Court Rules Premises Liability Claim Involving Outdoor Basketball Court Can Continue

Jan 13, 2023

A federal judge from the Central District of California denied a hotelier’s motion for summary judgment in a case in which it was sued by a patron who suffered an injury involving a bench next to its basketball court. In so ruling, the court found that defendant, Marriott Resorts Hospitality Corporation, was aware of the risk and that the plaintiff should be given the benefit of the doubt in the summary judgment phase.

In November 2020, the May family—parents Melinda and Jeffrey May and their minor children, including Plaintiffs S.M. and M.M.—were staying at the Marriott Newport Coast Villas (hereafter “Resort”) in Newport Coast, California.

At the 77-acre Resort, there is an outdoor area with a basketball court and putting green, known as Pacific Park. One side of the basketball court is at the bottom of a grassy slope, below the putting green. At the basketball court there were also two portable benches, which had been at the Resort since at least 2005.

On the evening of November 22, 2020, Melinda May, S.M., and M.M. were at Pacific Park. Melinda and the children walked down the grassy slope to the basketball court. The grass was wet and slippery. S.M., who was six years old at the time, slipped and grabbed one of the portable benches to break his fall. However, the bench fell and landed on S.M.’s head. The bench weighed approximately 109 pounds. The plaintiffs alleged that S.M. sustained a fractured skull and had to undergo emergency surgery to have plates and screws inserted following the incident.

The plaintiffs sued in Orange County Superior Court before Marriott removed the case to federal court. The plaintiffs alleged claims for negligence and premises liability as to S.M. and negligent infliction of emotional distress as to Melinda May and M.M. This led to Marriott’s motion for summary judgment.

Marriott argued that (1) it maintained Pacific Park in a reasonably safe condition, so the plaintiffs’ negligence and premises liability claims fail as a matter of law, and (2) Melinda May and M.M.’s claims must fail because the negligence and premises liability claims fail.

The court noted that “to prevail on a premises liability claim, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant owned or controlled the property, that the defendant was negligent in the use or maintenance of the property, that the plaintiff was harmed, and that the defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing the harm.” Carter v. AMTRAK., 63 F. Supp. 3d 1118, 1144 (N.D. Cal. 2014).

Furthermore, the court noted, hoteliers have an enhanced responsibility to protect patrons.

Marriott did not contest the duty that it owed to the plaintiffs. Rather, it argued that “there was no dangerous condition, and that the plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden to show that it was aware or constructively aware of the dangerous condition.” Central to its argument was the fact there had been no previous incidents involving the bench.

The instant court noted that the “question of whether the bench constituted an unreasonably dangerous condition is one for a jury to decide.”

Elaborating, the court wrote: “Whether, in light of all of the evidence, including that there were never any other incidents with the portable benches, it was reasonably foreseeable that the unsecured benches created a risk of injury is a question of fact. The court cannot say that no reasonable jury could find that a 109-pound unsecured bench near a basketball court and wet grass constitutes an unreasonably dangerous condition.”

The court favored the plaintiffs’ argument that “the bench’s placement at the time of S.M.’s injury, given the condition of the grass, was itself a dangerous condition. Once the dangerous condition is properly identified, Marriott’s argument regarding knowledge or constructive knowledge collapses, as Marriott does not point to undisputed facts showing that its employees did not have actual or constructive knowledge of where the bench was or that the grass was or could be wet.”

This contrasts with the “crux of Marriott’s argument [which was] that the moveable bench/wet grass combination was simply not a dangerous condition.”

“However, if a jury concludes that the bench’s placement was unreasonably dangerous, they could find that Marriott either had actual notice, because employees walking through the park saw the bench and failed to move it, or constructive notice, because the unsecured bench sat near wet grass by the basketball court for a long enough period of time that Marriott reasonably should have discovered the danger it posed.”

Melinda May et al. v. Marriott Resorts Hospitality Corporation; C.D. Cal.; CASE NO. 8:21-CV-01667-JLS-DFM; 12/5/22