Case of the Day – Monday, March 6, 2017

A MARMOT IS A VARMINT

Cute ... but varmints

Cute … but varmints

It seems that the furry little critters called marmots dig holes and generally make pests of themselves. At least, that what Pam Tessman would tell you.

She spent July 4th one year at a Wyoming RV park with her son, where at one point in the day she walked through a field and saw a marmot hole, the very one she later tripped on in the dark.

Of course, the fact she knew the hole was there and that the marmot probably wasn’t in the employ of the park owner, didn’t matter to the limping and litigious Pam — she sued park owner Mary Berry anyway. The alliteratively named Ms. Berry might tell you that Pam was something of a varmint herself. Nevertheless, the jury awarded Pam a cool quarter million dollars at trial (reduced by 25% because the jury figured that she should have remembered the hole in the grassy field from earlier that day).

But the Supreme Court of Wyoming had other ideas. Before there can be liability, the Court said, there has to be a duty. And in Wyoming, a landowner isn’t responsible to protect guests from dangers that were known and obvious. Little furry burrowing animals tend to leave holes that are completely natural, the Court said, as well as open and obvious. There was no reason to hold the RV park owner liable for Pam’s clumsy misfortune, or to sting Mary Berry to line Pam’s pocket.

trip150112Berry v. Tessman, 170 P.3d 1243, 2007 WY 175 (Sup. Ct. Wyo., 2007). Pam Tessman was staying at Mary Berry’s RV park. At check-in, Pam asked Mary Berry where she could take her son fishing. Mary Berry pointed Pam to a river just off the property, and Pam followed the directions. She and her son cut behind a bathhouse across several fields, over a broken-down fence and over a set of railroad tracks, to the fishing hole.

Pam saw a lot of adults and kids using the “grassy area” behind the bathhouse to get to and from the river. In fact, on the way back, Pam saw several boys playing by a marmot hole in the field behind the bathhouse. That evening, Pam was watching fireworks when she saw her son was up by the railroad tracks with some children who appeared to be setting off fireworks. Concerned for his safety, Pam left the lit pool area and went out into the grassy area behind the bathhouse to call him back. She stepped in the marmot hole she had seen earlier that day, twisting her ankle.

Pam sued to recover for her injuries. The trial court found in Pam’s favor and awarded her $259,000, which it reduced by 25% for her own negligence.

Pam appealed.

Held: The Wyoming Supreme Court reversed the trial court, and Pam got nothing.

The elements of a negligence action are a duty owed the plaintiff by defendant to conform to a specified standard of care, a breach of the duty by defendant, and that the breach of the duty of care proximately caused injury to the plaintiff. A landowner in Wyoming owes a general duty to act reasonably in maintaining his or her property in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances, including the likelihood of injury to another, the seriousness of the injury, and the burden of avoiding the risk. Landowners have no duty to protect from known and obvious dangers, even those resulting from natural causes.

However, a plaintiff may show that an otherwise naturally occurring condition does not fall within this rule by showing that the defendant created or aggravated the hazard, that the defendant knew or should have known of the hazard, and that the hazardous condition was substantially more dangerous than it would have been in its natural state. Even a naturally occurring, known and obvious hazard that the landowner has not aggravated could result in liability if the landowner were to create an expectation of heightened safety for people on the premises. The Court saw no reason the known and obvious danger rule should not apply to the ubiquitous hazard posed by the holes of burrowing animals.

slip_and_fall150112However, Pam Tessman hadn’t shown that her circumstances warranted a finding that the marmot hole she stepped in was anything other than a naturally occurring, known and obvious danger, from which Mary Berry had no duty to protect her. She made no showing that Mary Berry owed her any other duty that would support a finding of negligence here. The marmot hole was not a hazard she had created. The marmots weren’t domestic animals or pets but wild animals present in the surrounding area, as well as on the property itself.

Simply enough, the record evidence didn’t suggest that Mary aggravated the danger posed by the marmot hole. To the contrary, the trial court found that Mary tried to minimize the danger from such holes on her property by filling them regularly and by having the animals trapped whenever they became a nuisance. A landowner does not have a duty to protect a guest on her property from a naturally occurring, known and obvious hazard she has not aggravated if she has not, through her own undertaking, created an expectation in her guests that they will be protected from such a hazard.

Mary didn’t create or aggravate the marmot hole that caused Pam Tessman’s injuries, nor did Mary undertake any act that could have caused Pam to rely reasonably on a heightened expectation of safety or special protection from marmot holes on her property. Thus, Pam gets nothing.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

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