January 3, 2019

Tripping Danger From Wire Was Insufficiently Obvious To Support Summary Judgment On Premises Liability Claim; Roumbos v. Vazanellis

Category: Indiana Law Review | Author: | Share:

In July 2017, we had a couple of cases about an attorney who appears to have disappeared, Samuel Vazanellis. One of those cases involved a legal malpractice claim by one of his former clients, a woman who tripped and fell at a hospital, hurting herself. The Court of Appeals found that the case against Vazanellis should proceed. The Indiana Supreme Court agreed, but for a different reason.

Roumbos, an 85-year-old woman, tripped over some wires in a hospital and hurt herself. She hired Vazanellis to represent her, but he blew the statute of limitations. Roumbos sued the law firm and was deposed. In that deposition, Roumbos admitted that she probably would have seen the wires if she had looked down, and that she had previously walked over them. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defense. Roumbos appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the defendants had not proven that the hospital could have reasonably anticipated Roumbos’s injuries. The Court then accepted transfer.

On transfer, the Court noted that there was no dispute about whether Vazanellis blew the statute of limitations—he did. Therefore, the case turned on what the Court called the “trial within a trial doctrine”, i.e., whether Roumbos would have won her underlying lawsuit against the hospital. And the Court found a genuine issue of material fact on whether the wires were a known or obvious hazard to Roumbos. For example, Roumbos testified that she did not know that the wires were there when she walked over them, and that she did not see them. And the firm failed to prove that the wires were obviously a danger.

The law firm tries to establish the wires on the floor should have been apparent to Roumbos. Although Roumbos’s husband had been a patient at the hospital a “number of times”, the record does not establish that his prior rooms were all identically configured—or, relevant here, that they all had wires lying on the floor that posed a tripping risk.

For all we know, the hospital bed and table obstructed the wires from view until Roumbos was right on top of them. And by then it was too late. … We know Roumbos had already traversed the wires successfully when she went to the other side of the room from where she had been sitting to pour her husband’s water. And only while returning to her seat did she trip over one or more of them and fall.

As to the phone cord specifically, Roumbos acknowledged that before she fell she saw a phone on the table but no cords or wires on the floor. The firm argues that any adult knows that a telephone has a cord that connects to the wall. But even if that were true, it misses the point. Some phones are plugged into the wall only inches from the floor, making it more likely that a cord runs along the floor. Other phones plug into the wall well off the floor, meaning the cord may not touch the floor at all, especially if it is taut, with little or no slack. And yet other hospital-room phones plug directly into the bed, along with other cords and wires. The mere presence of a phone on the portable hospital table did not necessarily mean that a dangerous tripping threat existed on the floor that should have been obvious from Roumbos’s vantage point. Whether the wires generally, or the phone cord specifically, were obvious because they would have been apparent to a reasonable person under the circumstances is a disputed issue of material fact on this record that precludes summary judgment.

This analysis emphasizes that the Court really wants to interpret the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant, rather than disposing of cases early. It also demonstrates that landowners need to do more than show a plaintiff’s general familiarity with an area to show that a danger was known or obvious.

Lessons:

  1. For a legal malpractice claim, to prove causation plaintiff must show that the outcome of the botched representation would have been more favorable had the lawyer not been negligent—referred to as the “trial within the trial” or “case within the case.”
  2. For premises liability claims, a landowner is generally not liable for injuries from “known or obvious” dangers on the land.
  3. Whether a danger is obvious will be a fact issue for trial and not appropriate for summary judgment even in cases where a plaintiff acknowledges she probably would have seen the wires if she had been looking.