Court Rules High School Football Stadium Bleachers Are Not Unreasonably Dangerous

On the evening of October 29, 2004, Jeanine Pryor, then 69, attended a football game between Barbe High School and New Iberia High School at Lloyd G. Porter Stadium in Iberia Parish. Pryor, who was there to see her grandson play, was recovering from hip surgery and required a cane to get around. She sat in the bleachers on the visitors’ side of the stadium to be with the other fans of the Barbe High Bucs. The seat boards on the visitors’ side bleachers were uniform and approximately eight inches apart in height, except that the space between the first and second seat boards had 18 inches between them. When Pryor first arrived, she realized she could not step up the distance between the first row and the second, so she “grabbed the second board and lay on her side so she could swing one leg up at a time.” Then she stood up and was assisted by her daughter the rest of the way up the rows to her seat. At halftime, when Pryor descended the bleachers in order to visit the restroom, she attempted to simply step down the distance between the first and second seats, rather than use the same maneuver she had executed on the way up. In the process, she fell and was severely injured. Pryor filed suit against the New Iberia school board alleging that the bleachers were defective. After a bench trial, the district court entered a judgment for the school board, having determined under a risk/utility analysis that the condition of the bleachers was not unreasonably dangerous. Pryor appealed and the court of appeal reversed. It rejected the district court’s analysis, finding there was “no utility or social value in exposing visiting patrons to an eighteen-inch vertical differential between the seat boards in question.” The court apportioning 70 percent fault to the school board and 30 percent fault to Pryor, awarding her damages of over half a million dollars. The school board appealed.

The Louisiana Supreme Court recited the general rule that “the owner or custodian of property has a duty to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition,” though the owner generally has “no duty to protect against an open and obvious hazard.” It is the trial court’s role to decide which risks are unreasonable based upon the facts and circumstances of each case, and review of its determination on appeal is subject to the manifest error standard. Louisiana courts have adopted a risk-utility balancing test for this analysis, which requires weighing four factors:

(1) the utility of the thing. Here, the court concluded, “it is undisputed that the bleachers serve a social utility purpose by providing seating for patrons of the stadium,” and further, that “the eighteen-inch gap between the first and second seat is not a defect in the bleachers per se, but simply part of their design.”

(2) the likelihood and magnitude of harm, which includes the obviousness of the dangerous condition. In this case, the court agreed with the district court’s finding that Pryor was “aware of the gap.”

(3) the cost of preventing or correcting the harm. In this circumstance, the court noted that Pryor “could have avoided the harm at no cost to her by choosing to sit on the [home team’s] side of the stadium, where disability access ramps and handicap-accessible seating were provided.”

(4) the nature of the plaintiff’s activities in terms of its social utility, or whether it is dangerous by nature. “Obviously, the act of attending a high school football game carries a social utility, and is not inherently dangerous,” the court concluded. However, it viewed Pryor’s decision to site on the side of the stadium where no ramps or handicap-accessible seating were provided “effectively increased the risk to her, given
her physical impairment.”

Based on this analysis, the court concluded that “the district court’s factual determination that the bleachers were not unreasonably dangerous is not clearly wrong,” and found the court of appeal erred in reversing the district court’s judgment.

The Pryor case is another classic example of the risk-utility analysis applied by the courts when trying to balance the duty that property owners owe to visitors with the visitors’ obligation to look out for their own safety. Particularly in the case of municipalities, state agencies, and other public entities, the court must apply a reasonableness standard to ensure that tax revenues are spent responsibly in light of the duty.

If you have been injured due to an unsafe condition on someone’s property, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with an attorney who can help you apply the risk-utility analysis to the facts of your case and get the recovery you deserve.