Kevin Bernstein and Cameron Watson secure victory in federal court with finding that res ipsa loquitur does not apply to a failing door hinge
Stittiams v. Cajun Operating Co., Case No. 2:16-cv-02977-JTF-tmp (W.D. Tenn. June 26, 2018)
Spicer Rudstrom attorney Kevin D. Bernstein and Cameron M. Watson recently secured dismissal for their client, a local fast-food restaurant, after filing a Motion for Summary Judgment on their behalf. Plaintiffs brought suit against Kevin and Cameron’s client after a door malfunctioned in the restaurant, causing it to come off the hinges.
Specifically, on November 21, 2015, Plaintiffs arrived at the restaurant to get something to eat around lunchtime. Plaintiff Stittiams opened the front door, and Plaintiff Winfert went under his arm to enter the restaurant. After Plaintiff Winfert entered the restaurant, the door came off the hinges hitting Plaintiff A.D. (minor) and Plaintiff Stittiams.
Prior to entering the restaurant, Plaintiffs noticed other customers using the front door without any issues. The restaurant did not have notice that there were any problems with the door prior to it coming off of the hinges. Also, there were no facts that show why the door came off of its hinges. Throughout the day managers performed a “Leader Path” checking all areas of the premises for the safety of customers. The active manager had performed a “Leader Path” at 8:00AM and 10:00AM on the day of the alleged incident finding everything was functioning properly. Prior to the Plaintiffs’ alleged incident, there had been no incidents or complaints regarding issues with the front door.
Kevin and Cameron requested that the trial court dismiss the case as a matter of law because there was no established notice of a potential dangerous condition.
Under Barron v. Stephenson, the mere fact that an injury has been sustained never raises a presumption of negligence. Likewise, as recognized in Easley v. Baker, an occupier of land is not an absolute insurer of a plaintiff’s safety. In order to find an owner or operator of premises liable for negligence, the Plaintiffs were required to show that the condition (1) was caused or created by the owner, operator, or his agent, or (2) if the condition was created by someone other than the owner, operator, or his agent, there must be actual or constructive notice on the part of the owner or operator that the condition existed prior to the accident. Under Friedenstab v. Short, this specifically requires that the condition be known to the owner and not to the Plaintiffs. As such, in a negligence case, the threshold element of duty of care is defined by notice of a defective door or other dangerous condition.
As stated above, there was no notice to the restaurant to create a duty of care for the Plaintiffs. In an attempt to survive summary judgment, Plaintiffs admit lack of notice, but argued that an abundance of circumstantial evidence alleviates any requisite need for notice. Specifically, Plaintiffs heavily relied on a res ipsa loquitor argument.
Under Jenkins v. Big City Remodeling, res ipsa loquitor is a Latin phrase meaning “the thing speaks for itself.” In order to proceed with res ipsa loquitor, a plaintiff must prove (1) there was an item causing injury; (2) that this item was under the exclusive management and control of the defendant or its servants, and (3) that this item is of such a nature that injury does not ordinarily result from its careful management.
Importantly, Plaintiffs failed to meet any element of res ipsa loquitor. First, Plaintiffs produced zero evidence as to why the door came off its hinges and fell. Second, Plaintiffs failed to show exclusive management and control of the door by the defendant. Specifically, the door in the present matter was being controlled and utilized by Plaintiff Stittiams. Third, Plaintiffs must prove that the door is of such a nature that injury does not ordinarily result from its careful management. As stated in Smith v. Castner-Knott Dry Goods, “[t]he doctrine does not apply in cases where the plaintiff’s injury could reasonably have occurred even without the defendant’s negligence.” Importantly, “mechanical devices . . . get out of working order, and sometimes become dangerous . . . without negligence on the part of anyone. Any other ruling would make the occupier of premises an insurer.” Ellis v. Sears Roebuck & Co.
Ultimately, the trial court agreed with Kevin and Cameron’s thoroughly researched case law. The trial court found that “a jury cannot presume a defendant’s negligence from the fact of an injury alone. Thus, when there is only proof of an injury, a jury would be left to speculate about what caused the injury. There must be more.” As stated further by the Court:
Clearly, Plaintiffs have failed to offer any evidence, direct or circumstantial, that the door was negligently maintained or that Defendant knew or should have known that the door would fall off the hinge. All that Plaintiffs have shown is a broken public access door and an injury. This alone is insufficient to support a negligence claim. Also, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor is inapplicable and of no help to Plaintiffs, given the facts adduced in the record.
“Because Defendant did not breach a duty of care in this instance, Plaintiffs are unable to satisfy the elements needed to sustain a negligence claim.” As such, the trial court found in favor of Kevin and Cameron’s client and dismissed Plaintiffs’ claims in their entirety.
Kevin Bernstein focuses on Liability (Automobile, Premises and Products), Litigation (Business and Commercial, Real Estate, Construction, Insurance Defense, Property and Casualty, and Trucking/Transportation) and Workers’ Compensation law in the Memphis office.
Cameron Watson focuses on Business and Corporate, Government Liability Defense, Employment, Products Liability, Insurance, Litigation and General Liability, Premises Liability, and Trademark and Intellectual Property law in the Memphis office.