In a recent North Carolina trip and fall case, the plaintiff had sued after falling at an aquarium. She visited the aquarium in 2011, and after parking she was walking to the aquarium in a crowd. At a wooden bridge, she fell and fractured her hip, which necessitated hip replacement surgery and physical and occupational therapy. Her medical bills were $22,691.71.
She claimed that the aquarium, through its director, had been negligent in maintaining the aquarium’s common areas and failing to provide warnings about the dangerous condition. She claimed damages of $250,000. When it answered, the defendant denied the negligence claims. It argued that the plaintiff had been contributorily negligent. When a plaintiff is found contributorily negligent in North Carolina, she is barred from recovering any damages.
A deputy commissioner issued an order that found the defendant had breached its duty of care to the plaintiff and that she was not contributorily negligent. She was awarded more than $72,000 for medical bills and pain and suffering damages. The defendant appealed to the Full Commission. The Commission found that the plaintiff was 88 and owned a beauty salon, where she worked more than 40 hours per week until she was injured. She had no prior medical conditions affecting her walking ability, although she’d had an ulcer on her leg in 2011.
In 2011, she visited the aquarium for a trick or treat event, which happened on two nights. There were multiple concrete walkways from the parking lot to the main entrance. One walkway had a wooden bridge over a pond. Where the walkway connected to the wooden bridge, there was a discrepancy between the walkway and the bridge’s height. The discrepancy was half an inch.
On the date of the accident, the plaintiff and her family were going to the aquarium on a concrete walkway. Her grandson was walking in front of her. When he walked onto the wooden bridge, he hit his toe on the bridge board and fell forward. As he fell forward, she hit her foot against the edge of the first board so that she fell and landed on her hip.
The plaintiff testified she wasn’t paying attention to the bridge but instead was watching the crowd. She wasn’t distracted at the time of the fall, and there was no bridge or trash on the bridge that would have stopped her from seeing the edge of the first board of the bridge. After she fell, EMS and the fire department came and took her to the hospital. She was diagnosed with a displaced right femoral neck fracture.
The aquarium’s security chief came to the scene and put together an incident report. In it, he documented the area of the fall and noted the ground settled to the right side. He also noticed the first board had been rounded to avoid tripping incidents. After the fall, the security team kept watch for 20 minutes and didn’t see any other falls. The security chief inspected the grounds on a daily basis, including the walkway. He also ran safety meetings and took incident reports. None of these indicated a problem with the walkway. Similarly, insurance-related inspections hadn’t turned up a tripping hazard from 2006 to the time of the accident.
The Commission decided that the defendant didn’t have express or implied notice of a hidden hazard in the place where the plaintiff fell. It found she fell because of open and obvious slight irregularities in the walkway. It found that any slight height differences were of a type of normal, minor irregularities to be expected from an outdoor walkway.
The plaintiff appealed the Commission’s finding that the defendant wasn’t negligent. The appellate court explained that a plaintiff can show negligence by proving (1) the defendant didn’t use due care in performing a legal duty, and (2) negligently breaching the duty was the legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. The appellate court found that the totality of the circumstances needs to be considered to decide whether there’s been a breach in the duty of care. In this case, the factual findings tended to show a vertical discrepancy between the bridge and the walkway that was a normal and trivial irregularity. Nothing stopped the plaintiff from seeing the irregularity. Regular safety inspections hadn’t turned up a safety issue, and this tended to show the defendant used reasonable care to maintain the property.
For these and other reasons, the Commission’s decision was affirmed.
If you suffered injuries due to negligently maintained property, the experienced Charlotte premises liability lawyers at Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation.We represent clients in the Charlotte, NC metro area and also Greensboro, NC and Winston-Salem, NC. Contact us at 919-229-8359 or via our online form.
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