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Pennsylvania Court Reverses Summary Judgment When Factual Issue Remains on Business Owner’s Duty to Invitee

In a negligence case, the Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed the duty owed by a landowner to a business invitee. Here, an accident occurred in which Tanya Roulhac, the driver of a minivan, ran her vehicle into Tracy Truax, who was on the sidewalk outside Madd Anthony’s Bar in Monroe County, Pennsylvania. Ms. Truax was pinned to the building.  She suffered multiple leg injuries and now walks with a limp.

Silvio Vitiello owns the commercial parcel containing Madd Anthony’s and a common parking lot shared by tenants.  Wildwood 115, Inc. operates the building’s tenants.  Outside Madd Anthony’s there is a sidewalk, running the length of the front of the building.  There are also two extensions, or “bump outs,” that nearly block the walking area.

Ms. Truax filed a negligence complaint against Ms. Roulhac, claims for premises liability and a dram shop act violation against Wildwood, and a claim for premises liability against Mr. Vitiello.  Mr. Vitiello and Wildwood filed summary judgment motions, contending the harm had not been foreseeable because there had not been similar motor vehicle incidents in which the cars jumped the wheel stops. The trial court granted the summary judgment motions.

On appeal, Ms. Truax presented two issues:  (1) did Mr. Vitiello and Wildwood owe a duty to take reasonable measures to protect invitees from a risk of curb jumping vehicles, and (2) did the trial court err in holding that they had taken reasonable measures to protect a vehicle running onto the sidewalk in front of the bar?

The court stated the standard when reviewing summary judgment claims. They may reverse a grant of summary judgment if there has been an error of law or abuse of discretion.  Regarding whether there are no genuine issues of material facts, the court stated that is a question of law to be reviewed de novo, meaning the appellate court need not defer to the determinations made by the lower court.

In a negligence claim, the plaintiff must prove that a duty existed and that the defendant breached the duty, causing the resulting injury and damages to the plaintiff.  In this case, the trial court explained it granted summary judgment because it concluded there was no duty, since the harm was unforeseeable. Furthermore, the trial court said if there was a duty, Mr. Vitiello and Wildwood complied with applicable building codes and zoning ordinances.

Turning to the duty owed to business invitees, the court stated that the level of care owed to a person present on another’s land depends on that person’s  status.  Ms. Truax was owed a duty because she was a business invitee of Madd Anthony’s.  A landowner affirmatively owes a duty to protect a business visitor against known dangers as well as those that might be discovered with reasonable care. The appellate court stated that Mr. Vitiello and Wildwood therefore owed Ms. Truax a duty to take reasonable precautions against harmful third-party conduct that they could reasonably anticipate.

In this case, if it was reasonably foreseeable that someone would drive their vehicle onto the sidewalk, Mr. Vitiello and Wildwood had a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect their business invitees from that harm.  The evidence presented by Ms. Truax was potentially sufficient to have the jury conclude that the harm was foreseeable.

James D’Angelo, a professional engineer,­ examined the parking lot near Madd Anthony’s to assess how the conditions may have contributed to the accident and Ms. Truax’s injuries. He noted signs that the two bump outs had been hit by vehicles because the curb stop was not set back far enough or because a parking maneuver was performed at a high and potentially uncontrollable speed.  He also observed four painted concrete post bollards that had been installed to protect a well casing on the corner of the property.  His observations led to a conclusion that the owner was aware of measures that would have increased pedestrian safety on the sidewalk.

The court also stated that the report set forth by Mr. D’Angelo included facts and observations, apart from Mr. D’Angelo’s opinions.  These facts and observations show a factual issue existed regarding whether Mr. Vitiello and Wildwood met the standard of care.

The court also noted the testimony of William Breuer, the owner of a strip mall near Madd Anthony’s. He stated that he had installed bollards between the head-on parking lot and the sidewalk in front of his mall because he understood there was a safety issue with the parking in front of the pedestrian walkway.

The court stated that summary judgment on the issue of foreseeability should have been submitted to the jury.  In a premises liability case, summary judgment is inappropriate if the evidence establishes a prima facie case that the third party’s conduct was reasonably foreseeable to the property owner.

The court also rejected the trial court’s finding that Mr. Vitiello and Wildwood met their duty of due care by abiding by building codes and zoning ordinances.  While compliance with building codes shields them from an allegation of negligence per se, it does not establish  that due care was exercised.  Additionally, Ms. Truax presented evidence sufficient to allow the jury to conclude a reasonable person would have taken additional steps and precautions.

The court concluded by stating that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment.  The appellate court reversed the order granting summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

At Needle Law, our premises liability lawyers represent individuals injured by a property owner’s negligence.  To discuss your situation with an experienced personal injury attorney, contact our office at 570-344-1266.  We offer a free consultation.

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