Woodbury v. Courtyard Management Corporation et al
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER - IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the motion of defendants Marriott International, Inc., Courtyard by Marriott II, L.P., and Courtyard Management Corporation for summary judgment [Doc. # 43 ] is denied. Signed by District Judge Carol E. Jackson on 8/14/13. (KJS)
Woodbury v. Courtyard Management Corporation et al
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
CATHY J. WOODBURY,
CORP., et al.,
Case No. 4:11-CV-1049 (CEJ)
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
This matter is before the Court on defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
Plaintiff has filed a response in opposition and the issues are fully briefed.
Plaintiff Cathy J. Woodbury brings this action to recover compensatory and
punitive damages for injuries she sustained in a fall from the balcony of her hotel
room. The defendants are Marriott International, Inc., Courtyard by Marriott II, L.P.,
and Courtyard Management Corporation (hereinafter referred to collectively as “the
On December 9, 2007, plaintiff checked into a room on the second floor of the
Courtyard by Marriott St. Louis Westport Hotel. The room had an exterior balcony that
was accessible by a door to which a “Charlie bar” security device was attached. A
Charlie bar is a three-quarter inch aluminum square bar that is affixed behind the
sliding glass door on a hinge. [Doc. # 44, p. 3]. If positioned horizontally, the hinged
end affixes to the door frame and the other end lowers into a receptacle which
prevents opening the door from the outside. Id. When positioned vertically, a clip
above the hinged end clicks into place to prevent the bar from lowering into the
horizontal “locked” position. Id.
Because the hotel had a no-smoking policy, plaintiff was not allowed to smoke
in her room. However, the hotel receptionist told plaintiff that she could smoke on the
balcony outside her room as long as the door was closed. Several times that night,
plaintiff went out to the balcony to smoke. Each time, plaintiff would lift the Charlie bar
from its horizontal position to a vertical one, then fully close the balcony door behind
her. The bar did not fall from the raised vertical position on any of these occasions.
At around 4:00 a.m. on December 10, 2007, plaintiff again went outside on the
balcony to smoke. Plaintiff raised the Charlie bar and closed the door behind her in the
same manner as she had done previously. After a few minutes, she attempted to
return inside her room but could not open the door. She saw that the Charlie bar was
in the down horizontal position, preventing the door from sliding open. Plaintiff states
that she was in her pajamas at the time and the temperature was 30/. Plaintiff began
yelling loudly, whistling, and pounding on the rain gutter to get someone’s attention,
but to no avail. After doing this for almost an hour, plaintiff tried to break the balcony
glass door with her hand, again with no success. She finally decided to climb over the
railing in an attempt to climb down the downspout, but instead she fell to the ground.
Plaintiff sustained severe injuries including a fractured leg and fractured pelvis.
Prior to plaintiff’s accident, there had been two other incidents of Charlie bar
lockouts resulting in injury that occurred at Courtyard by Marriott hotels. The first
incident occurred on February 22, 2007 in Illinois; the second on May 29, 2007 in
Massachusetts. [Doc. # 54, pp. 28-29].
Plaintiff alleges that her injuries resulted from the defendants’ negligence in
failing to maintain the Charlie bar and from their failing to warn of the device’s defects.
In the instant motion for summary judgment the Courtyard defendants argue that
plaintiff’s own negligence in attempting to climb down the downspout was the direct
and proximate cause of her injuries. Alternatively, the defendants argue that they are
entitled to partial summary judgment on plaintiff’s request for punitive damages
because plaintiff has not presented sufficient evidence of evil motive or reckless
indifference to support the request.
II. Legal Standard
Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that summary
judgment shall be entered if the moving party shows “that there is no genuine dispute
as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.”
In ruling on a motion for summary judgment the court is required to view the facts in
the light most favorable to the non-moving party and must give that party the benefit
of all reasonable inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts. AgriStor Leasing
v. Farrow, 826 F.2d 732, 734 (8th Cir. 1987). The moving party bears the burden of
showing both the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and its entitlement to
judgment as a matter of law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986);
Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986).
Once the moving party has met its burden, the non-moving party may not rest on the
allegations of his pleadings but must set forth specific facts, by affidavit or other
evidence, showing that a genuine issue of material fact exists. United of Omaha Life
Ins. Co. v. Honea, 458 F.3d 788, 791 (8th Cir. 2006) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)).
Rule 56 “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery
and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish
the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will
bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).
Because jurisdiction is premised on diversity of citizenship, the Court looks to
the substantive law of Missouri in analyzing the plaintiff’s claims.
A. Premises Liability Claim
The owner of a premises owes a duty to invitees to exercise ordinary and
reasonable care in making the premises safe. Rycraw v. White Castle Sys. Inc., 28
S.W.3d 495, 499 (Mo. Ct. App. 2000). To establish a claim of negligence based on
premises liability under Missouri law, the plaintiff must present substantial evidence
that: (1) a dangerous condition existed on the premises of the defendant; (2) the
defendant knew or by using ordinary care should have known of the dangerous
condition; (3) the defendant failed to use ordinary care in removing or warning of the
danger; and (4) the plaintiff sustained injuries as a result of the dangerous condition.
Montgomery v. Wilson, 331 S.W.3d 332, 336 (Mo. Ct. App. 2011).
The Courtyard defendants do not deny that plaintiff may be able to prove the
first three elements of her premises liability claim. [Doc. # 44, p. 8]. Instead, the
focus is on the fourth element, the causation requirement for a claim of negligence.
Plaintiff argues that the Courtyard defendants’ failure to maintain and repair the Charlie
bar and/or failure to warn patrons of its alleged defectiveness was the actual and
proximate cause of her injuries. [Doc. # 26, p. 6]. The Courtyard defendants argue
that plaintiff’s attempt to slide down the downspout was the sole proximate cause of
her injuries. [Doc. # 44, p. 8].
To establish causation in a claim of negligence, the plaintiff must prove that the
defendant’s conduct was both the cause in fact and proximate cause of the resulting
Heffernan v. Reinhold, 73 S.W.3d 659, 664 (Mo. Ct. App. 2002).
defendant’s conduct is the cause in fact of the plaintiff’s injuries if “but for” that
conduct the injuries would not have occurred. Id. If the plaintiff’s injury was the
natural and probable consequence of the defendant’s negligence, then that negligent
act is also the proximate cause of the injury.
Proximate cause cannot be
established if the resulting injury was too attenuated or far removed from the
defendant’s negligent conduct. Id. Missouri law also considers the foreseeability of the
resulting injury as a limitation on the defendant’s liability. Tompkins v. Cervantes, 917
S.W.2d 186, 190 (Mo. Ct. App. 1996). Proximate cause is typically a question for the
jury to decide. Stafford v. Drury Inns, Inc., 165 S.W.3d 494, 497 (Mo. Ct. App. 2005);
Heffernan, 73 S.W.3d at 665.
The presence of any intervening or superseding cause affects the analysis of
proximate cause. An intervening cause is any new and independent act that interrupts
the causal chain between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injury. Heffernan,
73 S.W.3d at 665. An intervening cause can rise to the level of a superseding cause
if it severs the connection completely between the defendant’s conduct and the
plaintiff’s injury, at which point it becomes the direct and proximate cause of the
See id.; Tompkins, 917 S.W.2d at 190-91.
The Courtyard defendants
accurately assert that while proximate cause is typically within the province of the jury,
a court properly interposes its judgment when an intervening cause eclipses the role
the defendant’s conduct played in the plaintiff’s injury. Heffernan, 73 S.W.3d at 665;
Tompkins, 917 S.W.2d at 190.
This case centers on the issue of comparative fault between the plaintiff and the
Courtyard defendants, an evaluation that along with proximate cause is typically left
for the jury. Kramer v. Chase Resorts, Inc., 777 S.W.2d 647, 651 (Mo. Ct. App.
1989); see Gustafson v. Benda, 661 S.W.2d 11, 15-16 (Mo. 1983) (en banc)
(establishing the shift in Missouri from contributory negligence to comparative fault
standard). Since the shift to a comparative fault standard, Missouri courts have ruled
that an intervening cause which is a foreseeable consequence of the initial negligent
conduct will not absolve the defendant from liability.
Esmond v. Bituminous Cas.
Corp., 23 S.W.3d 748, 753 (Mo. Ct. App. 2000); Plummer v. Dace, 818 S.W.2d 317,
321 (Mo. Ct. App. 1991); St. John Bank & Trust Co. v. City of St. John, 679 S.W.2d
399, 403 (Mo. Ct. App. 1984).
The Court finds that the Courtyard defendants have not demonstrated that
plaintiff’s actions were so independent from and unrelated to their alleged negligence
as to absolve them from liability. In a somewhat analogous case, the Missouri Court
of Appeals held that a young girl’s act of running into the highway was not unrelated
to the defendant bus driver’s act of dropping the girl off in an unsafe area. Plummer,
818 S.W.2d at 321-22. The Missouri Court of Appeals made a similar assessment in
St. John Bank & Trust Co. v. City of St. John where it was determined that the
independent act of arson was not an unforeseeable result of failing to properly
supervise the police department. Id., 679 S.W.2d at 403. Like the plaintiffs’ conduct
in those cases, plaintiff’s conduct here is directly related to the Courtyard defendants’
own conduct, i.e., negligent maintenance of the Charlie bar and the failure to warn of
a malfunction that could result in a lockout. The relationship between the Charlie bar
lockout and the resulting injuries is not so attenuated as to permit the Court to find
that plaintiff’s actions were the proximate cause of her injuries.
The Court rejects the Courtyard defendants’ assertion that plaintiff’s attempt to
slide down the downspout was not foreseeable. In the two Charlie bar incidents that
occurred several months before plaintiff’s accident, patrons at Courtyard by Marriott
hotels resorted to the same means of escape after being locked on a second floor
balcony. The Court also declines the defendants’ invitation to make a determination
that plaintiff failed to exercise due care by not employing an available and safer
method of getting help or escaping. Such a determination is reserved to the trier of
fact. Kramer v. Chase Resorts, Inc., 777 S.W.2d 647, 651 (Mo. Ct. App. 1989); see
Lacy v. Wright, 199 S.W.3d 780, 784 (Mo. Ct. App. 2006) (concluding that whether the
plaintiff failed to look out and avoid a dangerous condition is determined at trial).
The Court concludes that the Courtyard defendants are not entitled to summary
judgment on the premises liability claim.
B. Punitive Damages Claim
In a negligence action, punitive damages may be awarded if the defendant’s
actions demonstrate evil motive, complete indifference or conscious disregard for
others’ safety. Alack v. Vic Tanny Int’l of Mo., Inc., 923 S.W.2d 330, 339 (Mo. 1996)
(en banc); Stojkovic v. Weller, 802 S.W.2d 152, 155 (Mo. 1991) (en banc).
plaintiff’s entitlement to punitive damages must be established by clear and convincing
evidence. See Rodriguez v. Suzuki Motor Corp., 936 S.W.2d 104, 110-11 (Mo. 1996)
Plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence from which a reasonable juror could
find that the Courtyard defendants consciously disregarded the probability of injury.
There is no dispute that there had been two prior Charlie bar lockouts that resulted in
injuries. The Courtyard defendants also do not dispute that there were no posted signs
warning plaintiff of the possibility of a lockout due to a Charlie bar malfunction and
plaintiff was not given any instructions on how to raise or use the Charlie bar.
Additionally, plaintiff has presented the report of her expert witness, a mechanical
engineer, who, approximately one year after the incident, found bending and
deformation damage in the Charlie bars in two rooms at the Westport hotel, including
the room plaintiff occupied. Furthermore, plaintiff has presented a March 28, 2008
memorandum issued by defendant Marriott International, Inc. that provides
instructions on how to eliminate the possibility of Charlie bar lockouts in light of the
“three incidents” in which hotel guests were trapped on their balconies. Pl. Ex. 7 [Doc.
# 52]. Given this evidence, a reasonable juror could conclude that the Courtyard
defendants were not only aware of a risk of injury posed by the defective Charlie bar
device but consciously disregarded that risk. Therefore, the Courtyard defendants are
not entitled to summary judgment on the request for punitive damages.
For the reasons discussed above,
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the motion of defendants Marriott International,
Inc., Courtyard by Marriott II, L.P., and Courtyard Management Corporation for
summary judgment [Doc. #43] is denied.
CAROL E. JACKSON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Dated this 14th day of August, 2013.
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