Double Doors Bring Double Duty

The case of Cronin v Department of Public Safety reaffirms that whether a defect on a premises poses unreasonable risk of harm turns on the facts of the case.  Mr. Cronin was severely injured at a building owned by the St. Bernard Port, Harbor, and Terminal District (“Port”). The plaintiff attempted to exit a locked double door when his hand slipped off the metal bar that opened the door and his hand went through the door’s glass panel. The door did not have a sign advising that the door was locked. 

After a bench trial, the plaintiff was found to be 100% liable for his injuries. The trial court relied on testimony indicating that the plaintiff was agitated when he was leaving the building and that he forcefully attempted to push the door open. The plaintiff appealed to the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

On appeal, the appellate court applied Louisiana Revised Statute 9:2800 (pdf) and Louisiana Civil Code Article 2317 (pdf), which limits public entity liability to damages caused by conditions of buildings within the entity’s care and custody. Those conditions have to be known to the entity and not timely corrected. According to the record on appeal, a security guard for the Port testified that he reported the door had a problem of “sticking” and that Port maintenance unsuccessfully attempted to fix the door. The Port locked the door after efforts to get it fixed failed. The Port argued that: locking the door did not create an unreasonably dangerous condition, by itself; a door that contains plate glass is not, in itself, unreasonably dangerous; and, a plate glass is not, in itself, unreasonably dangerous. The appellate court agreed. 

The appellate court, however, noted that the door was in an unquestionably high volume passageway for people entering and leaving the building. Furthermore, it was uncontroverted that the door was defective in that it was difficult to open, because it would stick. The court acknowledged that the plaintiff may have been agitated when he left, but that the plaintiff’s fault did not excuse the duty owed by the Port. The Port had a duty to keep visitors safe from a dangerous condition on the premises by either warning the public that the door was defective or repairing the door. The Court stated that “If the door had been locked, there was no sign to warn a person exiting the building. If the door had been left unlocked…, there is ample evidence that the door was heavy and would stick and not open entirely. Either scenario created an unreasonable risk of harm, especially in light of the fact that the door contained plate glass.”  

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision and, rather than remand, adjusted the allocation of fault and found the plaintiff ten percent at fault for his injuries. The plaintiff was awarded $523,951.35 plus judicial demand. 

Take-Away: An owner must warn of an unreasonably dangerous condition. Whether a condition creates an unreasonable risk, however, is not a simple task and includes a weighing of all of the facts.

This article was co-authored by Orian Williams, an associate at Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore LLC