Grosch v. Anderson, 2018 IL App (2d) 170707-U; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1529
Grosch v. Anderson
Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District
September 12, 2018, Order Filed
2018 IL App (2d) 170707-U *; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1529 **
TRACEY GROSCH, Individually and as Mother and Next Friend of Riley Grosch, a Minor, Plaintiff and Counterdefendant-Appellant, v. BRIAN ANDERSON, JO ANDERSON, CARY-GROVE EVANGELICAL FREE CHURCH, d/b/a Living Grace Community Church of Cary, Defendants and Counterplaintiffs-Appellees.
Held: The trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of defendants because the fire pole was an open and obvious condition and no exception existed, and there were no genuine issues of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment.
[*P2] Plaintiff, Tracey Grosch, individually and as mother and next friend of Riley Grosch, a minor, appeals the judgment of the circuit court of Kane County, granting summary judgment in favor of defendants, Brian Anderson, Jo Anderson, and the Cary-Grove Evangelical Free Church d/b/a Living Grace Community Church on plaintiff’s claims of negligence related to Riley’s fall as he was attempting to slide down a fire pole in the Andersons’s back yard during an event sponsored by the Church’s youth ministry. On appeal, plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in relying on the open-and-obvious doctrine and in concluding [**2] that there were no genuine issues of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment. We affirm.
[*P3] I. BACKGROUND
[*P4] We summarize the pertinent facts. On November 14, 2016, the Andersons were members of the Church; plaintiff’s family attended the Church, but were not members. According to Pastor Cory Shreve, quite a few more people attended the Church than were members. Shreve was the youth pastor and was responsible for running and administering the Church’s youth ministry. He was in charge of the Radiate program which provided for fellowship and religious mentoring of youths beginning in seventh grade and ending upon high school graduation. Radiate was open to members and attendees, and it incorporated youths from other churches and even the “unchurched” as well. Radiate had contacted the Andersons seeking to hold a bonfire at their home; the group had held a bonfire there previously.
[*P5] In the Andersons’ back yard, Brian had constructed a platform in a tree from which he had removed the upper branches and foliage. The platform was about 25 feet above the ground. The platform was reached by a ladder tied to the tree. The platform had a rail around it, but no other fall protection. The [**3] platform had a triangular hole in it, and through the hole, was a metal “fire pole.” The pole was made out of sprinkler pipe, was affixed in concrete at the base, and was 3 1/2 inches in diameter. The surface of the pole had oxidized. The ground around the pole was grass covered, and no force-absorbing material, such as sand or wood chips, had been placed around the bottom of the pole.
[*P6] Brian explained that he built the platform and fire pole for his children. Both Brian and Jo testified in deposition that between 150 to 200 people had used the pole, all without injury. Brian testified that he was a construction contractor and was familiar with fall protection for working above the ground and had employed it in his work; no fall protection was installed or available on the platform. Brian testified that he did not research or follow any building codes for the platform and fire pole.
[*P7] On the day of the Radiate event, Shreve arrived 15-30 minutes before the announced start of the event. Some of the parents stayed to socialize, others dropped their children off. Plaintiff dropped off Riley and then went shopping nearby, intending to finish shopping and then return for the balance of the [**4] event. Jo was inside the house for the event, and she monitored the food and drinks, making sure that there was plenty for all of the guests. She also socialized with the other parents. Brian was also inside socializing. Shreve was monitoring the bonfire. At one point, he intercepted one of the youths who tried to jump over the bonfire and explained to the youth why that was not a wise decision. At the time of Riley’s accident, Shreve had gone inside.
[*P8] Riley, the Andersons, and Shreve all testified that it was a cool or cold evening, estimating the temperature was anywhere from the 20s to the 40s. According to Shreve and Brian, the point of the event was the bonfire and indoor fellowship; the youths attending were not expected to play in the back yard, but were expected to roast marshmallows in the bonfire and to play in the basement, where pool, basketball, and board games were available. After about an hour outside, Shreve went inside, planning to steer the event towards worship. One of the youths came inside and alerted Shreve and the adults that Riley was hurt.
[*P9] Riley testified that he climbed up the ladder. The ladder had metal rungs, so his hands became cold. At the top, on the [**5] platform while waiting for his turn, he put on gloves. Riley testified that the gloves were like ski gloves, and believed they were slick, possibly made of nylon. Riley testified that he awaited his turn along with several other youths. On that day, Riley was 13 years of age. He grabbed the pole with his hands, but he did not wrap his arms or legs around the pole. As Riley began his descent, he lost control, grabbed for the edge of the platform but could not hang on, and he plummeted the rest of the way to the ground. Riley suffered a comminuted fracture of his left femur and broke several long bones in his right foot. Riley’s femur was repaired surgically, and he had a rod emplaced in the bone. There is a possibility that the rod may have to be removed at a future date. Riley also developed a foot drop following his fall from the platform.
[*P10] The adults came out to investigate after they were notified. One of the youths, an Eagle Scout, obtained a rigid table top, and after they had ascertained that Riley had no apparent head or spinal injuries, placed him on the table top and moved him inside. Their purpose was to get him off of the cold ground; Riley apparently was complaining of resting [**6] on the cold ground. Plaintiff was informed and told to return to the Andersons’ house. According to Brian, she arrived in minutes; plaintiff and other deponents testified that it was closer to 20 minutes. Eventually, an ambulance was called. It appears that plaintiff made the call for an ambulance as the other adults wanted to defer to her wishes. The ambulance took Riley to the hospital where he was treated for his injuries.
[*P11] Shreve and the Andersons testified that, when the plans were made to use the Anderson property for the Radiate bonfire, they did not conduct an inspection of the property to determine if there were any unsafe conditions. Rather, Brian testified that he had a safe house, including the fire pole, because nobody had been injured using it up to that time.
[*P12] Plaintiff’s expert, Alan Caskey, a park and recreation planner and consultant, testified that the fire pole was too wide, too high, and the landing area was too hard. Caskey opined that the width of the pole, being almost twice the diameter that industry standards allowed in playground equipment, contributed to Riley’s injury, because the excessive width of the pole decreased the strength of the user’s grip of the [**7] pole. Caskey did not, however, offer any opinion about the effect of Riley’s gloves on his ability to grip the pole, but noted that any effect would depend on the type of glove, which he could not recall. Caskey also specifically noted that the fall height was much greater than industry standards allowed (five feet is the norm), and the landing area did not contain any force-mitigating substances, and these circumstances caused or contributed to the likelihood and severity of injury. Caskey also opined that the darkness could have contributed to Riley losing his grip on the pole because it obscured the size of the pole and its texture. However, Caskey admitted that these were assumptions on his part, and he conceded that there was no testimony specifically addressing these issues.
[*P13] As to the procedural posture of this case, on December 15, 2014, plaintiff timely filed her initial complaint; on February 19, 2015, plaintiff filed the first amended complaint at issue in this case. On April 28, 2016, the Andersons filed their motion for summary judgment followed on June 29, 2016, with the Church’s motion for summary judgment. The motions were stayed while plaintiff procured her expert testimony. [**8] In November 2016, defendants filed their counterclaims against plaintiff.
[*P14] On March 16, 2017, plaintiff filed a motion for leave to file a second amended complaint, which the trial court granted. On March 31, 2017, the Church, joined by the Andersons, filed a motion to vacate the trial court’s grant of leave to file the second amended complaint. On April 6, 2017, the trial court vacated its order granting leave to file the second amended complaint and reinstated the briefing schedule on defendants’ motions for summary judgment.
[*P15] On May 15, 2017, the trial court apparently heard the parties’ arguments regarding defendants’ motions for summary judgment. On that date, the trial court continued the cause until June 2, 2017, for ruling. On June 2, 2017, the trial court entered summary judgment in favor of defendants and against plaintiff. The court specifically held that:
“defendants owed no duty to plaintiff based on the open and obvious nature of the subject condition [(the platform and fire pole)] on the property; there being no proximate cause between the condition on the property and the injury to [Riley]; and there being no question of material fact raised by plaintiff.”
The trial court [**9] entered judgment for defendants and dismissed plaintiff’s case. No transcripts of either the argument or the pronouncement of judgment were included in the record.
[*P17] II. ANALYSIS
[*P18] On appeal, plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in holding that the platform and fire pole presented open and obvious conditions precluding the imposition of a duty. Plaintiff specifically contends that the design flaws in the construction of the platform and the fire pole and the lack of lighting rendered the dangers hidden rather than open and obvious; alternatively, plaintiff argues that the distraction doctrine should apply. Plaintiff also contends that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding “the true cause” of Riley’s fall. We consider the arguments in turn.
[*P19] A. General Principles
[*P20] This case comes before us following the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court must determine whether the pleadings, depositions, admissions, and affidavits in the record [**10] show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. 735 ILCS 5/2-1005(c) (West 2016). The purpose of summary judgment is not to try a factual issue but to determine if a factual issue exists. Monson v. City of Danville, 2018 IL 122486, ¶ 12. While summary judgment provides an expeditious means to resolve a lawsuit, it is also a drastic means of disposing of litigation. Id. Because of this, the court must construe the record strictly against the moving party and favorably towards the nonmoving party, and the court should grant summary judgment only if the moving party’s right to judgment is clear and free from doubt. Id. We review de novo the trial court’s judgment on a motion for summary judgment. Id.
[*P21] Here, plaintiff alleged that defendants were negligent regarding the platform and fire pole. In a negligence action, the plaintiff must plead and prove that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, that the defendant breached the duty owed, and that an injury proximately resulted from the breach. Bujnowski v. Birchland, Inc., 2015 IL App (2d) 140578, ¶ 12, 394 Ill. Dec. 906, 37 N.E.3d 385. The existence of a duty is a question of law and may properly be decided by summary judgment. Id. If the plaintiff cannot demonstrate the existence of a duty, no recovery by the plaintiff [**11] is possible, and summary judgment in favor of the defendant must be granted. Wade v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 2015 IL App (4th) 141067, ¶ 12, 396 Ill. Dec. 315, 39 N.E.3d 1141. With these general principles in mind, we turn to plaintiff’s contentions.
[*P22] B. Open and Obvious
[*P23] Plaintiff argues the trial court erred in determining that the platform and the fire pole were open and obvious conditions precluding the finding of a duty on the part of defendants. As a general matter, the owner or possessor of land owes a visiting child the duty to keep the premises reasonably safe and to warn the visitor of dangerous nonobvious conditions, but if the conditions are open and obvious, the owner or possessor has no duty. Friedman v. Park District of Highland Park, 151 Ill. App. 3d 374, 384, 502 N.E.2d 826, 104 Ill. Dec. 329 (1986). The analysis of duty with respect to children follows the customary rules of negligence. Id. This means that a dangerous condition on the premises is deemed one that is likely to cause injury to a general class of children, who, by reason of their immaturity, might be unable to appreciate the risk posed by the condition. Id. However, the open-and-obvious doctrine may preclude the imposition of a duty. Id.
[*P24] Recently, this court gave a thoroughgoing analysis of the open-and-obvious doctrine, how exceptions to that doctrine are accounted for, and, ultimately, how duty is imposed [**12] in these types of cases. Bujnowski, 2015 IL App (2d) 140478, ¶¶ 13-46.1 We concluded that, in cases in which the open-and-obvious doctrine applies, the court will consider whether any exception to the doctrine applies, such as the distraction exception (id. ¶ 18 (discussing Ward v. K Mart Corp., 136 Ill. 2d 132, 149-50, 554 N.E.2d 223, 143 Ill. Dec. 288 (1990) (it is reasonably foreseeable to the defendant that the plaintiff’s attention might be distracted so that the plaintiff will not discover or will forget what is obvious)) or the deliberate-encounter exception (id. ¶ 32 (discussing LaFever v. Kemlite Co., 185 Ill. 2d 380, 391, 706 N.E.2d 441, 235 Ill. Dec. 886 (1998) (it is reasonably foreseeable to the defendant that the plaintiff, generally out of some compulsion, will recognize the risk but nevertheless proceed to encounter it because, to a reasonable person in the same position, the advantages of doing so outweigh the apparent risk)). When no exception applies, the court proceeds to the general four-factor test for imposing liability: (1) whether an injury was reasonably foreseeable; (2) the likelihood of injury; (3) the magnitude of the burden of guarding against the injury; and (4) the consequences of placing that burden on the defendant. Id. ¶ 19 (quoting Ward, 136 Ill. 2d at 151).
[*P25] We held that the case law had developed into two approaches in applying the four-factor [**13] duty test. In one approach, the first two factors will favor the defendant (because the danger is open and obvious), and the court must consider the third and fourth factors which could, at least theoretically, counterbalance the first two factors. Id. ¶ 46. Under the second approach, which we deemed to be more consistent with section 343A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts (Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343A (1965)) on which our supreme court had relied, the last two factors could never outweigh the first two factors, so even if the burden and consequences were minimal, the defendant necessarily would not have any duty to the plaintiff. Bujnowski, 2015 IL App (2d) 140478, ¶ 46.
[*P26] Generally, falling from a height is among the dangers deemed to be open and obvious and appreciable even by very young children. Qureshi v. Ahmed, 394 Ill. App. 3d 883, 885, 916 N.E.2d 1153, 334 Ill. Dec. 265 (2009). The risk that confronted Riley as he clambered up to the platform and attempted to use the fire pole was simply a fall from a height, and thus, was an open and obvious risk. We next turn to whether there is an available exception to the open-and-obvious doctrine.
[*P27] Plaintiff first argues that the distraction exception applies here. The distraction exception had its genesis in Ward, 136 Ill. 2d 132, 554 N.E.2d 223, 143 Ill. Dec. 288. In that case, a shopper exited the store carrying large mirror he had just purchased and was injured when he walked into a [**14] concrete post. Id. at 135. The court explained that, even though the post was an open and obvious condition, harm was nevertheless reasonably foreseeable because the store had reason to expect that its customer’s attention may have been distracted so that the customer would not have discovered what is obvious, or would have forgotten what was discovered, or would have failed to protect himself. Id. at 149-50.
[*P28] In support of her argument that the distraction exception should apply, plaintiff cites only Ward and Sollami v. Eaton, 201 Ill. 2d 1, 15-16, 772 N.E.2d 215, 265 Ill. Dec. 177 (2002). Ward gave several examples of circumstances in which the distraction exception could apply. As an example, stairs are generally not unreasonably dangerous, but they may be so if, under the circumstances, the plaintiff may fail to see the stairs. Ward, 136 Ill. 2d at 152. Additionally, an open and obvious condition may nevertheless be unreasonably dangerous if it exists in an environment in which the plaintiff is attending to his or her assigned workplace duties and encounters the condition. Id. at 153. For example, a builder carrying roof trusses steps into an open hole in the floor, or a dock worker unloading a truck steps off of a lowered dockplate while unloading a truck, or a customer falls when he or she misses the step off of the stoop [**15] at the entrance to the store, are all instances in which the defendant should have foreseen the risk of harm caused by the otherwise open and obvious condition.
Sollami, by contrast, involved a child “rocket jumping” on a trampoline with several other children when she injured her knee after being “rocketed” to a greater-than-usual height and landing on the surface of the trampoline. Sollami, 201 Ill. 2d at 4. After briefly discussing the parameters of the distraction exception (id. at 15-16), the court held that there was no evidence to show that the child was distracted while jumping on the trampoline (id. at 16). In other words, the child was using the trampoline as she intended to, and she was fully aware of the danger jumping on it may have presented.
[*P30] Considering the evidence in the record, we conclude that there was no evidence of distraction presented in the record. Riley climbed up the ladder to the platform, some 25 feet above the ground. Once there, he waited in a line for the fire pole. He did not testify that any of the other persons in the line bothered or distracted him as he prepared to slide down the fire pole. Instead, he put on slick nylon gloves and attempted to slide down the pole by grasping the pole with [**16] only his hands. As he began his descent, he lost control, attempted to arrest his descent by grabbing the deck of the platform, failed, and fell from a height onto the ground. There is nothing in the evidence in the record to support a conclusion that Riley was distracted. He was not going about his profession or avocation as in the examples in Ward when he encountered the condition. Rather, he was participating in using the fire pole as he intended, as in Sollami. Indeed, Riley attributed his fall to losing his grip when he attempted to slide down the pole using only his hands and not wrapping his arms and legs around the pole. Accordingly, we hold the distraction exception does not apply here.
[*P31] Plaintiff argues that the darkness of the evening distracted Riley from perceiving the width of the fire pole and the height of the drop from the platform. We disagree. Riley had to have been acutely aware of the height of the platform, having climbed every inch of the 25-foot height up the ladder. As to the width of the pole, Riley would have perceived it as he grasped it. Brian Anderson testified that everyone he had observed use the pole had instinctually wrapped their arms and legs around [**17] it. Riley testified that he attempted to use only his hands to grip the pole for his descent, despite the fact that a number of other children had used the pole before him and he apparently had the opportunity to observe them while waiting his turn.
[*P32] We also note that there is no evidence that Riley stepped through the opening while trying to use the fire pole, which would, perhaps, have brought the circumstances within the examples in Ward in which workers encountered a condition that was otherwise open and obvious while performing work-related tasks. Instead, Riley testified that he was able to negotiate his way to the pole and grasp it to begin his descent. Thus, there is no evidence that he simply stepped into the opening which went unperceived due to the darkness of the evening. Likewise, there is no evidence that one of the persons waiting for a turn distracted him so he stepped into the opening and fell. There is no evidence of distraction evident, so we reject plaintiff’s contention that Riley was distracted by the darkness and the other children, or that the presence of darkness and other children were sufficient to demonstrate a factual issue in the absence of any evidence [**18] that these purported distracting circumstances contributed in Riley’s fall.
[*P33] The deliberate-encounter exception is usually raised in cases in which an economic compulsion (such as employment) causes the plaintiff to encounter the dangerous condition because, to a reasonable person in that position, the advantages of doing so outweigh the apparent risk. Sollami, 201 Ill. 2d at 15-16. Plaintiff does not contend that the deliberate-encounter exception is applicable to the circumstances. While the deliberate-encounter exception may not be limited to circumstances of economic compulsion, there is no evidence that Riley was under any compulsion, such as peer pressure, to attempt to slide down the fire pole. Because there is no evidence, we hold the deliberate-encounter exception does not apply.
[*P34] In the Bujnowski analytical framework, we now turn to the four-factor duty test. Because the condition was open and obvious, namely falling from a height, Riley’s injury was not reasonably foreseeable, because falling from a height is among the risks that even very young children (and Riley was not a very young child but 13 years of age) are capable of appreciating and avoiding that risk. Qureshi, 394 Ill. App. 3d at 885. Likewise, the likelihood of injury is [**19] small because the risk was apparent. Thus, the first two factors strongly favor defendants.
[*P35] The remaining factors appear to be split between plaintiff and defendant. The burden of guarding against the injury appears relatively slight. Defendants could have forbidden the children to use the platform and fire pole. The consequences of placing the burden on defendants are perhaps greater. The Andersons testified that they erected the structure for the amusement of their children. They also testified that of hundreds of users and uses, no one had ever been injured, from young children to older adults. (Plaintiff testified that one of the Andersons told her that one of their children had been injured using the fire pole; the Andersons denied making this statement and denied that any of their children had been injured using the fire pole.) The consequences of forbidding the structure’s use that evening would have been miniscule; the consequences of forbidding access altogether would have been much greater. Even if this calculus on the final two factors favors plaintiff, we cannot say that, in light of the open and obvious nature of the hazard, that they outweigh the first two factors. See [**20]
Bujnowski, 2015 IL App (2d) 140578, ¶ 55 (no published case has held both that the open-and-obvious doctrine applied without any exception being present and the defendant still owed a duty to the plaintiff). Accordingly, we hold that defendants did not owe Riley any duty in this case.
[*P36] Plaintiff argues that the hazard in this case was not open and obvious. Plaintiff argues first that the fire pole, being almost twice the diameter recommended in the industry, was a hidden and dangerous condition. We disagree. The risk posed by the structure was a fall from a height, and the evidence shows that Riley made the climb up to the platform and fell when he had donned slick nylon-shelled ski gloves and did not wrap his arms and legs around the pole.
[*P37] Plaintiff argues that the darkness of the evening concealed the width of the pole from Riley. Riley did not testify that he fell through the opening because it was too dark to see. Rather, he testified that he fell when he tried to slide down without wrapping his arms and legs around the pole and when his slick gloves caused his grip to fail. We reject plaintiff’s contentions.
[*P38] Plaintiff contends that, due to the construction of the structure and the darkness of the evening, the dangers [**21] associated with it were not obvious to Riley. We disagree. Riley climbed up to the platform, so he knew that he was very high above the ground. The risk of a fall from a height was therefore clearly apparent, as even very young children are deemed to appreciate the risk of a fall from a height. Qureshi, 394 Ill. App. 3d at 885. We therefore reject plaintiff’s contention and persist in holding that the risk was open and obvious.
[*P39] As plaintiff has neither convinced us that the risk was not open and obvious nor that any exception to the open-and-obvious doctrine was applicable, we affirm the judgment of the trial court on this point.
[*P40] C. Factual Issues
[*P41] Plaintiff argues there is a factual issue whether Riley’s slick gloves or the 3 1/2-inch diameter of the pole caused Riley’s fall. Plaintiff contends that Caskey testified that the pole was so wide that Riley had inadequate grip strength to descend safely (perhaps implying the converse that, if the pole were narrower, Riley’s grip strength would have been adequate). Plaintiff concludes that there is a factual issue regarding the mechanism of Riley’s fall, and this issue should have precluded summary judgment.
[*P42] We disagree. Even conceding a factual issue in the mechanism [**22] of Riley’s fall, defendants did not owe Riley any duty because the risk of a fall from a height was open and obvious, no exception to the open-and-obvious doctrine applied, and the final two factors of the four-factor duty test did not outweigh the first two factors. Thus, the factual issue regarding the mechanism of Riley’s fall was not material in the absence of a duty.
[*P43] Plaintiff also contends that defendants owed a duty to instruct Riley on the use of the pole. While this contention is perhaps structurally misplaced in plaintiff’s argument, it is unavailing. The danger of the structure to Riley was open and obvious: a fall from a height. If, as plaintiff appears to contend, Riley did not know how to descend a fire pole, the risk of a fall from a height was still something he could appreciate. Under the law, then, Riley is deemed to be able to appreciate and avoid that risk, including his own limitations on using the fire pole to descend from the height. Accordingly, we reject plaintiff’s contentions.
[*P44] We close with the following observation from Bujnowski: “[t]ragic as the facts of this case are, they are not extraordinary in a legal sense and do not call for a result that would [**23] appear to be without precedent.” Bujnowski, 2015 IL App (2d) 140578, ¶ 55.
[*P45] III. CONCLUSION
End of Document
Neustadter v. Mountain Creek Resort, Inc., 2008 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1584
Mark Neustadter and Katherine Neustadter, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Mountain Creek Resort, Inc., Defendant-Respondent.
DOCKET NO. A-5671-05T5
Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division
2008 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1584
September 11, 2007, Argued
February 15, 2008, Decided
NOTICE: NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION.
PLEASE CONSULT NEW JERSEY RULE 1:36-3 FOR CITATION OF UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS.
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Certification denied by Neustadter v. Mountain Creek Resort, 195 N.J. 521, 950 A.2d 907, 2008 N.J. LEXIS 721 (2008)
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1]
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, L-670-03.
CORE TERMS: pole, man-made, hazard, ski, skier, trail, sufficient evidence, involuntary dismissal, expert testimony, failed to present, fence post, fencing, slope, ski resort, assumption of risk, photographs, correctly, hazardous, skiing, snow, reconstructed, snowboarders, ski area, reasonable time, legitimate inferences, essential element, case-in-chief, additionally, practicable, inflexible
COUNSEL: John R. Lanza argued the cause for the appellants (Lanza & Lanza, LLP, attorneys; John R. Lanza, of counsel; Mr. Lanza and Kenneth W. Thomas, on the brief).
Samuel J. McNulty argued the cause for the respondent (Hueston McNulty, attorneys; Mr. McNulty, of counsel and on the brief).
JUDGES: Before Judges Skillman, Yannotti and LeWinn.
Plaintiffs, husband and wife, appeal from the trial court’s grant of an involuntary dismissal at the end of their case seeking damages for injuries allegedly sustained by plaintiff-husband, Mark Neustadter (hereinafter “plaintiff”), in an accident on defendant’s premises, a ski resort.
On January 7, 2002, plaintiff, an acknowledged snowboarding expert, was injured while snowboarding at defendant’s resort when he collided with a post supporting orange netting on the slope. The gravamen of his negligence claim was that the post was so deeply embedded in snow, and of such an inflexible material, that it was immovable and took the full force of his body, resulting in a shattered knee.
At the conclusion of plaintiff’s case, the trial judge determined that plaintiff had not presented [*2] sufficient evidence to allow the jury reasonably to find liability on defendant’s part. The judge also concluded that plaintiff had failed to adduce any evidence to show the injury in question was caused by the collision with the identified fence post. Accordingly, the judge dismissed the complaint.
Plaintiff raises the following points on appeal:
POINT I: THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN GRANTING DEFENDANTS’ [SIC] MOTION FOR AN INVOLUNTARY DISMISSAL PURSUANT TO R. 4:37-2(b)
A. AS TO THE MEDICAL EXPERT, DR. WEISS
B. AS TO THE LIABILITY EXPERT, MR. HANST
1. THE PHOTOGRAPHS
2. THE ALLEGED NET OPINION
POINT II: THE TRIAL COURT IMPROPERLY LIMITED THE EXPERT TESTIMONY OF DR. WEISS AND MR. HANST
POINT III: THE TRIAL COURT ERRED BY PERMITTING DEFENDANT TO CROSS-EXAMINE PLAINTIFF’S EXPERT WITH A DOCUMENT IT FAILED TO PRODUCE IN DISCOVERY
POINT IV: THE TRIAL COURT IMPROPERLY EXCLUDED THE INTRODUCTION OF PLAINTIFF’S MEDICAL BILLS INTO EVIDENCE
POINT V: THE TRIAL COURT SHOULD NOT HAVE PERMITTED DEFENDANT TO NAME A MEDICAL EXPERT AFTER THE CONCLUSION OF THE ARBITRATION
Having thoroughly reviewed the trial record, we are convinced the judge properly limited the testimony of plaintiff’s liability expert and correctly [*3] concluded that plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence to allow the jury reasonably to find liability on defendant’s part. This conclusion makes it unnecessary to reach the other issues raised on appeal.
In his complaint, plaintiff claimed defendant “negligently, carelessly, and/or recklessly designed, constructed, supervised, operated and/or maintained the premises so as to create and/or allow a dangerous and hazardous condition to exist.” He set forth the “particulars” of defendant’s negligence as follows:
a) Defendant knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, that the unprotected pole was dangerous, and Defendant failed to warn Plaintiff of that condition;
b) Defendant failed to cover the pole with a material in order to protect Plaintiff from being injured should Plaintiff come into contact with the pole;
c) Defendant knew, or should have known, that the pole, if left open and exposed was likely to be dangerous to ski[ers] and snowboarders, and with such knowledge Defendant failed to cover the pole or use any other means to keep it safe for its business invitees;
d) Defendant failed to cover the pole with a protective covering for the protection of skiers [*4] and snowboarders; and
e) Defendant permitted the pole to be left unprotected and defective and dangerous knowing that the pole would necessarily pose a risk of harm to Plaintiff and other business invitees, skiers, and snowboarders.
Plaintiff proffered John H. Hanst as his liability expert. Hanst rendered a report on May 21, 2005. Other than his review of documents, Hanst’s opinions were based solely upon his one and only site visit to the ski resort on March 24, 2005, more than three years after plaintiff’s accident.
During that site visit Hanst “reconstructed” the accident with plaintiff and described the reconstruction in his report as follows: “We walked up the trail to the area where the incident occurred. The area was modestly changed. . . . A few of the fence posts have been covered with padding although the majority of them were not padded.” (Emphasis added). Hanst included photographs of the reconstructed accident scene in his report.
Defendant challenged Hanst’s report and testimony in an in limine motion. Defendant contended that Hanst described “conditions that were not those described by the Plaintiff. . . . H[is report] talk[ed] about a condition that did not exist and [wa]s [*5] not relevant or material to the case that w[ould] be before th[e] Court.”
In ruling on that motion, the trial judge found that Hanst’s report described conditions that were not in existence “on the date of [plaintiff’s] . . . accident. . . . They were at a [much later] time . . . when the conditions on the slope were not the same. Nobody can say they were the same.” (Emphasis added).
The judge limited Hanst’s testimony to “what conditions should exist on a ski slope and how the conditions on the day in question deviated, based upon the testimony of Mr. Neustadter.” The judge also ruled Hanst’s photographs of the reconstructed accident scene inadmissible because they “specifically show poles that are different from those that are described by Mr. Neustadter as existing in the area where he was injured on the day in question.” In the course of his ruling, the judge noted that Hanst’s report did not address plaintiff’s claim that “the poles had been in the snow too long and ice had formed around them and possibly they didn’t flex the way they should.”
At trial, plaintiff testified that he swerved to avoid a cluster of skiers ahead of him. This caused him to collide with a PVC pole, one to [*6] two inches in diameter, that was supporting orange mesh fencing erected to distinguish the expert trail from the novice trail.
At the conclusion of Hanst’s voir dire, the judge limited his qualification as an expert to the area of alpine skiing, and excluded him from giving expert testimony on the subject of “mountain management” since he had no experience in that field. The sum total of Hanst’s liability testimony was that a rigid pole was a “man-made hazard,” and the ski operator had an obligation to reduce or eliminate that hazard.
After plaintiff had completed presentation of his case-in-chief, defendant moved for involuntary dismissal of the complaint pursuant to Rule 4:37-2(b). The judge granted the motion finding that plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to establish liability under the Ski Statute, N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -11. The judge additionally found that plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to show that any negligence on the part of defendant was a proximate cause of his injury. On June 23, 2006, the judge entered an order memorializing his findings. This appeal followed.
Plaintiff argues that the judge erred by granting defendant’s motion for involuntary [*7] dismissal of their complaint. He maintains that defendant had a duty under the Ski Statute to remove any “obvious man-made hazard” from the premises. Plaintiff contends that he presented evidence showing that he struck a man-made fence pole. He contends further that, because his evidence showed that the post was rigid, thereby constituting a “hazard,” the jury should have been permitted to determine whether defendant failed to discharge its duty to remove the pole. We disagree.
Rule 4:37-2(b) provides that, upon completion of a plaintiff’s case-in-chief,
the defendant . . . may move for dismissal of the action or of any claim on the ground that upon the facts and upon the law the plaintiff has shown no right to relief. . . . [S]uch motion shall be denied if the evidence, together with the legitimate inferences therefrom, could sustain a judgment in plaintiff’s favor.
In other words, dismissal is appropriate where the court determines that no rational jury could conclude from the evidence that an essential element of plaintiff’s case is present. “The trial court is not concerned with the worth, nature or extent . . . of the evidence, but only with its existence, viewed most favorably to [*8] the party opposing the motion.” Dolson v. Anastasia, 55 N.J. 2, 5-6, 258 A.2d 706 (1969). Where, as here, plaintiff failed to adduce expert testimony on the essential element of liability, such failure will warrant dismissal of his personal injury action.
The Ski Statute clearly defines the respective liabilities of skiers and ski operators, and sets forth the duties of both and the assumption of risk borne by skiers. N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -5. The statute states that a skier’s assumption of risk under N.J.S.A. 5:13-5 bars recovery for injuries sustained due to “the inherent risks of skiing . . . created by weather conditions, conditions of snow, trails, slopes, other skiers, and all other inherent conditions.” N.J.S.A. 5:13-6 states that a skier’s assumption of risk:
shall be a complete bar of suit and shall serve as a complete defense to a suit against an operator by a skier for injuries resulting from the assumed risks, . . . unless an operator has violated his duties or responsibilities under this act, in which case the provisions of [comparative negligence] shall apply.
The Ski Statute imposes upon the ski operator a duty to “[r]emove as soon as practicable obvious, man-made hazards.” N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(a)(3). [*9] However, the statute expressly exempts a ski operator from liability for its failure to remove man-made hazards such as fencing or poles which are necessary for the normal operation of a ski resort, as follows:
No operator shall be responsible to any skier or other person because of its failure to [remove obvious man-made hazards] if such failure was caused by . . . the location of man-made facilities and equipment necessary for the ordinary operation of the ski area, such as . . . fencing of any type, racing poles, or any other object or piece of equipment utilized in connection with the maintenance of trails . . . used in connection with skiing.
[N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(b)(3) (emphasis added).]
In addition, a ski operator shall not be held liable for failure to remove obvious, man-made hazards unless the operator “has knowledge of the failure to [remove man-made hazards]” or “should have reasonably known of such condition and having such knowledge has had a reasonable time in which to correct [the] condition.” N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(d).
Plaintiff failed to present any evidence to support his allegations that the fence post was an obvious, man-made hazard; or that defendant had actual or constructive [*10] knowledge of an obvious, man-made hazard relating to plaintiff’s injuries; or that defendant failed to remove such a hazard within a reasonable time. Therefore, the trial judge correctly found that plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably find that defendant failed to meet its duty under N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(a)(3) to “[r]emove as soon as practicable obvious, man-made hazards.” As the trial judge recognized, liability may not be imposed under the Ski Statute if a ski operator’s failure to comply with N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(a)(3) was caused by the “location of man-made facilities” that are “necessary for the ordinary operation of the ski area[.]”
In his decision on the record, the judge aptly observed that there was nothing inappropriate about the placement of the fence posts delineating the expert trail and the novice trail; and it was plaintiff’s burden to show, through expert testimony, that something had happened to the poles after their installation which rendered them hazardous and not “necessary for the ordinary operation” of the facility. The judge properly determined that plaintiff had not met his burden in this regard. Moreover, the judge rightly [*11] found that plaintiff had not presented any evidence to show that defendant was aware, or reasonably should have been aware, that the poles had become hazardous for a reasonable period of time in which to address that condition. Therefore, the judge correctly determined that the evidence presented by plaintiff, and the “legitimate inferences” that could be drawn from that evidence, were insufficient to “sustain a judgment in plaintiff’s favor.” R. 4:37-2(b).
Plaintiff additionally argues that the judge erred by limiting Hanst’s testimony at trial. Again, we disagree. A trial judge has the discretion to determine whether an expert is competent to testify. Carey v. Lovett, 132 N.J. 44, 64, 622 A.2d 1279 (1993). As we stated previously, the judge barred Hanst from testifying concerning the fencing on defendant’s premises because Hanst’s opinions were not based on the conditions that existed at the time plaintiff was injured. At trial, the judge also precluded Hanst from testifying that defendant should have had special “break away poles” and refused to permit Hanst to speculate as to whether weather conditions that might have existed at the time of the accident caused the PVC poles to become inflexible. [*12] None of those issues had been addressed in Hanst’s report. We are convinced that the judge did not abuse his discretion by limiting Hanst’s testimony.