WILLIAMS v. WILSON et al
MEMORANDUM AND/OR OPINION. SIGNED BY MAGISTRATE JUDGE MARILYN HEFFLEY ON 4/5/2017. 4/5/2017 ENTERED AND COPIES E-MAILED.(kp, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
THELMA JEAN WILLIAMS,
JACK WILSON, et al.,
Presently before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants Jack
Wilson and Diane Hannah-Wilson (“the Wilsons” or “Defendants”) (Doc. No. 16), and Plaintiff
Thelma Jean Williams’s (“Williams” or “Plaintiff”) response in opposition (Doc. No. 17). In this
case, Williams asserts a negligence claim against the Wilsons and seeks to recover damages as a
result of an alleged fall from the front porch of a home owned by the Wilsons and leased by
Williams. 1 For the reasons that follow, this Court will grant Defendants’ Motion.
This action was originally filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County,
Pennsylvania and subsequently removed to this Court. Doc. No. 1. Upon consent of the parties
and by order of the Honorable Mark A. Kearney, the case was referred to the undersigned to
conduct all further proceedings including trial, the entry of final judgment, and all post-trial
proceedings. Doc. No. 10.
STATEMENT OF FACTS 2
In 2006, the Wilsons purchased a single family dwelling at 1642 Taney Street in
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Defs.’ Mot. at ¶¶ 1, 5. The Wilsons knew Williams as a family
acquaintance, and in 2008 they leased the property to Williams. Id. at ¶¶ 5, 7. Williams signed a
lease agreement and resided at the property with her husband, Milton Turner. Id. at ¶¶ 5, 8. The
house contained a front porch or landing atop approximately four exterior steps that led to the
sidewalk below. Id. at ¶ 1; Pl.’s Resp. Ex. B (Doc. No. 17-1), at 47-50. A handrail ran along the
top landing down these exterior steps. Defs.’ Mot. at ¶¶ 14-15; Pl.’s Resp. Ex. B, at 47-50.
At approximately 1 a.m. on March 9, 2016, Williams was sitting outside in a chair on the
landing of her front porch, at the top of the exterior steps. Defs.’ Mot. at ¶¶ 1, 27, 28. When
Williams got up from her chair, she fell down the steps. Id. at ¶ 28. Although she was sitting
outside with a friend, no one witnessed her fall. Id. at ¶¶ 27, 30. Williams testified at her
deposition that the handrail along the exterior steps had been loose, and that when she got up from
her chair the handrail “was not there.” Id. at ¶ 28. Williams claims that at some point prior to her
fall, she provided a note to the Wilsons informing them of the loose handrail with one of her rent
checks, and that her husband also informed Jack Wilson of the issue. Id. at ¶¶ 25-26. The
Wilsons, however, dispute ever being notified or made aware of the alleged loose handrail prior to
Williams’s fall. Id. at ¶¶ 38, 45-4
The statement of facts is derived from the competing factual statements set forth by the
parties in their submissions. In accordance with the standard of review on motions for summary
judgment discussed infra in Section II.A, the Court views the facts in the light most favorable to
Williams and draws all reasonable inferences in Williams’s favor. See Scheidemantle v.
Slippery Rock Univ. State Sys. of Higher Educ., 470 F.3d 535, 538 (3d Cir. 2006).
“A federal court sitting in diversity must apply state substantive law and federal
procedural law.” Chamberlain v. Giampapa, 210 F.3d 154, 158 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Erie R.R.
Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938)). Under the well-established summary judgment
standard, “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine
dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.
R. Civ. P. 56(a). “Summary judgment is appropriate when ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers
to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is
no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a
matter of law.’” Williams v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. 14-2345, 2015 WL 1573745, at *3 (E.D.
Pa. Apr. 9, 2015) (quoting Wright v. Corning, 679 F.3d 101, 105 (3d Cir. 2012)).
[T]he plain language of Rule 56[a] 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. In such
a situation, there can be ‘no genuine issue as to any material fact,’ since a
complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving
party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial. The moving party is
‘entitled to judgment as a matter of law’ because the nonmoving party has failed
to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of [his or] her case with
respect to which [he or] she has the burden of proof.
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).
“By its very terms, this standard [that there be no genuine issue as to any material fact]
provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not
defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that
there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 24748 (1986) (emphasis in original). A material fact is one that “might affect the outcome of the
suit under the governing law.” Id. at 248.
When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court shall consider facts in the light
most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor.
Scheidemantle v. Slippery Rock Univ. State Sys. of Higher Educ., 470 F.3d 535, 538 (3d Cir.
2006). To prevail on summary judgment, however, “the non-moving party must present more
than a mere scintilla of evidence; ‘there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably
find for the [non-moving party].’” Burton v. Teleflex Inc., 707 F.3d 417, 425 (3d Cir. 2013)
(quoting Jakimas v. Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc., 485 F.3d 770, 777 (3d Cir. 2007)); see also
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. As this case is in federal court on diversity jurisdiction, we will apply
Pennsylvania law to this dispute. Erie R.R. Co., 304 U.S. at 78; Sheridan v. NGK Metals Corp.,
609 F.3d 239, 253 (3d Cir. 2010).
B. Defendants Are Entitled to Summary Judgment on Williams’s Claim for
The Wilsons argue that they are entitled to summary judgment on Williams’s negligence
claim because: (1) as out of possession landlords, they are not liable to Williams, their lessee, for
physical harm caused by any dangerous condition which came into existence after the lessee took
possession of the property; (2) even if traditional negligence principles apply, there was no
evidence of notice of the alleged dangerous condition; (3) Williams can only speculate that the
condition of the handrail caused her fall and consequently, she fails to establish causation; and
(4) the indemnification clause in the lease agreement bars Williams’s claim. Defs.’ Mot. at 17.
The Wilsons are correct that, generally, landlords out of possession are not liable for
harm incurred on the property by the lessee. Sentry Cas. Co. v. Spray Prods. Corp., No. 06-cv1664, 2008 WL 205229, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 23, 2008). This rule, however, is subject to certain
exceptions and a landlord out of possession may incur liability if: (1) the landlord has reserved
control over a defective portion of the demised premises; (2) the demised premises are so
dangerously constructed that the premises are a nuisance per se; (3) the lessor has knowledge of
a dangerous condition existing on the demised premises at the time of transferring possession
and fails to disclose the condition to the lessee; (4) the landlord leases the property for a purpose
involving the admission of the public and he neglects to inspect for or repair dangerous
conditions existing on the property before possession is transferred to the lessee; (5) the lessor
undertakes to repair the demised premises and negligently makes the repairs; or (6) the lessor
fails to make repairs after having been given notice of and a reasonable opportunity to remedy a
dangerous condition existing on the leased premises. Henze v. Texaco, Inc., 508 A.2d 1200,
1202 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1986).
Here, although the Wilsons were landlords out of possession, there is evidence that
Williams had notified them about a loose handrail prior to her fall and that the Wilsons did not
remedy the allegedly dangerous condition on the premises. Specifically, Williams testified that
she noticed a problem with the railing about three years ago, Defs.’ Mot. at ¶ 15; id. at Ex. B at
25:12-25:24, and that she included a note about the loose railing with one of her rent payments
and notified the Wilsons verbally at least two times, id. Ex. B, at 33:10-34:19. Although the
Wilsons deny being notified about the railing prior to Williams’s alleged fall, id. at ¶¶ 38, 45-46,
it is not the province of the court to weigh evidence, or assess credibility, when passing upon a
motion for summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Deciding whose version of events is
correct would require an assessment of the credibility of witnesses and a weighing of evidence at
trial. At this juncture, Williams’s testimony must be taken as true. Accordingly, I cannot
conclude that the Wilsons are entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on their status as
landlords out of possession. Moreover, for the reasons explained above, the Wilsons are not
entitled to summary judgment based on their argument that, even if traditional negligence
principles are applied, there was no evidence of notice of the alleged dangerous condition. See
Defs.’ Mot. at 19-20.
Nevertheless, even if Williams can show that the Wilsons negligently breached a duty
owed to her and that she was injured, she must still show a link between the breach and the
injury. Hamil v. Bashline, 392 A.2d 1280, 1284 (Pa. 1978). The Wilsons argue, however, that
Williams has failed to satisfy her burden of proving causation, arguing that she “speculates that
the condition of the handrail caused her fall when it is just as likely . . . that the handrail had
nothing to do with her fall.” Defs.’ Mot. at 17, 20-21. This Court agrees.
It is well settled that, under Pennsylvania law, “[t]he mere occurrence of an accident does
not establish negligent conduct.” Martin v. Evans, 711 A.2d 458, 461 (Pa. 1998). Thus,
regardless of whether the defendant breached some duty of care owed to the plaintiff, it is still
“incumbent on a plaintiff to establish a causal connection between defendant’s conduct and the
plaintiff’s injury.” Hamil, 392 A.2d at 1284. It is the plaintiff’s burden to prove that the harm
suffered was due to the conduct of the defendant, and that burden must be sustained by a
preponderance of the evidence. Id. A plaintiff may prove causation by either direct or
circumstantial evidence. Rabadi v. Great Wolf Lodge of the Poconos LLC, No. 3:15-CV-00101,
2016 WL 4238638, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 9, 2016). Whether the plaintiff has offered sufficient
evidence of causation is normally a question of fact for a jury to decide. Id. at *8. “‘However,
the question must be removed from the jury’s consideration when the circumstantial evidence
adduced would force the jury to speculate or guess as to whether a particular act by the defendant
was the physical cause of the plaintiff[’]s injury.” Id. (quoting Runfola v. Marmaxx Operating
Corp., No. 11-0052, 2013 WL 3305442, at *4 (W.D. Pa. July 1, 2013). “That is to say, the
plaintiff must offer affirmative proof – that is, some quantum of evidence in the record that rises
above ‘conjecture, guess, or speculation’ – that would enable a reasonable person to conclude
that the plaintiff’s injuries were more likely than not caused by the defendants[’] conduct.”
Runfola, 2013 WL 3305442, at *4 (citing Galullo v. Fed. Express Corp., 937 F. Supp. 392, 39798 (E.D. Pa. 1996)).
Here, the only evidence presented by Williams in support of her claim that the handrail
caused her fall and injury is the following testimony from her deposition:
Q. . . . So tell me what happened after you were out there on that landing or top step with
Patricia. What happened?
A. I fell. . . . I went down the steps.
Q. I need you to explain what happened.
A. I fell. The chair top rose some type of way. I fell, I tried to grab the railing, there was
nothing there, and I landed right in the street, right here. And I must have been laying
there. . . .when my son-in-law came out, he said I was laying there, apparently.
Q. All right. You said something about the chair. Did the chair fall?
A. No. The chair never fell. I fell. The chair never fell. It stayed right there. The chair
Q. Did you get up from the chair and try to walk down?
A. I got up from the chair and tried to walk down, maybe. I don’t remember anything
except for I fell. You know, I blacked out, they said. I don’t remember anything. I don’t
remember even falling when they got me up.
Q. Did you grab the handrail –
A. I tried –
Q. Did you grab the handrail before you started to walk down the steps?
A. I always have to use it. My age, you got to use a railing.
Q. Did you do that on this morning?
A. I got up with the chair, and I grabbed for the railing and it wasn’t there, so, I fell.
Q. Where was the railing?
A. Apparently – the railing, when I put the chair there, it must have pushed it. I don’t
know, sir. I don’t know. I can’t answer that. You need to get somebody else to figure
Q. Had you walked down any step before you fell?
A. I fell down the steps. I didn’t walk anywhere. I fell from that top step all the way
down here. And when I went to grab, the railing was not there. Maybe because I sat
down, pushed the chair. I don’t know. I haven’t figured that out.
Q. Were you standing on this top step when you reached for the handrail?
A. Sir, all I remember is the fall. I can’t tell you – I can’t tell you any details. All I
know is I woke up and I was on the ground. So I don’t know. I know I was sitting in the
chair, toppled over, and I’m on the ground.
Defs.’ Mot. Ex. B, at 46:22-50:4.
This testimony, the only evidence Williams relies upon in opposing summary judgment
on an issue for which she carries the burden of proof, would require the jury to speculate about
what caused her fall and whether the loose handrail was a causative factor. Williams was
specifically questioned at her deposition regarding the circumstances and cause of her fall and
she was unable to explain with any certainty why or how she fell. Instead, she speculated that
her chair may have moved the railing to such an extent that when she went to grab it, it “was not
there.” Id. at 49:7-49:8. It is unclear from her testimony, however, whether she began to fall
before or after she reached for the handrail, and therefore it is purely speculative whether the
allegedly loose handrail had anything to do with the cause of her fall in the first instance. Nor
does Williams submit any additional evidence which would lend support to her entirely
equivocal testimony that, despite not coming into contact with the railing, it somehow caused her
fall and injury. For example, the record does not contain any testimony from her neighbor, who
was present at the time of her fall, or from those with whom she lived indicating that the handrail
was loose or capable of being dislodged, or that it was in that condition at the time of her fall.
Indeed, the pictures of the stairway submitted as exhibits to Williams’s response in opposition to
summary judgment show that the railing is in place, with no indication that it is or was
dislodged, despite Williams’s claim that, at least as of the time of her deposition, it remained
unfixed. Defs.’ Mot. at ¶ 21.
Ultimately, Williams bears the burden of proof to demonstrate that it was more likely
than not that the loose handrail caused her injuries. Instead, she cannot say with any certainty
why or how she fell, other than when she reached for it, it “was not there.” Defs.’ Mot. Ex. B at
49:7-49:8. This testimony, the only evidence she relies upon in opposing summary judgment on
this issue, would require the jury to speculate about what caused her fall and whether the
allegedly loose handrail was a causative factor of her injury. “[W]hile the jury may draw
reasonable inferences, it ‘may not be permitted to reach its verdict merely on the basis of
speculation or conjecture;’” “‘there must be evidence upon which logically its conclusion may be
based.’” Fitzpatrick v. Natter, 961 A.2d 1229, 1241-42 (Pa. 2008) (quoting Jones v. Treegoob,
249 A.2d 352, 354 (Pa. 1969)); cf. Hamil, 392 A.2d at 1288 n.9 (“A mere possibility of . . .
causation is not enough; and when the matter remains one of pure speculation and conjecture, or
the probabilities are at best evenly balanced, it becomes the duty of the court to direct a verdict
for the defendant.”). Accordingly, Williams has failed to present sufficient evidence to allow a
reasonable jury to infer causation. See Runfola, 2013 WL 3305442, at *4-5; Erb v. Council
Rock Sch. Dist., No. 1717 C.D.2008, 2009 WL 9097261, at *3-*4 (Pa. Cmmw. Ct. 2009)
(testimony that lack of a handrail to stop fall led to injuries was insufficient as a matter of law to
prove causation); Noiles v. MacDonald, No. 87-1091, 1988 WL 21836, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 7,
1988) (plaintiff’s explanation that “the lack of a graspable handrail was a substantial factor in
causing the fall” was insufficient circumstantial proof of causation). The Wilsons, therefore, are
entitled to summary judgment on Williams’s negligence claim.
Defendants also argue that the lease agreement contains a clause by which Williams
agreed to hold Defendants harmless from all claims and that consequently, Williams’s
negligence claim fails as a matter of law. Defs.’ Br. at 18. The lease contains the following
Lessor shall not be liable for any damage or injury of or to the Lessee, Lessee’s
family, guests, invitees, agents or employees or to any person entering the
Premises or the building of which the Premises are a part or to goods or
equipment, or in the structure or equipment of the structure of which the Premises
are a part, and Lessee hereby agrees to indemnify, defend and hold Lessor
harmless from any and all claims or assertions of every kind.
Defs.’ Mot. Ex. C at 3. Williams argues that the indemnification clause is invalid because it
“fails to clearly and unequivocally state that the Defendants cannot be found liable to the
Plaintiff for their own negligence.” Pl.’s Resp. at 20. In Pennsylvania, however, courts have
held that exculpatory clauses may bar suits based on negligence even where the language of the
clause does not specifically mention negligence at all. See Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary,
626 A.2d 98, 99-101 (Pa. 1993) (concluding that an exculpatory clause absolving lessor of “any
and all liability” covers negligence even though the word “negligence” does not appear in the
clause); see also Schillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F. Supp. 1169, 1173-74
(E.D. Pa. 1990); Muller v. Aquatic & Fitness Ctr., No. 1636 EDA 2014, 2015 WL 7430572, at
*8-9 (Pa. Super. Ct. Mar. 9, 2015); Zimmer v. Mitchell & Ness, 385 A.2d 437, 440 (Pa. Super.
Ct. 1978) (holding that exculpatory clause barred plaintiff’s claim and reasoning that general
language in the parties’ release, which exempted the defendant from any liability, necessarily
included liability from alleged negligence). Accordingly, Williams’s negligence claim against
Diane Wilson, the Lessor under the lease agreement, is barred by the lease’s indemnification
For the foregoing reasons, the Court will grant Defendants’ Motion for Summary
Judgment. A separate Order follows.
Date: April 5, 2017
BY THE COURT:
/s/ Marilyn Heffley
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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