Helm v. 206 Massachusetts Avenue – Staircase Fall Lawsuit Revived

A premise liability case against the owner of a beach front vacation rental has been revived after a court review found the trial judge improperly applied the legal doctrines of primary assumption of risk and comparative negligence in granting summary judgment to defense.
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Generally, all property owners owe a duty of care to those they invite on site, particularly if the invitees are there to further the commercial interests of the owner. That duty of care includes addressing or warning of any hazards that may be on site. However, there are some exceptions. If the invitee fails to use a reasonable amount of care in protecting himself or herself from injury from an obvious danger, this would be comparative negligence, and it could reduce defendant’s liability or even eliminate it altogether.

Further, the assumption of risk purports invitees assume some degree of risk when on certain properties or while engaging in certain activities.

But in the case of Helm v. 206 Massachusetts Avenue, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled trial court wrongly applied these principles to plaintiff’s actions, even though they didn’t match the facts of the case.

According to court records, plaintiff signed a residential lodging agreement to rent a beach front property for a week in summer 2010. On the first day of the vacation, as plaintiff and her family arrived, they learned the property was not clean. The floors were dirty and rugs in the upstairs bathroom smelled of urine. Plaintiff took the rugs from the upstairs bathroom and downstairs to a washing machine on the first floor and went back upstairs. Sometime shortly before midnight, plaintiff began walking back downstairs to move the rugs from the washer to the dryer. While walking down, she tried to turn the light on in the foyer, but there was no switch at the top of the stairs, and the staircase was very dark.

She would later say in a deposition she “knew it was unsafe,” but believed she could handle it and continued down the stairs. She ended up falling into a wall at the bottom of the stairs and suffered three broken bones in her foot.

Our Rock Hill injury lawyers know that in Delaware, as in South Carolina, the courts follow a modified comparative negligence model. In both states, plaintiffs are allowed to pursue damages even in light of comparative negligence, so long as their own fault does not exceed 51 percent.

Meanwhile, the primary assumption of risk defense, which is most often applied in sports-related injuries, is when a plaintiff expressly agrees to relieve defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him and to take the chances of injury from a known risk. But, the appellate court said, this principle did not apply to the facts here. The court used this comparison: Unlike someone who goes to a hockey game and gets hit by a puck while in the stands, a renter who goes down the stairs to finish laundry can’t reasonably be deemed to have primarily assumed a risk of injury.

Regarding the issue of comparative negligence, the court ruled this was a matter of fact to be decided by a jury, not a matter of law for the judge to rule on before trial even started.

Therefore, the summary judgment ruling was reversed and the case remanded back to the lower court for trial.

Contact our South Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Helm v. 206 Massachusetts Avenue, Dec. 19, 2014, Delaware Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Fall Prevention Efforts Can Save Both Money and Lives, Jan. 5, 2015, Rock Hill Injury Lawyer Blog

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