Factual and procedural background
Jose Luis Lopez, Jr. was walking in the rain in Feb. 2014. When he came to the driveway leading to Wally’s Wine & Spirits, Lopez stepped in a pothole that was filled with rainwater. This caused his ankle to dislocate, and he tore three ligaments and broke two bones. Wally’s Wine & Spirits leases the facility to store wine for restaurants and a liquor store. Traffic in the parking lot is limited to delivery vans and vehicles of customers who pay to store wine in a temperature-controlled room. The property is managed by the Northern Trust Bank of California and is owned by the Marvin A. Kahn Deceased Trust.
Under the lease, Wally’s Wine & Spirits is obligated to keep the premises in good repair, including the driveways. The main driveway is the width of the three parking spaces in front of the building and slopes to a lip where it meets the gutters. The concrete in this area also doubles as a sidewalk. The pothole that Lopez stepped in was located where the gutters and the lip of the driveway meet. The gutters, sidewalk, and sloping portion of the driveway are owned by the City of Los Angeles.
The pothole was created by water running through the gutters combined with the vehicle traffic on the driveway. When Lopez was injured, he was walking to his car on Cotner Avenue from a repair shop where he worked nearby. He filed a lawsuit against Wally’s Wine & Spirits and the City of Los Angeles in Oct. 2014.
The case went to a jury trial, and the jury returned a verdict in Lopez’s favor for $3,094,972.42. The jury found that the city was 75% at fault and Wally’s was 25% at fault for the deteriorated condition where the pothole was located. Wally’s and the city filed motions for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Wally’s argued that the plaintiff had not presented evidence showing that Wally’s had exerted control over the area where the pothole was located and that Wally’s was not negligent because the city had notice of the pothole and had not repaired it. The court granted Wally’s motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and denied the city’s JNOV motion and its motion for a new trial. Both Wally’s and the city filed appeals. The city had entered into a settlement agreement with Lopez, and Lopez assigned his right to appeal and to enforce the judgment against Wally’s to the city through that agreement.
Issue: Whether Wally’s premises and its obligations to maintain them extended to the portion of the driveway that met the city-controlled gutters?
The city argued that the court erred when it granted Wally’s Wine & Spirits’ motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Wally’s argued that the court was correct when it granted its motion for a JNOV because the plaintiff did not present substantial evidence that the business had exerted control over the portion of the driveway where the pothole was located. Since the city owned that portion of the driveway, Wally’s argued that it was not negligent in failing to fix the pothole.
Rule: Property owners and lessees owe a duty of care to maintain their premises in a reasonably safe condition for visitors.
Slip, trip, and fall claims are among the most common types of premises liability cases that are filed in California. Premises liability cases turn on theories of negligence. Property owners owe a duty of care to keep their premises in a reasonably safe condition for people who lawfully visit their properties. In this case, the question concerned how far that duty of care extended and whether the fact that the pothole was located at the side of the driveway meant that Wally’s was negligent in failing to repair that section even though it was owned by the city. The city argued that Wally’s was negligent in its failure to repair the pothole and should not have been granted the JNOV by the court.
The appeals court began by reviewing the law concerning a judgment notwithstanding a verdict. A JNOV is a dismissal of a claim or a portion of a claim against a defendant when a court finds that there was not enough evidence to support the jury’s finding of liability as to one or more defendants. In a slip-and-fall case, the property owner or lessee may be liable when it fails to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition.
The court first considered when a property owner or lessee will be responsible for maintaining the publicly-owned property that abuts up against its property. Under California law, a property owner acts in a reasonable way to maintain the safety of its property when it acts reasonably in reaction to the probability that someone might be injured by using the property. The court then considered whether that duty to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition extended to hazards on the property of others that abut against the owner’s property.
However, the court pointed out that a landowner generally does not have a duty to correct hazards on adjacent property, including a publicly-owned sidewalk. There is an exception to the general rule when a property owner has exerted control over the adjacent publicly-owned property. To exert control, the owner must have taken affirmative action to maintain that area. If no affirmative action has been taken, the property owner or occupier will not have exerted control over the publicly-owned adjacent property and will not have a duty to maintain it. Affirmative action can also be found when the property owner creates the hazard. This can be caused by altering the property where the hazard is located to cause it to be used for a distinct purpose.
In analyzing whether Wally’s Wine & Spirits created the hazard or contributed to it, the court reviewed the evidence that had been presented at trial. It found that Wally’s took no affirmative action to repair the pothole and did nothing to affirmatively alter the area where it was located. Because of this, the court found that Wally’s had not exercised control over the city’s property.
The court affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant Wally’s Wine & Spirits’ motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. It ordered the city to pay Wally’s costs on appeal.
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