Indiana Court of Appeals: Woman Injured by Step Down in Aircraft Hangar to Have Her Day in Court

by: Colin E. Flora

     Today’s discussion gives us occasion to discuss some of the nuances of premises liability in Indiana law and to see an example of the conservative approach to summary judgment procedure utilized in Indiana state courts. Our conversation will be guided by Walters v. JS Aviation, Inc. from the Court of Appeals of Indiana, earlier this week. Let us begin by looking at what happened in Walters.

     Walters was visiting the Porter County Regional Airport where her husband was attending a flight school operated by JS Aviation. She, along with her husband and grandson, were in the pilot’s lounge, which connected to the hangar. The connection point had a set of double doors, which were opened wide, that day. “When the doors were open like this, it was customary for JS Aviation to place chairs in front of the doors with signs on them warning people to watch their step. Because Walters arrived to the event early, the chairs were not in place yet.”

     The reason for the custom of using chairs was because there was a step down into the hangar from the lounge. “The step down to the hangar is five-and-one-quarter inches and occurs within a few inches of the threshold on the hangar-side of the doors.” On the floor was a red sign with white letter, which read:

!!!CAUTION!!!
WATCH YOUR STEP
STEP UP

“There was a similar red warning sign placed about eye level on one of the white doors that was opened into the lounge. Another sign on the wall of the lounge, warning of a step down, was obscured by the open door. Further, on either side of the silver, metal threshold and step lay black nonslip mats. Walters described these mats as appearing to be one carpet.”

     The case arose because Walters was injured when she failed to notice the drop and fell. Based upon the evidence, the trial court granted summary judgment to JS Aviation, and Walters appealed. On appeal, the court reversed the grant of summary judgment and sent the case back for trial.

     We have previously discussed the distinction between Indiana and federal summary judgment practice. Put succinctly, it is a great deal easier for Hoosiers to obtain summary judgment in federal court than in state court. But we have not looked at the standard since the Indiana Supreme Court’s landmark decision Hughley v. State. As Judge Altice, looking to Hughley, summarized the standard:

We review a grant of summary judgment de novo, in the same way as the trial court. We will affirm such a ruling only if, after drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party, the designated evidence shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. “A fact is ‘material’ if its resolution would affect the outcome of the case, and an issue is ‘genuine’ if a trier of fact is required to resolve the parties’ differing accounts of the truth, or if the undisputed material facts support conflicting reasonable inferences.”

A summary judgment movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of any genuine issue of fact on a determinative issue. If the movant does so, the non-movant then bears the burden of coming forward with contrary evidence showing an issue for the trier of fact. We must carefully review a grant of summary judgment to ensure that a party was not improperly denied its day in court.

To prevail on a claim of negligence, a plaintiff must prove: (1) a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) a breach of that duty; and (3) an injury to the plaintiff proximately caused by the breach. Summary judgment is generally inappropriate in negligence cases because issues of contributory negligence, causation, and reasonable care are fact sensitive and more appropriately left for the trier of fact. Nonetheless, a defendant is entitled to summary judgment when the undisputed material facts negate at least one element of the plaintiff's case. Further, although the question of breach is usually one for the trier of fact, “if any reasonable jury would conclude that a specific standard of care was or was not breached, the question of breach becomes a question of law for the court.”

     This takes us to the second part of our discussion, premises liability law. Premises liability is often treated as a unique form of law, but is really just a subset of negligence law. What makes premises liability worthy of its extensive treatment aside from general negligence law is the nature of the duty owed. That duty will depend upon the status of the person who comes upon the land. There are three general categories: trespasser, licensee, and invitee. As the name suggests, as a trespasser is someone who comes onto the property without permission. To the trespasser is owed the lowest duty of care, which is essentially to take no action to intentionally harm him. A licensee is a person who has permission to be on the property, but he enters the land for his own purposes. To him is owed the duty to warn or take other actions to protect him from known dangers.

     At issue here is the third category: invitee. This is the most common category for lawsuit, because it most often involves business defendants, which is where most people find themselves. Certainly, it is not uncommon to visit a friend and enter his land as a licensee, but every day you go to work or to the store, you are entering that property as an invitee. To the invitee is owed a broader duty than to the licensee. Because the invitee enters the property for the benefit of the person in control of the premises, the invitor owes a duty to inspect the land and to remedy dangerous conditions that could reasonably have been found.

     As a visitor to the aviation school, which was held open to its students and their families, Walters was an invitee. For defining the duty of owed to an invitee, Indiana has adopted the approach of the Restatement (Second) of Torts Section 343:

A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to his invitees by a condition on the land if, but only if, he
(a) knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees, and
(b) should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and
(c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger.

“Under Indiana law, it is well-settled that, although a landowner must exercise reasonable care for the safety of invitees, the landowner is not an insurer of the invitee’s safety.” Consequently, “[c]onditions posing only a reasonable risk of harm do not trigger a landowner’s duty to protect and cannot support a finding of premises liability against a landowner.”

     The question in the Walters case, as is often the case, is whether the danger posed “an unreasonable risk.” There are certainly cases where the key question is whether “reasonable care would discover the condition,” most often at issue in spills at stores. And many other cases turn on whether the possessor of land should expect that the invitee will be injured by the danger. In awarding summary judgment to JS Aviation, the trial court concluded that the step did not pose “an unreasonable risk of harm.” The court of appeals disagreed:

Steps and stairs are an everyday occurrence, and invitees are generally expected to see them and know how to use them. However, under the specific facts of a particular case, a step’s character, location, or surrounding conditions may create an unreasonable risk of harm to an invitee.

In this case, it is notable that JS Aviation thought this step enough of a hazard to call for multiple warnings. Indeed, this step down occurred in an unlikely spot — almost immediately after the threshold. There were also nonslip mats on either side of the step, which led Walters to perceive the floor as “one flat level” surface extending from the lounge into the hangar. Additionally, the lighting between the lounge and the hangar was significantly different. We conclude that these circumstances present an issue of fact regarding whether the step presented an unreasonable risk of harm to invitees. For these same reasons, a question of fact exists regarding whether JS Aviation should have anticipated that an invitee would not see the step.

We are left to determine whether, as a matter of law, JS Aviation exercised reasonable care to protect invitees against the danger posed by the step. The record establishes that warning signs were attached to the ground next to the hangar side of the threshold and on the open door. Both warned: “!!!CAUTION!!! WATCH YOUR STEP”. Had the doors been closed, as they usually were, it is likely Walters would have observed the eye-level warning sign on the door. With the doors opened into the lounge, however, the sign on the door was off to the side and not as obvious to someone walking from the lounge to the brightly-lit hangar. This is likely why JS Aviation usually chose to put chairs with additional signage in front of the open doors during events.

Giving the benefits accorded to the non-movant under Indiana summary judgment procedure, the court held that Walters should be given her day in court.

     Although I have focused on Indiana’s approach to summary judgment differing substantially from federal practice, the same result should have been reached in federal courts as well. Federal courts applying Indian alaw equally recognize that negligence cases are almost never appropriate for summary judgment. Where, as here, factual conclusions must be reached, it is a matter to be left to the jury, not summarily disposed by the bench.

     Join us again next time for further discussion of developments in the law.

Sources

*Disclaimer: The author is licensed to practice in the state of Indiana. The information contained above is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. Laws vary by state and region. Furthermore, the law is constantly changing. Thus, the information above may no longer be accurate at this time. No reader of this content, clients or otherwise, should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any content included herein without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue.