Faulty Seat in College Stadium Does Not Create Liability Unless Plaintiff Can Prove College Knew or Should Have Known About the Damaged Seat

May 17, 2024

By James Moss, Senior Writer

To set the scene of this case, Plaintiff along with her friend and family attended a comedy show at the Wolstein Center, owned, and operated by Defendant, Cleveland State University. Plaintiff walks with a cane and can only walk sort distances before needing to rest. After the show ended, Plaintiff was walking out of the Wolstein Center, when she needed to take a break. An usher directed her to a seat where she could rest. The seats were padded and must be pulled down to sit on. Once Plaintiff sat on the seat, it collapsed, leaving her injured. As a result, Plaintiff sued Defendant for negligence.

In order to recover in a case such as this, Plaintiff must prove the defendant knew or should have known about the defective seat. The defendant “should have known” means the premises owner did nothing to look for defects.

The University argued that Wolstein Center, which had 14,000 seats, was inspected before every event by the staff. According to Defendant, the staff inspected the entire premises, which included the seats. Furthermore, after every event, Defendant alleged the cleaning staff also looks for problems or defects. Finally, to support its argument, Defendant argued that patrons were encouraged to report any problems the cleaning staff found. Those patrons that find a broken seat are asked to report it and the seat is either fixed or the patron is moved to another seat. Not every seat is individually inspected and any issues that are found are fixed immediately during inspections.

Rationale for court’s decision

The legal issue boils down to whether the University’s actions were enough to overcome Plaintiff’s claims that Defendant was negligent and that Defendant owed a duty to provide a safe seat to Plaintiff. For a premise owner to be held liable for injury caused by an alleged defect, it must be aware of the defect. Proof by the owner of the premises that they were not aware of the defect, defeats the plaintiff’s claim.

The plaintiff can then argue that the premises owner did not do a reasonable inspection of the premises. If the plaintiff argues the inspection was unreasonable, then the premise owner can be sued for having a constructive notice of a latent defect, which means the defect could have been discovered had a reasonable inspection been done. Failing to warn an invitee of the defect raises further liability issues for the premise owner.

The inspections do not need to be successful in all instances. Not finding the defect is not proof of not inspecting. The inspection is not expected to find all defects, meaning the inspections do not have to be successful. The inspections just need to be done.

Here, Plaintiff also argued the defect was under the seat and would have required taking the seat apart to find the defect. Reasonableness would not require taking all 14,000 seats apart on a regular basis to find a defect. Moreover, only 5 or 6 seats in Wolstein Center have failed over the past five years.

The legal issue is not finding a defect, the legal issue is: Did the defendant do enough in the eyes of court to possibly find a defect? Consequently, the court found that the two inspections and reliance on patrons occupying the seats was a reasonable level of inspection. Additionally, the court pointed to the overall lack of failures as sufficient for the University to defend against the claim brought by Plaintiff.

The Ohio Appellate court upheld the decision by the Ohio Court of Claims. In Ohio, all claims and lawsuits against the State of Ohio are brought in a special court system call the Ohio Court of Claims.

The main takeaway from this case is to make sure a venue is suitable, that it meets the standards of the event before an event, including making reasonable inspections and cleaning up after an event, can be enough to prove that the defendant does not owe a duty to the plaintiff.

South v. Cleveland State Univ., 2023 Ohio 4328, 22AP-778 (Ohio App. Nov 30, 2023)

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