Court Decision Protects Businesses from Injury Lawsuits
By Gerri Elder
The Arizona Court of Appeals has recently made a decision that will protect business owners from some injury lawsuits when accidents happen at a place of business. The court found that business owners and corporations cannot be held liable for injuries caused by dangerous conditions on the business property unless the injured person can prove that the owners of the company knew or should have known about the situation or defect that caused the injuries and thus were negligent, according to a report by the Arizona Business Gazette.
The court decision involved a personal injury claim made by the parents of a child who was allegedly injured while playing on the playground equipment at a Carl's Jr. restaurant in Nogales, Arizona in 2004. When the personal injury lawsuit went to court, the trial judge threw the case out, saying that there was no basis to let the personal injury claim go to trial. The Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the trial judge.
Luis and Celina Martinez filed the personal injury lawsuit claiming that their daughter, Ivana, was injured by a slide on the playground at the restaurant. They allege that a bolt or screw that was protruding on the slide caused the little girl's injuries.
During questioning during the discovery process in the case, the couple truthfully admitted that they were not claiming that the owner of the restaurant, MJKL Enterprises, or any of its employees knew about the dangerous screw or bolt on the playground equipment. However, they said that because the slide had been on the property for quite some time, someone from the company should have known about the dangerous condition on the slide.
Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Anna Montoya-Paez threw the personal injury case out of court and Judge J. William Brammer, writing for the Arizona Court of Appeals, said that Montoya-Paez's decision was correct.
Brammer wrote that trial judges are entitled to dismiss cases before they go to trial if there are "no genuine issues of material fact" and the party is entitled to summary judgment. He also wrote that even in cases in which certain facts support the personal injury claim, the judge should grant summary judgment if reasonable people could not come to the conclusion that those facts support the allegations of the lawsuit.
The decision does not necessarily mean that personal injury lawsuits against businesses for negligence require proof that the owners or employees of the business actually knew about the dangerous condition on the business property, but in cases that provide no proof that the business owners or workers knew of the potential for injuries, evidence must be presented proving that the hazard was present on the property for a long enough period of time that it should have been recognized and corrected before the injury occurred.
In the personal injury case filed by the Martinez's, Brammer said that Ivana's parents provided no evidence of how long the dangerous screw or bolt that injured her had been protruding from the slide. The flaw in their case was that they were unable to prove that the nature of the dangerous condition on the playground was such that it had to have been there long enough for the owner or manager of the restaurant to know about it.
Brammer cited another case in which the appellate court found liability for the dangerous condition of a sidewalk that caused an injury. In that case, the sidewalk was in such poor condition that it was evident that the problem did not occur suddenly but over a period of time, and therefore the danger of injury was either known or should have been known by the owners.
In the case of the protruding screw or bolt on the playground slide, Brammer said that the Martinez family provided absolutely no evidence that the defect in the equipment could not have happened suddenly. They produced no affidavits, no photos of the slide, no information about the construction of the slide, no witnesses and no expert testimony regarding how the bolt or screw that injured their daughter may have become exposed. Therefore the court found that they did not even come close to proving that MJKL's negligence was the cause of Ivana's injury.
The personal injury lawyer that represented the Martinez family in the case said that MJKL had removed the slide from the property without notice and would not disclose its location. Brammer dismissed that argument and said that the issue of the location of the slide should have been addressed to the trial court as a vehicle to compel discovery and force the company to produce the slide and not in their objection to summary judgment being entered against them.