Walter Judge Obtains Summary Judgment In Premises Liability Case

July 13, 2022 02:00 PM
Walter Judge

Walter Judge, Director of Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC, obtained summary judgment for his client, a national chain restaurant in Vermont, in a premises liability, trip-and-fall case. The restaurant owns its building, but leases the ground it sits on from the shopping plaza landlord. The restaurant’s leasehold extends to the outside edge of the sidewalk around the restaurant.

At 6:00 PM in early November 2017, the plaintiff parked her car in the shopping plaza parking lot and walked toward the restaurant, where she was a regular patron. Just before reaching the sidewalk around the restaurant, she tripped on a parking curb. She claims she didn’t see it because it was “dark.” She sued the restaurant chain and the shopping plaza landlord claiming insufficient illumination. The overhead lights in the parking lot, controlled by the landlord, had not gone on yet. Nor had a pole light next to the outer edge of the restaurant’s sidewalk, which was on a timer controlled by the restaurant, gone on yet. The plaintiff’s attorney focused his aim on the pole light controlled by the restaurant, because it was the closest exterior light to where the plaintiff claimed she fell.  As a result, after discovery and depositions, the shopping plaza landlord moved for summary judgment because it did not control that light, and the plaintiff chose not to oppose the motion. Accordingly, the Court granted summary judgment to the landlord. 

Walter then moved for summary judgment on behalf of the restaurant, arguing, among other things, a) that it was not the restaurant’s property that the plaintiff tripped on, and b) in any event, the plaintiff offered no evidence of what the lighting level should have been and who should have provided it.

The Court’s decision in the restaurant’s favor does not turn on whether or not the parking lot was “too dark.”  Instead, the decision is all about which defendant – the restaurant or the shopping plaza landlord – had the responsibility for lighting the parking lot. Based on the undisputed facts (the Lease, the deposition testimony, etc.), the Court agreed with the restaurant that it was not the restaurant’s responsibility.

Essentially, the Court ruled that there is no dispute that as she was walking through the parking lot toward the restaurant, the plaintiff tripped on a parking curb just outside the area leased and controlled by the restaurant, that is restaurant building and the sidewalk surrounding it. The Court noted that neither the parking lot nor the parking curb was the restaurant’s property, but rather the landlord’s, and that the restaurant had no duty (or ability) to illuminate the area outside of its own, leased premises. It cited both Vermont and non-Vermont case law (Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York) for the principle that a property owner or tenant has no duty to make adjacent, non-owned property safe – even commercial establishments whose patrons are known to traverse the adjacent, non-owned property, i.e., parking lots. The Court did note that the restaurant-controlled exterior pole light, adjacent to the sidewalk, might have added some light to the parking lot. But the Court said that that does not change the principle that it is the duty of the owner (i.e., the landlord) of the property in question (i.e., the parking lot and the curb) to make its property safe, not the duty of an adjacent property owner, i.e. the restaurant. The Court also cited Restatement (Second) of Torts § 323 (“undertaking”) and found that the plaintiff offered no evidence that the restaurant had undertaken to make the adjacent parking lot safe.  

This is a good decision for retail establishments facing claims from patrons who are injured on property adjacent to, but not owned or controlled by, the establishment. It is particularly valuable for certain “inadequate outdoor lighting” claims.

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