Common Area injury - Burden of Proof on Plaintiff

Posted Friday, August 16, 2013 by Ed Harper

Recently, Division One of the Washington Court of Appeals denied a plaintiff’s product liability claim. The case arose when the plaintiff was injured after she fell to the ground while sitting in a patio chair which collapsed for an unknown reason. The plaintiff was injured while a tenant at an apartment complex. Plaintiff struck her head on the concrete flooring. This occurred in a common area controlled by her landlord and/or the property manager. The plaintiff did not know why the 4-5 year old chair collapsed, but alleged the chair was defective, and/or not properly maintained by the owner and/or property manager.

The injured tenant retained counsel. Her attorney requested the chair be kept and secured in order to investigate this claim at a later date. The attorney sent a letter which was delivered to the property manager of the apartment complex to maintain the chair. The property management company (Wallace Properties) maintained and did secure the chair. The chair was allegedly kept in a storage closet.

Subsequently, the property manager was replaced by a new property manager, and the chair disappeared. The chair was not discovered prior to filing suit. In sum, without the chair, the plaintiff was precluded from conducting any tests to determine why the chair collapsed.

The former property manager was named as a defendant. Another defendant was incorrectly named as the landowner. A summary judgment motion was filed by the property manager. The property manager claimed they did not have actual or constructive notice of the condition of the chair and therefore could not be held responsible. The alleged owner also brought a motion for summary judgment claiming they were not the actual owners of the property at the time of the chair incident.

The legal standard holds that a landowner (and property manager) is liable for harm to a tenant when the landowner “knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to tenants” Musci v. Graoch Assocs. Ltd. P’ship No. 12, 144 Wn.2d 847, 855, 31 P.3d 684 (2001) citing Restatement (Second) of Torts section 343. (1965). Here in Washington, the court articulated the standard for knowledge – requires the “actual or constructive notice of the unsafe condition”. Iwai, 129 Wn.2d at 96.

The plaintiff failed to convince the trial court and the appellate court, that because the chair was missing and not maintained, they should not have to meet their burden of proving the chair was defective and/or improperly maintained. The plaintiff suggested the disposal of the chair was negligent and tantamount to destruction of the key piece of evidence, which precluded the plaintiff from proving their case.

The court was not convinced and the plaintiff’s case was dismissed for lack of evidence. Without the chair, the plaintiff was hamstrung and lacked the crucial piece of evidence. Also, there was nothing to show the property manager had actual or constructive knowledge of the defectiveness of the item. Also, the correct owner was never named, and the plaintiff failed to satisfy their burden of proof. The chair was never tested nor was there evidence of any knowledge on the part of the defendants.

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