Taking a gamble at work

You don’t often see an employer using its own fault as a defence.  Except maybe in a jurisdiction where gambling is a way of life.

Mr Baiguen seems to have had a stroke before or just upon arriving for work. He was noticed to be dribbling, his face was drooping and he appeared unresponsive and disoriented. Two coworkers gave him a lift home. When his girlfriend found him two days later he was dribbling and unable to talk. He had missed entirely the three-hour window within which medical care might have substantially improved his outcome.

The Nevada Industrial Insurance Act (NRS 616A.020(1)) provides that

The rights and remedies provided in [this Act] for an employee on account of an injury by accident sustained arising out of and in the course of the employment shall be exclusive … of all other rights and remedies of the employee … on account of such injury.

Baiguen sued his employer for failing to provide him with timely medical help. The District Court found that his sole remedy lay in worker’s compensation and dismissed the claim:Baiguen v Harrahs Las Vegas LLC (Clark Co. Dist. Ct, Judge Herndon, 14 March 2016, unreported). The Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed the lower court: Baiguen v Harrahs Las Vegas LLC (Nev. Ct App., Silver CJ, Tao and Gibbons JJ, 28 February 2017, unreported). The employer appealed to the Supreme Court of Nevada.

Harrahs
Image from here

The Supreme Court agreed with the District Court. It followed its earlier decision of Mirage v Cotton, 121 Nev. 396; 116 P. 3d 56 (2005), finding that an injury occurs ‘in the course of employment’ when it occurs at the workplace while going to or from work within a reasonable time.

The Court also considered that the accident had arisen out of Mr Baiguen’s employment. Nevada law classes risks at work as “employment risks” (for example, getting a hand caught in a machine), “personal risks” (for example, epilepsy) and “neutral risks” (for example, getting struck by lightning).  A mix of an employment risk and another risk would be an employment risk. The court found that while Baiguen’s stroke was a personal risk, his employer’s defective response to his symptoms had caused him to lose his chance of a better medical outcome:

That Harrah’s might respond inadequately to Baiguen’s stroke in the workplace, due to inadequate workplace policies, procedures, or training, or fail to follow existing policies, procedures, and training, is a risk related to Baiguen’s employment. Such inadequate policies, procedures, and training are conditions of the workplace akin to well-recognized physical hazards, like the risk that the injury from a painter’s stroke will be worsened by falling off a ladder, or an epileptic cook who suffers a seizure and burns himself on a stove.

A second argument for the injury arising out of employment is intriguing. The court accepted the classic position that at common law a person is not obliged to aid a stranger in peril*. A duty exists where a special relationship (like employer/employee) exists. The court said that

Under the facts before us, any duty on Harrah’s part to render aid to Baiguen would have arisen out of the employer-employee relationship, not another special relationship such as innkeeper-guest or restaurateur-patron. … Thus, while the NIIA’s exclusive remedy provision cannot bar a guest or a patron from suing in court for negligence on facts analogous to these, the NIIA limits an employee’s remedy to workers’ compensation.

Baiguen v Harrahs Las Vegas LLC, 134 Nev. Adv. Op. 71 (2018)

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* McKinnon v Burtatowski [1969] VR 899 (Vic., 1968); Lorelai Laird, ‘Bad Samaritan’, 104(6) ABA Journal 16 (2018)

What did you know?

A constantly vexing question for plaintiff lawyers is when a person’s liability for another’s drunkenness kicks in.

On June 2011 four young men threw a party in Boulder, Colorado. It must have been a good one, because it attracted many people beyond the invitees. One such person was 20-year-old Hank Sieck, who attended with Jared Przekurat. They were friends of a friend of a friend of the organisers (no, really).  Alcohol was served and Sieck became drunk. He and Przekurat left in the latter’s car, with Sieck driving. Inevitably an accident occurred, causing Prezkurat severe brain injuries.

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Hank Sieck (Image from here)

Sieck was imprisoned for four years and ordered to pay restitution to Przekurat of $833,194.10: People v Sieck, 351 P.3d 502 (Colo. Ct App., 2014). Prezkurat sued the party organisers. Colorado’s Dram Shop Act (12-47-801, CRS (2017)) provides at (4)(a)(I) that

No social host who furnishes any alcohol beverage is civilly liable to any injured individual … for any injury to such individual …, because of the intoxication of any person due to the consumption of such alcohol beverages, except when … It is proven that the social host knowingly served any alcohol beverage to such person who was under the age of twenty-one years or knowingly provided the person under the age of twenty-one a place to consume an alcoholic beverage.

The District Court summarily dismisses the claim, finding that a social host must actually know a guest is underage to sustain dram shop liability. The Court of appeal agreed: Przekurat v Torres, 2016 COA 177. Przekurat appealed to the Supreme Court of Colorado.

The Supreme Court agreed with the District Court. It found, firstly, that the requirement to act knowingly applied both to provision of a place to drink and also the (under)age of the drinker.

[T]he provision of a place to provide for consumption of alcohol must be done knowingly, as it is difficult to conceive how a social host could unknowingly provide a place for alcohol consumption and still be considered a social host. To conclude that “knowingly” only modifies the act of providing the space would thus make that word superfluous in the statutory scheme.

The next question for the Court was whether the host must actually know the drinker’s age or whether constructive knowledge would suffice. Specific knowledge was found to be required under the norms of statutory construction –

Affording “knowingly” its “plain and ordinary meaning,”…, we conclude that actual knowledge is required. When the General Assembly imposes a constructive knowledge requirement, it typically provides that a person “should have known” of a particular thing. … Statutory interpretation in Colorado has consistently construed the words “know” or “knowingly” without that qualifying “should have known” to require actual knowledge.

Przekurat’s claim was dismissed.

Przekurat v Torres, 2018 CO 69

Obscuring the drivers’ vision

Recently I shared a decision from the Coroners Court where a tree shading a streetlight contributed to a road death.  A recent case from Kansas has taken a different approach to the obligations of owners of trees.

It was mid-afternoon on 14 September 2011, and Darren Manley was driving north on Anderson Road in Labette County, Kansas.  At the same time a truck driven by John Patton was being driven west on the intersecting County Road 20000.  Trees growing on land adjoining the intersection obscured the drivers’ view of each other.  Manley was killed in the resulting collision.

Labette
Rural road, Labette County, KS (Image from here)

Mr Manley’s estate sued the owners of the land where the trees grew.  It was alleged that they had wrongfully caused his death by allowing the trees to obstruct the vision of passing motorists.  The owners sought summary dismissal of the claim which was granted by Labette County District Court.  The plaintiff’s appeal to the Court of Appeals was also dismissed: Manley v Hallbauer, 387 P. 3d 185 (2016).  They further appealed to the Supreme Court of Kansas.

The Supreme Court rejected the appeal, finding that the landowners had no duty of care.  It noted that any duty of care would need to be consistent with public policy.  Kansas common law reflected a public policy not to impose tort liability on persons in the position of the landowners in this case.

As our primary policy consideration, this court adheres to precedent “‘unless clearly convinced that the rule was originally erroneous or is no longer sound because of changing conditions and that more good than harm will come by departing from precedent.'” …. Manley does not persuade us to abandon the traditional rule that a landowner owes no duty in the circumstances of this case. We conclude the determination of the existence of duty is better resolved by following our precedent that embraces the traditional rule, especially because of the public policy that underlies that rule.

The Court duly concluded that “a landowner whose property abuts a rural intersection owes no duty to passing drivers to trim or remove trees or other vegetation on the property”.

Manley v Hallbauer (Supreme Court of Kansas, 10 August 2018)

The oil of speculation

Expert evidence comes in many shapes and sizes.  Circular shouldn’t be one of them.

On2 February 2014 Rose Peralta entered a California supermarket to buy bread.  As she approached the bakery her left foot slid and she fell, suffering injury.  She did not see anything on the floor before or after falling but said she felt as though she had slipped on oil or grease.  She was observed to be wearing shoes with a 3-inch stiletto heel.

Peralta issued proceedings in the Los Angeles County Superior Court.  She relied on an opinion from a civil engineer.  The engineer opined that the flooring would be dangerously slippery if grease or oil were present, and that the fall would not be expected to occur without such substances on the floor.

GIFSec.com
Image from here

The defendant sought summary dismissal of the claim which was granted: Peralta v The Vons Companies Inc (L.A. Co. Sup. Ct, Oki J, 14 February 2017, unreported).  Peralta appealed.

The appeal was dismissed.  Concerning the engineer’s opinion the Court said –

Peraltas … attempt to establish there was a slippery substance on the floor through Avrit’s declaration, in which he opines that the manner in which Rose fell is consistent with a slip created by a foreign substance. Mere conjecture, however, is “legally insufficient to defeat summary judgment.” (Buehler v. Alpha Beta Co. (1990) 224 Cal.App.3d 729, 734.) The mere possibility that there was a slippery substance on the floor does not establish causation. Absent any evidence that there was a foreign substance on the floor, or some other dangerous condition created by or known to Vons, Peraltas cannot sustain their burden of proof.

The opinion was considered to be, in effect, speculation.

Peralta v The Vons Companies Inc (California Court of Appeal, 30 May 2018)

Don’t wait!

Lorenza Kopacz was 80 years old when she came to the emergency room at Banner Health in Arizona. She complained of chest heaviness and shortness of breath. One of the facility’s doctors examined her and recommended cardiac catheterisation. The procedure was performed in 23 December 2013 by way of an incision in the right groin allowing access to the femoral artery.

Mrs Kopacz did not enjoy a good result. Severe pain, bleeding and swelling of the groin followed, spiralling into cardiogenic shock, atrial fibrillation, severe sepsis and hypotension. There was a succession of hospital care and rehabilitation. Her condition stabilised between March and July 2014.

banner_health
Image from here

On 21 January 2016 Mrs Kopacz issued proceedings in negligence against the hospital in Maricopa County Superior Court. the hospital sought dismissal of the claim on limitations grounds. The application was granted: Kopacz v Banner Health (Maricopa Co. Sup. Ct, Brnovich J, 2017, unreported). Kopacz appealed.

The appeal was dismissed. Arizona law provided that a medical negligence claim accrued when the plaintiff had reason to connect their injury with some causative factor in a way that would put a reasonable person on notice to investigate whether the injury may be someone’s fault. Once that intellectual threshold was crossed, the plaintiff had two years to commence a claim.  Mrs Kopacz knew or should have known of a possible claim by 27 December 2013. She responded that her medical condition prevented her understanding what had happened and its cause. While Arizona law allowed for a limitation period to be delayed while a claimant was “of unsound mind”, hard evidence of incapacity was required. The plaintiff’s self-report was insufficient, even when supported by an affidavit from a family member. Accordingly, Mrs Kopacz had issued out of time.

Kopacz v Banner Health (Arizona Court of Appeals, 5 July 2018)

A tragedy in Paradise

Road accident lawyers sometimes fall into the lazy trap of thinking that because there’s a problem in a vehicle, negligence is a given.  A recent case from the Pacific islands offers a reminder about thinking through causation.

On 12 September 2011, a truck driven by a member of Kiribati Protestant Church on church business hit a young girl who ran across the road.  The accident caused her fatal injuries.  Because of rain, the vehicle was travelling at 20-30 kilometres (12-18 miles) an hour.  The uncontested evidence of the driver was that the child had run in front of the vehicle suddenly.  The police investigation found that the truck’s breaks were defective and had to be pumped to operate.

So Tarawa
South Tarawa, Kiribati (Image from here)

The defendant was charged with dangerous driving causing death: Traffic Act 2002 (Kiribati), §31

The driver of a motor vehicle must not drive the vehicle on a road recklessly or in a manner dangerous to persons using the road.

Penalty:

… (c) for an offence causing death – a fine of not more than $2,000 or imprisonment for not more than 5 years, or both.

He was acquitted on the basis that (inter alia) there was no evidence that the defective brakes had contributed to the accident.  There had been no time to brake before impact: Republic v Mikaere (Zehurikize J, High Court of Kiribati, 10 November 2016, unreported).

An appeal was lodged on the basis that the verdict was against the weight of evidence, in particular the “finding that the evidence did not establish that the respondent had driven in a dangerous manner by driving when he knew the brakes to be defective”.

The Kiribati Court of Appeal noted the trial judge’s finding that the deceased had run suddenly in front of the truck and that –

The defective brakes played no part in the accident. The respondent had no opportunity to apply the brakes until after impact. We note that when he did so he stopped 10 metres further on, confirming that he was driving at a moderate speed and was able to brake effectively.

The appeal was dismissed.

Attorney-General v Mikaere (Kiribati Court of Appeal, Blanchard, Handley and Hansen JJA, 16 August 2017, unreported)

What do you mean “dangerous”?

Tewksbury, Massachusetts isn’t a big place. It still generated an interesting appeal on public liability though.

On 20 January 2012 Eileen Potvin and her boyfriend stopped to get fuel at a service station in Tewksbury. While her boyfriend was paying for the fuel she went looking for a squeegee to clean the windshield. She began to walk towards the car backwards (for reasons which were not explained). The heel of her shoe caught in a groove in the paving. She fell and was injured. The groove was part of a legally mandated barrier designed to catch fuel spills.

1907 Andover Street, Tewksbury MA (Image from here)

Potvin sued the operator of the service station. She alleged that the groove was a hazardous condition of the premises and that the operator had failed to warn of them.  She conceded however that they were open and obvious to the average poerson.  The defendant sought summary dismissal of the claim, which was granted by the US District Court for Massachusetts: Potvin v Speedway LLC, 264 F. Supp 3d 337. Potvin appealed.

The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit noted that it was common ground that  Massachusetts law applied. The Court accepted that a landowner generally owes a duty to protect lawful visitors from dangerous conditions. In practical terms, however, they need only maintain the premises to a standard that would be safe to a person exercising the minimum care required in the circumstances.

Under Massachusetts law, property owners are relieved of any duty to warn of open and obvious conditions, including those that present open and obvious dangers, since it is logical to expect that a lawful visitor exercising reasonable care for her own safety would not fall victim to such “blatant hazards.”

Because the grooves were open and obvious, the defendant was not obliged to warn visitors about them.

The plaintiff also contended that the defendant had a duty to remedy the danger presented by the grooves, on the basis that there was a heightened reason to foresee that even though the hazard was obvious an open, it presented a danger likely to cause harm.  This argument was also rejected.  She suggested signs and brightly coloured paints as remedies.  The court retorted that –

warnings are not remedies. … [A]llowing a plaintiff to conflate warnings with remedies would frustrate settled doctrine. … Where, as here, the plaintiff does not propose a feasible remedy, a property owner cannot be held to answer for a putative duty to remedy.

The appeal was dismissed

Potvin v Speedway LLC (2018) US First Circuit Court of Appeals, 4 June 2018

Coppinger v Gray (2015) H&FLR 2015-27

Brendan Coppinger and Nessa Coppinger v Edwin Gray and Mozella Johnson (2015) H&FLR 2015-27

Superior Court of the District of Columbia

2 March 2015

Coram: Beck J

Appearing for the Plaintiffs: Eric Klein (of Beveridge & Diamond)
Appearing for the Defendants: Self-represented

Catchwords: District of Columbia – neighbour – smoking – tobacco – negligence – nuisance – trespass – injunction

Facts: The first defendant (Gray) lived in a Washington DC house owned by the second defendant (Johnson).  The house had been purchased by their mother in 1964.  In mid-2014 the plaintiffs and their infant daughter moved into the adjoining house.  The first defendant conceded that from time to time he would smoke tobacco and marijuana and burn incense.  The plaintiffs alleged that this caused their house to smell of (or become filled by) smoke, causing loss of amenity and a risk of personal harm.

There was significant evidence that there were cracks in the wall shared by the houses, that the defendants’ chimney was decaying, and that these factors were causing smoke to enter the plaintiffs’ house. The defendants alleged that shoddy renovations to the plaintiffs’ property had left the wall inadequately sealed.

Discussions between the parties did not resolve the matter and the plaintiffs issued proceedings in negligence, nuisance and trespass and claiming damages.  An interlocutory injunction on the defendant smoking in the premises was sought by the plaintiffs.

Held: Granting the injunction, that the defendant be forbidden from smoking any substance whatsoever inside his home.  Her Honour further ordered him to refuse to allow any person to reenter the house who smoked in breach of the order.  The order was to remain in force until further order or until the matter was finally heard.

Judgment

No written reasons are available.  This report has been prepared based on reports in the Washington Post of 10 March 2015 (here and here), by radio station WTOP and television station WJLA-TV.

Comment: This matter invites comparison with the German case of Proprietor v Adolfs (2014) H&FLR 2014-36. One might infer that the law will be particularly receptive to claims of loss of amenity due to smoking, particularly in light of other cases which suggest tobacco use is coming to be considered a social burden (for example, Police v Dumughn (2002) H&FLR 2015-23 and State v Native Wholesale Supply (2014) H&FLR 2014-32).

Grebing v 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc (2015) H&FLR 2015-21

Timothy Grebing v 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc (2015) H&FLR 2015-21

California Court of Appeal (Second District)

29 January 2015

Coram: Kitching PJ, Lavin and Aldrich JJ

Appearing for the Plaintiff: Charles R. Grebing, Andrew A. Servais, and Dwayne H. Stein (of Wingert Grebing Brubaker & Juskie)
Appearing for the Defendant: Jack C. Nick and Robert R. Willis (of Prindle, Amaro, Goetz, Hillyard, Barnes & Reinholtz)

Catchwords: California – personal injury – faulty machine – waiver – negligence – product liability

Facts: The plaintiff was injured on 9 May 2012 while using a “low row” weight training machine at the defendant’s “24 Hour Fitness” club in La Mirada.  The clip securing the handlebar of the machine gave way, causing the plaintiff to suffer injuries to his head, back and neck.  The defendant conceded that the machine had been fitted with the wrong clip.

The plaintiff brought proceedings against the defendant for negligence, negligent products liability, strict products liability and breach of the implied warranty of merchantability.  The defendant sought and was granted summary dismissal of the proceeding based on the release signed by the plaintiff, relieving the defendant of liability for injury resulting from the negligence by it or anyone acting on its behalf: Grebing v 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc (L.A. Co. Sup. Ct, Jessner J, 28 February 2014, unreported).  The plaintiff appealed.

Held: Per curiam, dismissing the appeal, that –

1. A release of liability for future negligence will be valid, unless it is barred by statute or is against the public interest.  The public interest is not generally considered to be impaired by releases relating to exercise facilities or recreational sport.

Tunkl v Regents of University of California (1963) 60 Cal.2d 92 and Capri v L.A. Fitness International LLC (2006) 136 Cal.App.4th 1078, followed.

2. A release of liability for future gross negligence will generally be considered unenforceable as a mater of public policy.  Gross negligence is considered to be an extreme departure from ordinary standards, or a “want of even scant care”.  The available evidence did not suggest the presence of gross negligence.

City of Santa Barbara v Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, followed.

3. The release covered the risk of defective maintenance or assembly of exercise equipment because this risk was reasonably related to use of the facility and equipment.

Leon v Family Fitness Center (#107), Inc. (1998) 61 Cal.App.4th 1227, followed.

4. The plaintiff’s claim based on product liability was defective.  A defendant is not liable in products liability if the dominant purpose of the transaction with the plaintiff is provision of services rather than a product, which was the case given the services supplied.

Ontiveros v 24 Hour Fitness USA Inc (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 424

Judgment

The Court’s judgment is available here.

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S.F. v Archer Daniels Midland Co (2014) H&FLR 2015-19

S.F. v Archer Daniels Midland Co, Cargill Inc, Ingredion Inc, Tate & Lyle Ingredients Americas LLC and Roquette America Inc (2014) H&FLR 2015-19

United States Court of Appeals (Second Circuit)

11 December 2014

Coram: Chin and Carney JJ, Sweet DJ

Appearing for the Plaintiff: John Michael Hayes (of Law Office of J. Michael Hayes)
Appearing for the First, Second, Third and Fourth Defendants (Archer, Cargill, Ingredion, and Tate): Stephen Victor D’Amore, Dan K. Webb, Scott P. Glauberman, Cornelius M. Murphy and William P. Ferranti (all of Winston & Strawn LLP) and Kevin M. Hogan (of Phillips Lytle LLP)
Appearing for the Fifth Defendant (Roquette): David Ray Adams (of Hurwitz & Fine PC) and Peter N Wang (of Foley & Lardner LLP)

Catchwords: New York – High Fructose Corn Syrup – diabetes – negligence – products liability – defective design – market share liability

Facts: The plaintiff was the father of SEF, an infant who had consumed high fructose corn syrup, of which the defendants were (and are) major manufacturers.  It was alleged that this product was a substanial factor in SEF’s development of Type 2 diabetes.  SF brought proceedings against the defendants based on negligence, gross negligence, strict products liability (in relation to defective design), and failure to warn.  The defendants sought and were granted summary dismissal of the claim: S.E.F. v Archer Daniels Midland Co (2014) H&FLR 2014-8.  The plaintiff appealed.

Held: Per curiam, dismissing the appeal, that –

1. In general, New York law views claims based on strict products liability and negligence to be functionally synonymous.  To state a claim for defective design in relation to a products liability (or, by extension, negligence) claim, the plaintiff must allege that the the product as designed posed a substantial risk of harm, that it was practicable to design the product more safely, and that the defective design was a substantial factor in causing injury.  The plaintiff’s claim failed because she did not allege a safer alternative design.

Lewis v Abbott Labs, No. 08 Civ. 7480(SCR)(GAY), 2009 WL 2231701 (S.D.N.Y. July 24, 2009); Voss v Black & Decker Manufacturing Co, 59 N.Y.2d 102 (1983); Goldin v Smith & Nephew Inc., No. 12 Civ. 9217(JPO), 2013 WL 1759575 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 24, 2013).

2. Obiter, a complete ban on a product is not a permissible “safer alternative design” in a design defect case

Clinton v Brown & Williamson Holdings Inc., 498 F.Supp.2d 639 (S.D.N.Y. 2007) and Adamo v Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp, 11 NY.3d 545 (2008), considered.

3. The case was not appropriate for analysis under the principle of “market share liability” for the substantially the same reasons as those outlined by the trial court.

Hymowitz v Eli Lilly & Co, 73 NY.2d 487 (1989), considered.

Judgment

The Court’s judgment is available here.

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