A plaintiff appealed from the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to his grandfather, the defendant in a negligence action. The plaintiff argued that the trial court erred by concluding that the defendant owed him no duty and that the court abused its discretion by denying his motion to amend his complaint to add a new liability theory. The Vermont Supreme Court reversed and remanded.
The defendant, Hector, was an experienced construction worker. In 2011, he asked his son, Ricky, about replacing the roof of Hector’s office. Ricky approached his son, Joseph, about working on the project. Joseph had also worked in construction and was an experienced roofer. According to Joseph’s deposition testimony, Ricky supplied the tools, equipment, and materials for the roof job.
On October 7, 2011, Joseph arrived at the property with another worker. They had already removed the shingles from the roof, leaving only the underlayment, which was covered with dew and frost. Joseph claimed that he initially decided not to work on the roof because the frost made it slippery but changed his mind when Hector arrived at the property and ordered him to begin working. Joseph climbed a ladder onto the property’s porch roof and fell from the second-story roof, landing on the paved driveway below and sustaining serious injuries to his head and spine.
Joseph sued Hector for injuries he sustained in his fall. His original complaint, filed in August 2014, included a single negligence claim, in which he alleged that the defendant owed a duty of reasonable care in the design, condition, and maintenance of his premises to those lawfully on his property; that the frost-covered roof presented an unreasonable risk of harm; and that the defendant breached his duty of care by demanding that the plaintiff work on the roof when it presented an unreasonable risk. Hector’s answer listed five defenses, including failure to state a claim, lack of privity between Joseph and Hector, negligence by Joseph that was the sole proximate cause of the injury, and conduct by Joseph’s father that was a supervening cause of the accident.
On March 25, 2016, the trial court granted the defendant summary judgment on the plaintiff’s premises liability claim, based on its conclusion as a matter of law that Hector did not breach any duty imposed on landowners. The court also denied Joseph’s motion to amend his complaint.
On appeal, Joseph argued that the trial court erred by finding that Hector had no duty with respect to his premises liability theory. He contended that the facts alleged presented a jury question as to whether he breached his duty to exercise reasonable care in demanding that Joseph get on the frost-covered roof. He acknowledged that Hector had no duty to warn Joseph of the open and obvious condition of the roof, but he asserted that, by demanding that Joseph go onto the frost-covered roof, he breached his duty of preventing the risk of foreseeable harm to Joseph. As for any assumption of risk on Joseph’s part, Joseph argued there was a jury question as to whether his decision to go onto the roof in the face of Hector’s demand to do so was voluntarily made.
The Vermont Supreme Court agreed with Joseph that the trial court erred in concluding, as a matter of law on summary judgment, that Hector owed no duty to Joseph. While the high court held the trial court was correct in examining the plaintiff’s premises liability theory under section 343 of the Restatement of Torts (Second), it found the trial court failed to make a complete analysis. Section 343 provides that a “possessor of land” is liable for physical harm caused to his invitees by a condition on the land if the possessor satisfies three requirements: (1) the possessor knows or should know that the condition presents an unreasonable risk of harm to invitees; (2) the possessor “should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it”; and (3) the possessor does not exercise reasonable care to protect the invitees from the danger. The critical criterion in this case was (2), particularly whether the defendant, under the circumstances, should have expected that the plaintiff would not protect himself from the danger that was open and obvious to both of them.
In light of the above, the high court concluded that the trial court’s determination that Hector had no duty as a matter of law toward Joseph was erroneous. The facts of this case, as alleged, did not preclude a finding of duty under section 343. The key alleged fact in this case was that the defendant, in a position of authority vis-à-vis the plaintiff, ordered him to go onto the frosted roof despite the obvious danger involved. A jury could conclude that, in ordering the plaintiff to climb onto the roof despite its dangerous condition, acknowledged by both parties, the defendant should have anticipated that the condition of the roof presented an unreasonable risk of harm to the plaintiff. Accordingly, the high court concluded that the the trial court erred by not denying the defendant’s motion for summary judgment with respect to the plaintiff’s premises liability claim.
The high court next addressed whether the trial court abused its discretion by denying the plaintiff’s motion to amend his complaint. The court concluded that the presence of contradictory factors, the limitations and factual conflicts in the summary judgment record, and the range of inferences that could be drawn from the factual statements prevented a conclusion that there was no genuine issue of material fact and one party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the common law claim. Thus, as with the original complaint, summary judgment could not be awarded to the defendant on the common law count added by the proposed amendment.
For the above reasons, the high court held the superior court erred both in denying the plaintiff’s motion to amend his complaint and in granting summary judgment to the defendant.
If you have been hurt in an accident, you may need the assistance of a premises liability lawyer to seek compensation. At the Neumann Law Group, our Massachusetts attorneys provide trustworthy legal representation to victims all over the state. Contact us toll-free at 800-525-NEUMANN or use our online form to set up a free consultation.
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