Premises liability lawsuits, more commonly known as slip-and-fall cases, are based on the legal theory of negligence. Essentially, these claims rely on the the duty that a landowner or occupier owes to those people who are invited onto its land. Historically, there have been three classes of “guests”:  invitees, licensees, and trespassers.

Snowy RoadInvitees are owed the highest duty from landowners. Most commonly, invitees are customers of a business. Licensees are the next-most protected group, and they consist of social guests. Finally, trespassers are owed the most minimal duty, and generally this only requires that a landowner not employ traps or other devices to intentionally harm the trespasser.

Theories of Recovery Available to Premises Liability Plaintiffs

When someone is injured on the land of another, they may file a lawsuit against the landowner. The duty owed to the plaintiff will depend on their classification above. Once the plaintiff’s status is determined, the court will then determine if the defendant violated that duty of care. This can result in one or more of several available claims. A recent premises liability case arising out of a slip-and-fall accident outside a hotel illustrates several potential theories of liability.

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In Maryland and across the United States, there is a system in place of appellate courts that are able to review the decisions of the lower courts. In most states, Maryland included, there are three levels of courts, starting with the trial court, then the intermediate appellate court, and finally the state supreme court. Above all of these is the United States Supreme Court, which intervenes only in select cases. Most cases are resolved within the state judicial system.

Garbage TruckJudges are human and can make mistakes. Thus, the system is set up to allow for appellate and supreme courts to review the decisions of lower courts in order to make sure that the lower court applied the law correctly. If a higher court decides that a lower court was wrong in its application of the law, the higher court can reverse, or overturn, the lower court. That is exactly what happened in a recent case brought by a woman who rear-ended a garbage truck and sued the driver as well as the truck’s owner for damages.

Torres v. Pabon:  The Facts

Torres was driving her Nissan early in the morning along a New Jersey highway before the sun had come up. She approached what she described as a “dark silhouette,” but she did not realize that what she saw was a truck until it was too late. She applied her brakes but was unable to stop in time and struck the back of the truck.

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Determining who is at fault in a serious or fatal accident is not always as easy as it may seem. In many cases, there are several parties involved, each with their own role in the accident. In some cases, the injured party may also be partially at fault for the accident. Each of these considerations is relevant in determining what, if anything, the injured party is entitled to receive from the negligent party or parties.

Bicyclist in RoadGenerally speaking, Washington, D.C. employs the doctrine of joint and several liability. This means that all wrongdoers can be held responsible for the total amount of damages suffered by the plaintiff. This favors plaintiffs because it allows for an injured party to receive full compensation from any one of several liable parties involved.

However, Washington, D.C. also uses the strict doctrine of contributory negligence, which acts to prevent an injured party from recovering at all if they are even the slightest bit at fault. This means that if a person is determined by a judge or jury to be just 5% at fault, they may be prevented from recovering a penny for their damages, no matter how serious.

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Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of California issued a written opinion holding that a doctor, nursing home employee, or other person with a custodial relationship to an elderly person may be held liable based on that person’s failure to refer the resident to a medical specialist when the situation calls for such a referral. In the case, Winn v. Pioneer Medical Group, the plaintiff was ultimately unsuccessful in establishing the necessary relationship between the defendant and the elder, but the court did note that liability could be appropriate in some situations.

Blood Pressure CuffThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiffs in the case were the surviving family members of a woman who had died while in the care of the defendant doctors. The elderly woman was being provided outpatient treatment by several doctors. Neither of the doctors made a referral to a specialist, although some facts were evident that would suggest such a referral was appropriate. Ultimately, the elderly woman passed away from blood poisoning. The plaintiffs then filed a claim of elder abuse against the doctors, claiming that it was negligent of them to not refer her to a specialist.

The defendants asked the trial court to dismiss the case against them, claiming that only care custodians can be held liable for elder abuse. The lower court agreed. However, on appeal to the intermediate appellate court, the decision was reversed in the plaintiffs’ favor. The defendant then appealed that order to the state’s supreme court.

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Earlier this month, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an opinion dismissing a plaintiff’s case against a state employee, based on the plaintiff’s failure to strictly comply with the notice requirements outlined in the state’s statute governing cases against governments and government employees. In the case, Sorenson v. Batchelder, the issue was whether personal notice of the lawsuit provided to the state’s attorney general complied with the requirement that notice be provided through certified mail.

Wrecked CarThe Facts of the Case

In October 2010, a state employee rear-ended a vehicle that was pushed into the plaintiff’s vehicle, causing property damage and personal injury to the plaintiff. Three months later, the plaintiff served notice of the claim to the attorney general in the state’s capitol. After investigating the claim, the state government issued a check to the plaintiff in the amount of $241. Not satisfied with the compensation, the plaintiff then filed a negligence lawsuit against the state employee, seeking a fuller award.

Before the case reached trial, the defendant asked the court to dismiss the case because the plaintiff failed to strictly comply with the state’s notice requirement, which required that notice of a claim be delivered by certified mail. The lower courts determined that service was proper, but the state employee appealed to the highest state court.

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In many personal injury and medical malpractice cases, the bulk of the litigation actually occurs before a case reaches the trial phase. Much of this pre-trial litigation occurs over discovery-related matters, when the parties essentially argue over which evidence will be considered at trial and which evidence should be kept out. After the evidentiary issues have been resolved, either party is free to move for summary judgment based on the evidence presented to the court thus far in the proceeding.

Doctor's White CoatIn Washington, D.C., the Rules of Civil Procedure explain that summary judgment is appropriate when “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Simply put, this means that the party filing for summary judgment is claiming that the other party cannot win the case, even if the court resolves all issues in their favor. The credibility of a witness or document is not at issue in a summary judgment proceeding.

Of course, if the evidence does present an issue of material fact, the moving party cannot legally be entitled to summary judgment, since that issue must be resolved by a fact-finder (either by a judge or jury) at a trial. A recent medical malpractice case out of Indiana illustrates the point well.

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Earlier this month, an appellate court in Missouri issued a written opinion illustrating how a state’s statute limiting non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases can act to significantly limit a plaintiff’s recovery amount. In the case, Dodson v. Ferrara, the plaintiffs were initially awarded approximately $1.8 million in economic damages and $9 million in non-economic damages after the loss of their loved one. However, due to the state’s cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases, the court reduced the non-economic portion of the award from $9 million to just $350,000.

surgery-857135_960_720The Facts of the Case

Ms. Dodson went to the hospital complaining of shortness of breath. Upon arrival, she was initially diagnosed with bronchitis, and a stress echocardiogram was ordered. The results of that test indicated that there might be an abnormality with her heart, so the attending physician ordered a heart catheterization to further investigate.

The defendant, Dr. Ferrara, performed the catheterization. However, during the process, Ms. Dodson’s left main coronary artery was severed, cutting off blood flow to vital portions of her body. The doctor called for assistance. However, it was not until 30 minutes had passed that doctors arrived. They then unsuccessfully attempted to put a stent in the artery. From there, Ms. Dodson was transported to the operating room for emergency surgery. However, once there, the surgery to repair the damaged artery was unsuccessful, and she died as a result.

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Earlier this month, the Nebraska Supreme Court issued a written opinion in a case filed against a government that elucidates one issue of sovereign immunity that is not often seen in personal injury cases. In the case, Moreno v. City of Gering, the court only had to determine the amount of damages that was appropriate because the City of Gering admitted liability for the accident.


The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff, Moreno, was riding as a passenger on a county bus when it was struck by a van that was being operated by a volunteer from the city’s fire department. The impact from the collision resulted in Moreno being ejected from the bus, and she landed on the pavement nearby.

Moreno had suffered from back pain in the past, and according to her, the accident aggravated that pain. After her injury, Moreno consulted with a physician, who recommended that she receive surgery to help correct the aggravation of the pre-existing condition caused by the accident. She had the surgery performed.

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Earlier this month, the state supreme court in Wisconsin issued an opinion holding that a hot air balloon operator was not entitled to immunity under the state’s recreational use statute. In the case, Roberts v. T.H.E. Insurance Co., the court determined that a hot air balloon operator is neither an owner nor an occupier of the land on which it operates, and it is therefore not entitled to immunity.

hot-air-balloon-4761_960_720The Facts of the Case

Ms. Roberts was at a charity event hosted at a local gun club when she was injured while waiting in line to take a tethered hot air balloon ride. According to the court’s written opinion, the defendant hot air balloon operator was providing free rides to help support the charity event. People interested in taking a free ride would line up, and an employee of the hot air balloon company would hand out waivers of release for each person to sign. The wait to get up in a balloon was about 20-30 minutes.

As Ms. Roberts was waiting, a strong wind broke the balloon free of the tethers, and it came swinging into the line of those waiting to ride in the balloon. It struck Ms. Roberts, and she fell to the ground, sustaining injuries as a result. Afterwards, she filed a lawsuit against the defendant, the operator of the hot air balloon.

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Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Louisiana issued a written opinion in a case involving a man who developed a serious infection after having a routine back surgery performed at the defendant’s hospital. In the case, Dupuy v. NMC Operating Company, the court ultimately determined that the case was properly considered a medical malpractice case, and it was thus subject to the additional procedural hurdles applicable to all medical malpractice cases.

surgical-instruments-81489_960_720The Facts of the Case

After his surgery, the plaintiff filed a claim against the defendant hospital, alleging that the hospital failed to properly sterilize the tools used during the surgery. The plaintiff sought damages for medical expenses, pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of earning capacity, disability, and loss of enjoyment of life, and for his wife’s loss of society, support, and companionship.

In response, the hospital explained that it was a qualified medical provider under the state’s medical malpractice statute, and therefore the plaintiff needed to comply with the statute. Since the plaintiff had not complied with the requirement to submit the case to a medical review panel, the defendant argued that the case was prematurely filed.

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