Montana High Court Finds Ticket-Holder’s Actions Undermine His Negligence Claim

Jan 12, 2006

The Supreme Court of Montana has affirmed a lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the University of Montana in a case where a patron attending a concert in the university’s sports arena sued for negligence after the chair he was sitting in collapsed.
There were several factors that weighed heavily in the court’s favor, according to the court. Namely: The plaintiff’s own actions absolved the defendant of negligence.
The incident occurred on November 22, 1999, when John Bonilla attended a ZZ Top concert at the Adams Center Arena at the University. Bonilla, who weighs approximately 350 pounds, typically brought his own chair to the arena and by agreement was granted a spot in the handicap section. On the night in question, Bonilla arrived with his chair, but was informed that he would have to use the university’s chair because its insurance policy mandated it.
After testing the chair, Bonilla said that it “was at least as good and possibly a little better than [his] chair… . If anything, maybe it looked a little sturdier or reinforced than [his] own.”
During the concert, Bonilla attached a tape recorder to his chair. When he was asked to remove it, he yanked on the leather strap affixing the tape recorder and the chair collapsed.
“It is not clear from the record whether Bonilla knew of his injuries immediately or whether he stayed for the remainder of the concert,” wrote the court. “Several days later Bonilla sought medical assistance and was diagnosed with a coccyx fracture. However, Bonilla did not inform anyone with the University of his injury. The University asserts that it first learned of the incident and alleged injury when Bonilla filed his negligence action on July 29, 2002, about two years and eight months after the concert.”
Bonilla claimed in his negligence action that the University breached its duty to exercise reasonable care in the provision of a chair, considering its knowledge of his weight, and failed to advise him of any danger associated with the use of the chair.
The University moved for summary judgment, claiming that Bonilla had failed to present evidence of negligence, specifically, that the University had breached any duty in the provision of the chair.
The District Court granted the University’s motion, concluding “Bonilla was owed no duty, because it was not reasonably foreseeable to the University that its chair would be subjected to the additional weight and stress of yanking a tape recorder free, even to a person of Bonilla’s weight. The court also held, in the alternative, that had the University owed Bonilla the duty of care, he did not provide evidence that the University had breached the duty.”
Bonilla appealed.
One of Bonilla’s claims was that the district court erred in concluding that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur did not apply to Bonilla’s negligence claim. In essence, Bonilla argued that the chair’s collapse, in and of itself, allows the inference that it broke as a result of some negligence by the University.
The court found, however, that Bonilla’s evidence was shaky. “Bonilla’s bare assertion that the chair collapsed is insufficient evidence,” the court wrote. “The inference of negligence does not point to the defendant until the plaintiff’s own conduct is eliminated as a responsible cause. Where the evidence fails to show a greater probability that the event was due to the defendant’s negligence than that it was caused by the plaintiff’s own conduct, the inference of the defendant’s responsibility cannot be drawn.”
John Bonilla v. University of Minnesota et al.; S.Ct.Montana; No. 04-361; 7/20/05
Attorneys of Record: (For Appellant) Thomas J. Beers, Beers Law Offices, Missoula, Montana. (For Respondents) Ann Brodsky, Special Assistant Attorney General, Risk Management and Tort Defense Division, Helena, Montana.


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