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Plaintiff’s General Knowledge of a Dangerous Condition Sufficient to Withstand Summary Judgment, Despite Lack of Specific Knowledge as to Details of Fall
Angela Schneider v. Ed’s Marine Superstore, Inc. et al.
In Schneider v. Ed’s Marine Superstore, Inc. et al., No. SAG-14-1035, (U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, July 17, 2015), the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland considered whether a plaintiff’s claims of negligence generated a genuine dispute of material fact sufficient to overcome summary judgment. Angela Schneider (“Plaintiff”), brought suit against Ed’s Marine Superstore, Inc. (“Ed’s Marine”) and the National Marine Manufacturers’ Association (“NMMA”) after she slipped and fell while boarding an exhibition boat displayed by Ed’s Marine at a boat show held at the Baltimore Convention Center.
To assist attendees in boarding the exhibition boat, Ed’s Marine temporarily installed a set of stairs leading up to the boat. The stairs were not flush with the side of the boat, so it required patrons to take a big step over the boat’s edge, and onto a cushioned seat, before finally stepping down onto the floor of the boat. Ed’s Marine claimed that it inspected every exhibition boat prior to the boat show’s start each day. NMMA was responsible for inspecting and certifying each exhibit.
In her deposition, Plaintiff stated that she could not remember where she was inside of the boat when she fell. Specifically, Plaintiff was unsure whether her foot slipped on the cushioned seat, or whether it slipped on the floor of the boat. Plaintiff’s husband and son, both of whom were with her when she fell, testified that they recalled the surface of the boat being slippery, despite not actually seeing any liquid.
Defendants did not dispute that Plaintiff was a business invitee. Therefore, the owner of the boat owed the highest duty of care to keep the premises safe. Specifically, Ed’s Marine, the business inviter, had a duty to inspect the premises, and take reasonable precautions against foreseeable dangers. Ed’s Marine did not have a duty to warn Plaintiff of open, obvious, and present dangers. In order to demonstrate that Ed’s Marine breached its duty, Plaintiff needed to show that Ed’s Marine had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition, and that that knowledge was gained in sufficient time to give the owner the opportunity to remove it or warn the invitee.
In moving for summary judgment, Defendants alleged that: (1) because Plaintiff was unable to recall any details about the fall, she does not allege a coherent theory of causation, (2) Plaintiff cannot show that Ed’s Marine had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition and (3) to the extent that Plaintiff allegedly fell inside the boat, her expert testified solely to conditions outside of the display boat.
The Court found that Plaintiff’s allegations were not speculative, and thus, sufficient to survive a motion for summary judgment. Testimony by Plaintiff’s husband and son corroborated the predominant theory of causation: that a combination of dangerous conditions on the boat caused Plaintiff to fall. Because Plaintiff was able to recall, generally, the presence of a dangerous condition, the Court distinguished this case from another in which the plaintiff had no recollection of a defect on the premises prior to his fall, but only discovered the defect after visiting the site a week later. That Defendants could offer an alternative theory of causation, only confirmed the existence of genuine disputes of fact as to where Plaintiff was when she fell and whether the slippery surface of the boat was due to the presence of a liquid.
It was undisputed that Ed’s Marine installed the display boat and inspected it prior to the boat show. It was also undisputed that NMMA was responsible for further inspecting and certifying each exhibit. Based on this factor alone, the Court held that sufficient evidence existed for a reasonable jury to conclude that at some point during the installation, inspection, and certification process, Defendants created, became aware, or should have become aware, of the dangers associated with boarding the display boat. Conversely, a reasonable jury could also have found that the record did not support Plaintiff’s claim that Defendants had actual knowledge of the dangerous conditions aboard the display boat. Either way, the determinations turned on disputed facts concerning the precise nature of the conditions aboard the boat, the scope of Defendants’ knowledge about those conditions, and the reasonableness of their conduct in permitting the conditions to exist without warning.
The Court declined to address Defendants’ affirmative defenses of contributory negligence and assumption of the risk. The Court noted that Maryland courts typically reserve questions regarding affirmative defenses for the jury. A court, deciding a motion for summary judgment, will only find for a defendant on a defense of contributory negligence if the plaintiff’s action is distinct, prominent and decisive, and one about which reasonable minds would not differ in declaring it to be contributory negligence. Here, the viability of Defendants’ theories of contributory negligence and assumption of the risk depended on the existence of certain facts not yet resolved.
Accordingly, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland denied Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment.
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