I saw an interesting appellate decision out of the California Fourth District Court of Appeal (Southern California) regarding tort liability of hotel operators. The case was Lawrence v. La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, Inc. – decision rendered October 31, 2014 (Reference Daily Appellate Report @ 14737).
Facts of the Case: On October 5, 2008, Jeff and Nan Lawrence checked into the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club Hotel with their three sons. This was a family vacation and a celebration of the sixth birthday of their two twin boys. Nan made a request to be placed on the first floor of the hotel but, at the time of check-in, was informed that there were no first floor rooms and was given a room on the second story of the building. Nan opened the window in their room to hear the ocean. The three boys were playing and eating grapes inside the room. Jeff was working on his computer and Nan was planning a schedule when they heard a scream from one of the children. They ran to the window to find that their son, Michael, had fallen out of the window and onto the concrete pavement below. Michael suffered major head and brain injuries.
It appeared that when the little boy fell against the window, the screen popped out and fell to the ground. The window sill was approximately 25 inches above the floor and about 4-6 inches deep. The plaintiff testified in a deposition that he had placed his foot on the window screen and leaned forward to look out of the window just before falling out.
Legal Issues Raised by Defendant: The Hotel, through their attorneys, filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (a procedural request under California Law whereby a defendant argues that, even if all facts are true, there are no legal issues in dispute and defendant is entitled to a judgment in their favor “as a matter of law”). The motion raised the following issues:
- Plaintiff’s parent’s own carelessness and failure to use precautions was the sole cause of the boy’s fall;
- Defendants were not negligent in the ownership and operation of the premises;
- The window complied with all applicable building codes;
- The screen through which plaintiff fell was not a safety device; and
- Plaintiff’s were never “guaranteed” a ground floor room.
A claim for negligence in California requires a showing of a duty on the part of a defendant (person or entity against whom a claim is brought); a breach of that duty; the breach being the legal and actual cause of damages to a plaintiff (person bringing the claim. In essence, the legal arguments of the hotel was that they had no duty to protect against such an incident, that they did not breach any such duty and/or that any alleged breach of duty was not the cause of the injury. The trial court agreed with their arguments and granted the motion to dismiss the case. An appeal followed.
The Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s decision and reinstated the plaintiff’s case. The reasoning on this issue was as follows:
- On the Issue of Whether the Hotel Owed a Legal Duty to the Injury Victim: The appellate court found that the Hotel did, in fact, owe a legal duty to the plaintiff as a guest of their property. Furthermore, they found that “a greater degree of care is generally owed to children because of their lack of capacity to appreciate risks and to avoid danger.” (citing McDaniel v. Sunset Manor Co. (1990) 220 Cal.App.3d 1, 7). Citing to prior precedent, they found that a landlord was held to owe a duty to protect children from falling out of windows when the condition or design of the window increased the risk of small child falling out. (citing Amos v. Alpha Property Management (1999) 73 Cal.App.4th 895). The Court further held that a parents’ failure to closely supervise a child may be a factor in determining causation but, not in determining whether a duty was owed. Finally, the Court further held that the owner’s compliance with applicable safety regulations or codes was relevant to show “due care” but, was not dispositive on these issues when the circumstances required a duty of care higher than just the safety standards.
- Breach of Duty of Care by Hotel Owner: The court held that, while whether a legal “duty” exists is normally a question of law, the issue of whether a duty was breached in any particular factual scenario was usually reserved to the judgment of a jury. The court held that plaintiff, through their expert witness, had presented triable issues of fact on whether a duty had been breached. In opposition to the motion, plaintiff’s expert (a mechanical engineer) provided a sworn declaration noting that he had inspected the property and there were safety bars on two of the other windows in the hotel room and on ocean-facing windows in other rooms but, not on the window through which plaintiff fell. The court also noted that the hotel representative, in his deposition, admitted that the bars were placed on the other windows to keep the screens from popping out. There were also no restrictive devices placed upon the window to keep it from fully opening despite the fact that it was only 25 inches off the floor. All of these facts created issues that the appellate court said should be presented to a jury to make up their own mind as to whether or not a duty had been breached by the hoteliers.
- Causation of Injury: The appellate court noted that the “causation” standard in California was one of whether defendant’s negligence was a “substantial factor” (i.e. was one, but, not necessarily the ONLY) factor in causing injury and whether it contributed to the injury in more than just a trivial way. The court ruled that the same evidence showing that there was a duty and breach supported allowing a jury to decide whether or not renting a hotel room to a family with young children knowing it had windows that could fully open and no safeguards to keep a small child from falling out was a “substantial factor” in causing the injury to the plaintiff. The court noted that, “A defendant’s negligent conduct may combine with other factors to cause harm” but, the defendant should still be liable for contributing to the harm. (i.e. even if the plaintiff’s parents were negligent, the hotel may still be held liable for their percentage of fault in causing the incident).
My “Take” On This Decision As A California Personal Injury Lawyer: I believe that the appellate court got it right here. Landlords, hotel operators, commercial businesses and any other person or entity that owns, occupies or leases property in California should be held to a standard of “reasonableness” in the construction, maintenance or control of the property. This is especially true when they are aware of the presence of children on the property who are not fully able to appreciate the dangers and risks associated with certain conditions. Furthermore, California law is clear that even if one of several defendants has done or not done something that contributes to an incident in any way that is “not trivial or remote” and that it does not have to be the ONLY thing that caused harm but, can be one of several things. (See California Civil Jury Instruction 430).