TOLD YOU SO
Travel back into time with me… back, back, back to July 6, 2021, when we solved the poor Mazda owner’s problem by determining that maybe, just maybe, his landlord was liable for injuries to the unhappy sports car enthusiast’s set of wheels. As in all cases, liability depends on the specific facts. That’s why there’s no substitute for a good local attorney.
While considering the RX-8 owner’s dilemma, I came across today’s case. A hospital was built back in the early 1970s. A landscape architect suggested sweetgum trees on the grounds. When the trees were planted, they seemed like a nice touch, an architectural exclamation point to the building. The sweetgum is a good-looking tree, but rather prolific in its production of sweetgum balls.
Times changed, more people were getting sick (what with coronavirus and all), and the hospital grew. So did the trees. When a parking garage was added in the 1980s, the designer told the hospital the trees should be removed because they dropped sweet gum balls that got everywhere and were a nuisance. The hospital refused.
Ten years later, a hospital visitor slipped on a sweetgum ball in the parking lot and fell, breaking her wrist. Lucky for her there was a hospital nearby. She didn’t feel lucky, however … rather, she felt aggrieved. She therefore sued the hospital for negligence. What else does an aggrieved person do?
The Court applied the reasonable care standard to the case and found the hospital was negligent. Crucial to the decision was the fact that the parking lot designer had told the hospital years before that the trees were a nuisance, for the precise reason that led to Ms. Henderson’s injury. The hospital didn’t necessarily have to cut down the trees, the Court said, but it could have at least instituted a regular clean-up program to stay on top of the sweet-gum ball problem
Henderson v. St. Francis Community Hospital, 303 S.C. 177, 399 S.E.2d 767 (Sup.Ct. S.C. 1990). Florence Henderson (probably not her real name) visited a friend who was a patient at St. Francis Hospital. As she was walking in the hospital parking lot to her car, she stepped on an accumulation of sweet gum balls, turned her foot and fell, breaking her wrist. The balls had fallen from a sweet gum tree planted in the parking lot. She fractured her wrist and sustained various bruises and abrasions.
The original parking lot of St. Francis was designed by CRS Sirrine, Inc. in 1969. The sweet gum trees were planted soon after that. In about 1982, Snoddy & McCulloch Associates, Inc. designed an addition to the parking lot, which had several levels or tiers. Snoddy & McCulloch recommended that the sweet gum trees be removed because they produced debris that would accumulate and become a nuisance. St. Francis refused to remove the trees, instead building a stairway next to one of them.
Henderson sued St. Francis, Sirrine and Snoddy & McCulloch, alleging negligent maintenance and negligent design of the parking lot. The jury returned a verdict against St. Francis and Sirrine, but the trial court reversed the jury, entering judgment n.o.v. in favor of the defendants. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and Ms. Henderson took the matter to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
Held: The Court reversed the judgment. It held that the Hospital was negligent, but not the parking lot designer or the landscape architects. The Court held that the evidence supported the finding that the Hospital had been advised to remove sweet gum trees because the trees produced debris which created nuisance and maintenance problems. It didn’t and thus was negligent in failing to provide reasonably safe conditions for its visitors and patients by not removing the trees or employing an adequate maintenance program. The Court said that although the operator of a parking lot is not an insurer of the safety of those who use it, it must nevertheless use reasonable care to keep the premises used by invitees in a reasonably safe condition.
The idea is hardly novel – the New York court said it over a century ago in Gibson v. Denton – if you’re aware of the risk, you had better do something about it. Here, the Hospital had been warned that the trees required removal or regular care. Neither happened.
The degree of care to be exercised by a property owner must be commensurate with particular circumstances involved, including considerations like the age and capacity of the invitees who will be using the premises. For purposes of measuring whether the Hospital discharged its duty, the “invitees” are the people who visit patients in the hospital and use the parking lot.