caused Moorehead to sustain injury. The instruction required the jury to decide whether the wet floor was unreasonably dangerous, and if so, whether Trimet took reasonable steps to remove the risk of harm (i.e., the water). The jury returned a defense verdict, finding that TriMet was not negligent. Moorehead appealed.
On appeal, Moorehead challenged the trial court’s jury instruction. She contended that the jury only should have considered her theory of the case, which was failure to remove a foreign substance. She suggested that the duty to protect from “foreign substances” was distinct from the duty to maintain reasonably safe premises and the duty to protect from unreasonably dangerous conditions. The Oregon Court of Appeals disagreed. The Court explained that the duty to maintain safe premises includes the duty to protect from foreign substances, which may include removing the substance, but is not limited to it.
Moorehead also argued that in foreign substances cases, the court assumes that a foreign substance is unreasonably dangerous. The Court rejected that argument. The cases that Moorehead cited never reached the issue of whether the foreign substance in question was unreasonably dangerous, and none of the cases supported Moorehead’s argument. The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s instruction and upheld the verdict dismissing Moorehead’s case.
Case updates are intended to inform our clients and others about legal matters of current interest. They are not intended as legal advice. Readers should not act upon the information contained in this article without seeking professional counsel.