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Failure to Show Property Owner Had Knowledge of Dangerous Condition Seals the Deal in a Premises Liability Action (PA)

November 1, 2019

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In <em>Billie Jo Raker</em>, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania addressed the sufficiency of evidence needed for a plaintiff to sustain his or her burden for a negligence claim.  Specifically, the plaintiff, Raker, appealed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants, Keystone Blind Association (“Keystone”) and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“DOT”). In brief, Raker fell and allegedly sustained injuries after stepping off a curb and into a hole on the premises of a Pennsylvania rest stop. Following discovery, the DOT and Keystone moved for summary judgment based on Raker’s failure to establish a prima facie showing of negligence and DOT’s insulation from suit by sovereign immunity.

The issue on appeal was whether Raker made out a cause of action for negligence. With respect to the Raker’s negligence claim, the court held that a possessor of land is liable for harm caused by a condition on the land only if the possessor: (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.  Applying this standard, the court looked to Raker’s deposition testimony in which she stated that she fell after stepping into what “felt like” a hole. Additionally, the court noted, the only evidence Raker introduced was a Quality Assurance Evaluation form noting the curb in the lot had a chip. Conversely, Keystone and DOT introduced photographs taken by Raker that did not depict any defect in the land and did not establish a dangerous condition. Accordingly, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court held that assuming, <em>arguendo</em>, the evidence was sufficient to establish that a hole existed, there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate that either the DOT or Keystone had notice of the alleged hole. Furthermore, Raker’s own testimony indicated that the chipped curb mentioned in Quality Assurance Evaluation did not lead to her fall, rather the hole in the ground is what caused her injury.  As such, the court affirmed that the plaintiff had failed to establish a prima facie case of negligence.

This case reaffirms the notion that a plaintiff merely providing evidence of a dangerous condition alone is insufficient to establish a negligence claim. There must be some further evidence indicating the landowner had knowledge of the dangerous condition.  As such, defendants should keep this in mind, as a possible argument, when contemplating dispositive motion practice.

Thank you to Rachel Thompson for her contribution to this post.  Please email <a href="">Colleen E. Hayes</a> with any questions.



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