From the desk of Joshua Hayward: The Division I Washington Court of Appeals, in an unpublished opinion, recently addressed whether summary judgment was appropriate when Plaintiff, who tripped and fell while entering an elevator, provided no evidence that Defendant had breached a duty of care or had knowledge of the dangerous condition Plaintiff alleged caused her injuries.
Claims Pointer: Common carriers, including elevator operators, owe the highest duty of care to passengers that is compatible with the practical operation of their business. This duty, however, is not one of strict liability. Negligence will not be presumed or inferred just because a passenger is injured. Plaintiffs must offer evidence in support of each element of their claim or their claim will be dismissed.
Pascal v. WH Park Place Mezz, LLC, 69839-7-I, 2014 WL 953859 (Wash. Ct. App. Mar. 10, 2014)
While entering an elevator at the Park Place Building, Jeanne Pascal tripped and fell, tearing her rotator cuff and dislocating her shoulder. Pascal claimed that her injuries were caused when the elevator misleveled due to the negligence of the building owner Park Place Mezz, which was vicariously liable for the conduct of its elevator maintenance company. The trial court granted summary judgment to Park Place Mezz because Pascal presented no evidence to support her claim that Park Place Mezz had breached its duty or had actual or constructive knowledge of the elevator misleveling. Pascal appealed.
In reviewing the lower court’s decision, the Washington Court of Appeals noted that in the four months prior to the alleged incident, the service mechanic responsible for inspection and maintenance of the elevators did not observe any misleveling of the elevators during his monthly inspection and had not received any complaints of misleveling. The building’s chief engineer testified that he had no notice of any misleveling issues regarding the specific elevator.
In response, Pascal simply claimed that her foot clipped the elevator floor, causing her to trip and fall. She did not observe whether the elevator misleveled on the day of the incident. Pascal assumed that because the garage floor was stationary, the elevator must have misleveled. Pascal had observed some of the other elevators in the building misleveling from time to time. She further supported her position against Park Place Mezz’s motion for summary judgment with declarations from individuals who had previously observed misleveling in the building’s elevators, however, none of the witnesses testified that they observed misleveling of the specific elevator between the date of the last monthly maintenance and the date of the incident. Pascal also presented evidence that 14 days after her incident, a building worker observed the specific elevator misleveling between one half to three quarters of an inch.
The trial court determined that Pascal’s evidence was not sufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment and the Court of Appeals agreed.
The court ruled that a defendant can move for summary judgment by showing a lack of evidence in support of a plaintiff’s case. The plaintiff must then set forth specific facts sufficient to show a genuine issue of material fact. Conclusory statements, opinions, allegations, and denials will not suffice. Although common carriers are required to take reasonable precautions for their passengers’ safety, the mere occurrence of an accident does not mean that negligence should be presumed or inferred.
Here, there was no evidence to suggest that Park Place Mezz should have reasonably anticipated that an accident might occur, necessitating precautionary measures. In the four months prior, there had been no notice, constructive or actual, of the garage elevator misleveling. In the eyes of the court, Park Place Mezz had met its common carrier duty by hiring an elevator maintenance company to inspect the building’s elevators on a monthly basis and respond to service calls as necessary. The fact that the specific elevator was observed misleveling on February 4 did not support an inference that the elevator had misleveled on the date of the incident, January 21. As mechanical devices, elevator materials can wear out or break in the absence of negligence. Pascal’s expert failed to opine on why the elevator misleveled and on how the misleveling was the result of Park Place Mezz’s negligence. The lack of evidence in support of Pascal’s claim was proper grounds for dismissing the case on summary judgment.
NOTE: This opinion has not been published. It is provided to demonstrate how the court approaches the issues involved in the case.
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