Mississippi Legal Update October 2014

Trip hazard teaches Mississippi school district a lesson on the limits of government immunity 

School district held liable for trip and fall caused by unrepaired raised electrical conduit.

Natchez-Adams School District v. Bruce, (Court of Appeals of Mississippi; No. 2012-CA-00147-COA; September 9, 2014).

In Natchez v. Bruce, the plaintiff, Tina Bruce tripped over a conduit protruding from the surface of a driveway in front of the Natchez-Adams School District (NASD) administrative building. Bruce brought suit against NASD who in turn claimed immunity as a defense. At a bench trial, the trial court found NASD was not immune under the circumstances and Bruce was awarded $488,000 in damages. The ruling was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. NASD sought immunity on two separate grounds: discretionary function exemption of the MTCA; and the dangerous-condition exemption of the MTCA.

Governmental entities or employees are immune from liability from claims based upon “the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function.” NASD argued it could use its own discretion and judgment in determining how to correct and repair the exposed conduit. Bruce argued repair of the conduit was required by statute as part of a school board’s duty to “erect, repair, and equip school facilities.” The court found the conduit, which held the power cables for the sign of the administrative building was part of a “school facility” and its repair was a part of the function of repairing the school facilities. Consequently, NASD was statutorily required to repair the hazardous condition and not entitled to discretionary function immunity.

NASD further argued for immunity under the Dangerous-Condition exception. This exception to liability arises where the dangerous condition on the property of a governmental entity was not caused by the negligent or other wrongful conduct of an employee of the entity or where the entity did not have notice of or opportunity to warn against the condition. This exception further prevents liability on a government entity where a danger is obvious. The Court of Appeals noted that the trial court found evidence NASD was on notice of the raised conduit. Further, the raised conduit was not an open and obvious hazard as it was similar in color to the pavement beneath it. There was no evidence of any warning of this hazard and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining NASD was not entitled to immunity under the Dangerous Condition exemption. Plaintiff’s verdict against NASD was affirmed.

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Without knowledge of a hazardous condition, odds are in the house’s favor

Casino patron fails to recover after trip and fall in parking garage.

Jones v. Imperial Palace of Mississippi, LLC, (Supreme Court of Mississippi; No. 2012-CT-00536-SCT; September 18, 2014).

Plaintiff Jones, tripped over a concrete parking bumper and fell to the floor of Defendant Imperial Palace Casino’s parking garage. Jones sued, alleging the concrete parking bumper was misaligned and jutted into the walking space within the garage and that such misalignment caused his fall and injuries. The trial court granted summary judgment for Imperial Palace. The Mississippi Court of Appeals reversed finding a jury question as to Imperial Palace’s actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard. The Supreme Court of Mississippi reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the trial court’s summary judgment for the casino.

It was undisputed Jones was an invitee at the time of the fall. Imperial Palace was under a duty to keep the premises reasonably safe and to warn where there is hidden danger. A premise owner is presumed to know of hazardous conditions they create. Where a dangerous condition is created from another’s conduct, a plaintiff must produce evidence of the owner’s actual or constructive knowledge for a period of time reasonably sufficient to remedy or to warn of the danger.

Jones failed to produce any evidence Imperial Palace created or knew of the hazard long enough to provide a warning. One security guard’s testimony stated that from time to time the bumpers would become misaligned. However, this knowledge alone was not sufficient to create an issue of material fact as to the bumper at issue in Jones’ fall. Jones further failed to “produce any temporal evidence” that reasonable inspections of the parking garage would have revealed the danger. Without such evidence, the trial court’s summary judgment was reinstated and affirmed.

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Obstructed view of approaching traffic jam puts the brakes on plaintiff’s recovery 

Tractor-trailer driver did not breach duty of care towards following drivers for quick but controlled stop on blind downhill road section.

Nevels v. Walmart Transportation, LLC, et al., (Court of Appeals of Mississippi; No. 2013-CA-01050-COA; September 9, 2014).

Nevels was a passenger in a car and was injured when the car rear ended a tractor-trailer in rainy weather on a wet road. Both vehicles were traveling the same direction. Traffic was stopped over the crest of a hill in the roadway. The driver of the car in which Nevels was a passenger was unable to see the stopped traffic until after cresting the hill. At that point in time, she rear ended the tractor-trailer in front of her.  Nevels’ settled claims against the driver of the vehicle in which she was traveling and sought recovery under a theory of negligence against the owner and driver of the tractor-trailer. The tractor-trailer crested the hill traveling at a slower speed than Nevels’ vehicle and came to a complete stop before encountering the parked traffic. The driver of the tractor-trailer testified he never lost control of the vehicle. The brakes lights and running lights on the tractor trailer were functioning properly at the time of the accident. Deposition testimony confirmed traffic on the downhill side of the road was not visible until cresting the hill. The plaintiff alleged and provided expert testimony that the driver of the tractor-trailer lost control of his vehicle while attempting to stop and this caused the driver of the vehicle in which Nevels was traveling to likewise lose control. However, the trial court found this statement speculative and conclusory. Nevels failed to meet her burden of presenting a genuine issue of material fact as to negligence on the part of the tractor trailer driver and summary judgment for the defendant owner and driver were affirmed on appeal.

Read the full decision.