Unexpected dangers lurking in parking lots and tents

Karen Morris

Two recent cases present unusual fact twists on frequently litigated scenarios.

The first case1 involves an accident in a parking lot. A patron of a Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino plunged to his death in his car from the second story of a parking garage. It turns out he mistakenly pressed the gas pedal, rather than the brake, and drove right through a barrier. He was the second driver to die this way. Per expert testimony elicited at trial, a speed of six-tenths of a mile per hour (!) was sufficient to break the barrier. When a similar incident occurred yet again, Golden Nugget reinforced the barrier.

The family of the second-to-die sued the hotel. In response, Golden Nugget compellingly argued that the cause of the accident was the driver’s error, not the weak barrier. The jury decided in favor of the hotel.

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During the trial, plaintiffs unsuccessfully argued that the modifications proved that the original structure was inadequate. The court, based on longstanding law, refused to permit the jury to hear evidence of the alterations. The reason: The law does not want facilities to postpone repairs that enhance safety. So, if you identify needed improvements at your establishment after an accident, no legal reason exists to postpone instituting them.

A cautionary postscript: If the driver had been served alcohol at the hotel while visibly intoxicated, in some states the hotel could have been liable for his death under the Dram Shop Act.

The second case2 involves a trip and fall. A wedding guest, who was an accomplished dancer, was having a grand time at the reception. It was held in a tent with a portable dance floor. To access the venue, guests needed to walk from the host hotel across grass a distance of about 90 feet.

The owner’s manual for the portable floor contained a warning that the floor would be slippery when wet. It rained during the reception, causing the grass to be wet, soggy and muddy.

As the band played on, alas, the light-footed reveler slipped and fell. The heel on her shoe was found to be muddy and wet, a product apparently of the 90-foot grassy trek to the tent. She was one of many celebrants traipsing debris and water onto the tent floor. The hotel could have undertaken numerous precautions to mitigate the effects of the precipitation, but it did not. No warning signs were posted. No employee was assigned to make periodic inspections of the dance floor. No mats were provided on the walkway to and from the tent and hotel. No mats were placed near the dance floor on which guests could wipe their feet.

In the lawsuit, the hotel denied liability and sought dismissal prior to a trial.

Given the hotel’s lackadaisical approach to the potential dangers, the judge refused to end the lawsuit at an early juncture. If the dispute is not settled, it will proceed to trial. The case is not looking good for the hotel, which would have been in a much better position had it taken steps to address the dangers.

The lesson in this case: If you use tents or outbuildings, plan for a rainy day.