Premises Liability – Hotel Owner’s Duty to Children in Multiple Story Structures

Alarming – Property owner’s may soon be liable despite parental negligence. This case brought to us from JD Supra Business Advisor, Charles Redfield, suggests that a landowner’s compliance with Building Codes and the parents’ negligence are essentially irrelevant in determining whether a landowner has a legal obligation to a child to take precautionary actions to keep the child from falling from a window.

Nan Lawrence, et al. v. La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, Inc., et al.

Court Of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District (October 31, 2014)

In most premises liability actions, duty of the property owner is determined by analyzing the foreseeability of harm to persons such as the plaintiff.  This case considered a hotel owner’s liability for a minor’s fall from a second story hotel room window.

When he was five years old, plaintiff Michael Lawrence fell from a window in his family’s second story hotel room at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club (the “Club”). Michael’s mother had requested a room on the first floor of the hotel, but there were no rooms available on the first floor when they checked in, so they accepted a second floor room.  The room had a window with a sill at least four to six inches deep and twenty-five inches above the floor. Michael’s mother opened the window because she wanted to hear the ocean. The parents sat at the kitchen table just to the left of the window, and they were not paying attention to the children.  Michael put his foot on the window sill and fell through the window screen and out the window when he leaned forward.  Michael suffered serious head and brain injuries.

Michael’s parents filed a complaint against the Club alleging negligence causes of action.  Plaintiffs claimed that the Club was negligent for failing to have a fall prevention device on the window.  The Club filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that it had no duty to install a fall prevention device on the window.  In support of the motion for summary judgment, defendants submitted a declaration of a certified building inspector who stated that the subject window had complied with all applicable Building Codes. This expert opined that the window did not have to have any further fall prevention devices and that the window screen was not intended to keep people from falling. Defendants contended that the parents’ negligence had caused Michael’s fall.

Plaintiffs submitted deposition testimony of the hotel’s former Director of Operations that he had placed bars on the hotel’s ocean front bay windows because guests were leaning against the windows and pushing the screens out.  There were no safety bars or fall protection devices on the window from which Michael fell, but there were safety bars on two of the windows in the room and on windows in other ocean-facing rooms.  Plaintiffs also submitted a declaration of an expert mechanical engineer who opined that the hotel room was in a dangerous condition on the day of the accident because it lacked safety bars or other safety measures to keep children from falling out of the window.  Because children frequently fall from windows, the American Society for Testing and Materials (“ASTM”) developed standards for devices that protect children from falling out of windows.  In response, defendants filed an expert’s declaration that the ASTM standards did not apply to the hotel.

The trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeal reversed and held that defendants had failed to carry their burden on summary judgment to establish they owed no duty to take measures to prevent the type of accident that occurred in this case.

The Court of Appeal found that it was reasonably foreseeable that guests in the ocean front hotel rooms would open windows to let in ocean breezes and that a five-year-old child would stand on the sill of a window that is twenty-five inches above the floor.  The Court of Appeal found that it was also reasonably foreseeable that the five-year-old child would not appreciate that a screen was not designed to keep the child from falling.  Because the hotel had placed protective bars on other windows, the Court of Appeal held that the burden and cost to hotel owners of providing such protective devices to prevent children from falling out of windows is minimal compared to the risk of small children suffering serious injury or death from such falls.  Therefore, the Court of Appeal held that defendants had not shown that the scope of their duty did not extend to taking measures to prevent small children from falling from second story windows like the one at issue in this case.  Also, the Court held that the parents’ negligence would not eliminate the duty of care owed by the hotel owners.

The Court of Appeal distinguished the case of Pineda v. Ennabe (1998) 61 Cal.App.4th 1403, in which the Court of Appeal held that a landlord did not owe a duty of care to prevent a small child from falling from a window which lacked any fall prevention when the adult tenants had placed a bed next to the window and carelessly left their small children unattended and exposed to danger.  The Court distinguished the Pineda decision on the grounds that the condition or design of the window in thePineda case did not increase the risk to small children of falling from the window.  The Lawrence court found that the facts of the case were similar to the case of Amos v. Alpha Property Management (1999) 73 Cal.App.4th 895, when a defendant landlord was held to owe a duty of care to prevent a child from falling from a window in a common area when the window was only twenty-eight inches from the floor.

Comment

The Amos decision and this case will probably cause apartment and hotel owners to take measures to prevent young children from falling out of windows.  This case indicates that a landowner’s compliance with Building Codes and the parents’ carelessness are essentially irrelevant in determining whether a landowner owes a duty to a child to take protective measures to keep the child from falling from a window.

For a copy of the complete decision, see:

http://lowball.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Lawrence-v-La-Jolla-Beach-.pdf

 

 

 

 

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