Jeanine Pryor of Lake Charles was injured when she fell exiting bleachers at a football came and filed a claim for damages due to injuries she sustained. Her claim was denied at the trial court level and in a recent decision, the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and awarded Ms. Pryor a significant damage award (over $500,000), even after reducing her damages by 30% due to a finding that she was partially at fault for the accident.
Ms. Pryor, of Lake Charles, went to New Iberia to watch her grandson’s team play a playoff football game at Lloyd G. Porter Stadium. The facility is owned by the Iberia Parish School Board. Spectators at the field sit on either west or east side spectator seating. According to reports the west side, where home team fans sit, is a much nicer facility made of concrete that sits well off the ground and has ramps leading to the seats. The east side of the field, where visiting teams traditionally sit, contains metal frame bleachers with wood seat boards and foot boards and rails around the rear and upper portions. The bleachers have no aisles for walking up into the stands or rails to help someone walking up rows.
When she arrived at the stadium, the 69 year old Ms. Pryor walked to the visitor side of the stadium, balancing on the uneven ground with her daughter’s help. Because the players and cheerleaders standing on the sidelines blocked the view of the game from the bottom rows, Ms. Pryor needed to climb up into the stands. Because she could not step up the eighteen inches from the first board to the second she had to grab the second board and lay on her side to swing up her legs one at a time. During halftime, Ms. Pryor needed to use the restroom so, again, with her daughter’s help, she walked down the bleachers. When she came to the second seat board, she stepped down slowly the extended distance to reach the first board and fell back. She dropped her daughters hand and suffered a broken leg and other injuries.
Ms. Pryor was transported to Dauterive Medical Center where she was told she would need surgery. She chose to return to Lake Charles where she could be cared for by her own orthopedic surgeon. Following the surgery, Ms. Pryor suffered many complications and sued the school board, alleging that the bleachers were defective. The trial court found that the school board was the custodian of the bleachers in question but that they did not present an unreasonably dangerous risk of injury to Ms. Pryor, noting that:
in premises liability actions, the absence of an unreasonably dangerous condition of the thing implies the absence of a duty on the part of the defendant.
From the trial court’s perspective, the probability of injury because of the missing rung between the first and second bleacher did not greatly outweigh the social utility of the missing bleachers, especially considering that the school board made special provisions to reserve a safe and accessible location for persons with disabilities on the west side of the field. The trial court also found that Ms. Pryor chose to straddle the second seat board at her own risk because she could have sat on the bleachers on the west side and thus failed to use reasonable care.
Louisiana Civil Code article 2317.1 explains the obligations of those who own land and buildings and provides that an owner is “answerable for damage… only upon a showing that he knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the ruin, vice, or defect which caused the damage, that the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care…” Under La.R.S. 9:2800 this principle is extended to public entities such as the school board.
Ms. Pryor’s obligation under these statutes was to prove that the stadium and bleachers were in the control of the school board, that there was a defect that created an unreasonable risk of harm, that the injury was caused by the defect, and that the school board had actual or constructive knowledge of the condition.
The trial court’s dismissal of the claim hinged on their belief that the defect in the bleachers did not make them unreasonably dangerous because the school board provided safe seating for handicapped persons on the home team side of the stadium and because there was not a history of past accidents on the bleachers.
According to the Court of Appeals, the role of the trier of fact in cases like this is to decide if the social value and utility of the hazardous justifies the potential harm to others. The Louisiana supreme court has provided several factors to be considered in this risk-utility analysis, such as:
1)The claims and interests of the parties
2) The probability of the injury occurring.
3) The gravity of the risk injury.
4) The burden of making adequate precautions.
5) Societal rights and obligations.
6) The social utility involved.
Here the Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court with respect to unreasonable risk of harm and found that the fact that there was safe seating on the home team side did not outweigh the great risk of harm caused by the obvious defect where visitors were directed to find seating on the day of a sporting event. The court agreed with Ms. Pryor that there is no social value in exposing patrons to an 18 inch differential between seat boards, one that clearly violated general safety principles. The utility of the bleachers and the defect they pose when weighted against the cost of removing the danger does not favor the school board’s decision to expose stadium visitors to the risk. In addition, the lack of accident history does not change the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that there was an unreasonable risk of harm. As such, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court erred and the school board should be held liable for Ms. Pryor’s injuries.
Because Louisiana is a pure contributory negligence state, damages are awarded to parties according to their percentage of fault. As such, under analysis, if Ms. Pryor is deemed to be at all at fault, her damage award would be reduced. Various factors can be considered in determining the degree of fault of parties, such as: whether the conduct of the plaintiff resulted from inadvertence or an awareness of danger, how great a risk was created by the conduct, the significance of what was sought by the conduct, the capacities of the plaintiff actor, and any extenuating circumstances. Here, the Court of Appeals found that although the majority of fault should be assessed to the school board, Ms. Pryor was aware of the drastic height differential and if she had shown the same care descending the bleachers as she had ascending them, the accident could have been avoided. Ms. Pryor was deemed 30% at fault for the accident, with the school board 70% at fault.
Despite a history of medical problems, due to the accident and her subsequent surgery, the Court of Appeals found Ms. Pryor is now significantly impaired and her quality of life has deteriorated. She is unable to work or travel long distances. She will likely require three additional surgeries. The Court of Appeals found that the appropriate general damage award here is $300,000, as well as $80,745.79 for past medical expenses and $150,000 for future medical expenses.
This case is a great example not only of how punitive damages can be greatly influenced by a court’s belief on risk and danger but also how the appeals process can rectify an improper judgment. It is important when facing such a legal battle to select an attorney capable of illustrating the wide breadth of issues relating to the matter and can help you receive the compensation you deserve.