Case Notes: Another Court of Appeals, Post-Shelton, “open and obvious”, slip and fall, jury question, question – Ward vs. JKP Investments LLC and James Kevin Porter, COA Published 1/23/2015

Attorneys representing the injured claimants on the appeals in the Shelton v. Kentucky Easters Seals and Dicks Sporting Goods vs. Webb, both argued on same date. From Left to right - Kelly Spencer &  Brad Slutskin for Betty Webb, Joe Pepper for Wilma Jean Shelton, and Kevin Burke on Amicus Brief for Kentucky Justice Association

Attorneys representing the injured claimants on the appeals in the Shelton v. Kentucky Easters Seals and Dicks Sporting Goods vs. Webb, both argued on same date.
From Left to right – Kelly Spencer & Brad Slutskin for Betty Webb, Joe Pepper for Wilma Jean Shelton, and Kevin Burke on Amicus Brief for Kentucky Justice Association

The title of this post says it all, and to put it in perspective, I will lead with Judge Maze’s dissent from the majority in this decision (Judges Vanmeter and Kramer (formerly Moore)).  I was present during the oral arguments before the Supreme Court of Kentucky, have read the triad of decisions by SCOKY, and most unabashedly must confess Judge Maze, in my humble opinion, got it right.

And, when it comes to the human mind and foreseeability, I refer you to the book “the invisible gorilla” by Christoper Chabris and Daniel Simons.

Chief Justice Minton said it best, as follows, in Shelton:

We alter the analysis performed in this and future cases of this sort such that a court no longer makes a no-duty determination but, rather, makes a nobreach determination, dismissing a claim on summary judgment or directed verdict when there is no negligence as a matter of law, the plaintiff having failed to show a breach of the applicable duty of care. This approach places the reasonable-foreseeability analysis where it belongs—in the hands of the factfinders, the jury. This approach continues Kentucky’s, along with a growing number of states’, slow, yet steady, progress to modernize our tort law and eliminate unfair obstacles to the presentation of legitimate claims. And this approach brings transparency and consistency to the decision-making and reasoning of Kentucky’s judges.

Here are the three decisions from SCOKY:

I would suspect this issue will go up to the Supreme Court for a third time.  Especially, since attorney Joe Pepper was arguing for the injured party in both Shelton vs. Kentucky Easter Seals and Janice Ward vs. JKP Investments.  And come heck or high water, my wife, Diane and I will be present again.

Janice Ward vs. JKP Investments, LLC
COA Published 1/23/2015
Opinion affirming; Jefferson Cir. Ct. (Judge James M. Shake)
VANMETER, JUDGE: Janice Ward appeals from the Jefferson Circuit Court’s order dismissing via summary judgment her personal injury action against JKP Investments, LLC. Upon review of the record and applicable law, we affirm.

* * *

The Jefferson Circuit Court’s order is affirmed.

KRAMER, JUDGE, CONCURS.

MAZE, JUDGE, DISSENTS AND FILES SEPARATE OPINION.

MAZE, JUDGE, DISSENTING: I respectfully dissent. Though I find no fault with my colleagues’ summation of current premises liability law in Kentucky, I nevertheless believe that law compels a different result in the present case.

Following an initial attempt in Kentucky River Medical Center v. McIntosh, 319 S.W.3d 385 (Ky. 2010), our Supreme Court recently continued its efforts to square Kentucky’s premises liability law with the Commonwealth’s adherence to the doctrine of comparative negligence. Most notably, in Shelton v. Kentucky Easter Seals Society, Inc., 413 S.W.3d 901, 904 (Ky. 2013), the Supreme Court stated its intention to “alter the analysis performed in this and future cases of this sort such that a court no longer makes a no-duty determination but, rather, makes a no-breach determination” and to place “the reasonable-foreseeability analysis where it belongs-in the hands of the fact-finders, the jury.” The impact of the Court’s reasoning in Shelton, and even Dicks Sporting Goods, Inc. v. Webb, 413 S.W.3d 891 (Ky. 2013), on summary judgment in premises liability cases could hardly have been greater.

In its opinion in the present appeal, the majority contends that because the condition of the stair was not concealed, and because the plaintiff failed to observe its condition throughout her previous trips up and down the stairs, the risk posed by the crumbling step was not unreasonable. Hence, my colleagues conclude that “reasonable minds cannot differ or it would be unreasonable for a jury to find breach or causation” and that summary judgment was appropriate.

Due to the aforementioned changes in premises liability law, I must disagree with my colleagues, as I believe the case requires a jury’s determination.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelton expressly eliminated much of the emphasis on a condition’s “open and obvious” nature, removing it as a fact which, if shown, would absolve a defendant of his duty and placing it as a mere factor to be considered in determining breach and causation. This shifted the analysis from one of legal calculation to one of factual determination only to be summarily ended when reasonable minds could not differ as to breach and causation. I proffer that this is not the case.

Rather, in light of our Supreme Court’s decision in Shelton, I contend that the questions of foreseeability, Janice’s attention or inattention to the condition of the step and where she was stepping, and the open and obvious nature of the step must remain to inform a jury’s analysis of the defendant’s breach and even the comparative fault of the parties in this case. While the Supreme Court announced that summary judgment remains a viable possibility in premises liability cases, it is undeniably more difficult to obtain after Shelton. This being the case, and on these facts, I believe it was inappropriate for the trial court to grant summary judgment, and that the matter must proceed to a jury.

Continue reading for the entire text of the COA decision.

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