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Helm v. 206 Massachusetts Ave., LLC, --- A.2d ----, 2014 WL 7272771 (Del. 2014)

Delaware Supreme Court Reverses Superior Court’s Grant of Summary Judgment Based on Comparative Negligence and Primary Assumption of the Risk

In this suit, the Plaintiff suffered a significant ankle fracture, requiring surgery, when she fell down the stairs at a beach rental in Lewes, Delaware. In Plaintiff’s complaint, she alleged that the Defendant/Property Owner was negligent in failing to provide adequate lighting of the stairwell. Plaintiff further alleged that her fall was caused by the poorly lit stairwell. Plaintiff later amended her complaint to include allegations that the banister in the stairwell was not “graspable” or code compliant and therefore prevented her from stopping her fall. Plaintiff had rented this same property for week long vacations in the two prior years to her fall and never lodged any complaints regarding the condition of the property.

At Plaintiff’s deposition, she testified that as she approached the stairs, she notice that it was extremely dark toward the bottom. Plaintiff further testified that she attempted the turn on the light in the foyer at the bottom of the stair but there was no light switch on the second floor that controlled the first floor lights. Most importantly, Plaintiff testified that she was aware, at the time just prior to descending the stairs, that they were unsafe because of the darkness. When asked why she did not have a family member assist her in descending the stairs, she testified that she did not want to expose them to the risk of descending the stairs in the dark. Despite recognizing the risk, Plaintiff descended the stairs. Plaintiff then testified that approximately two-thirds of the way down the stairs she paused because it became increasingly harder to see the stairs in front of her due to the darkness. Instead of turning around, Plaintiff continued down the stairs and ultimately fell, causing her injuries.

Defendant file a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing that based on Plaintiff’s testimony, it was clear that she was aware of the risk of descending the dark stairwell, that she appreciated that risk, and proceeded despite that risk. Therefore, Defendant argued, Plaintiff assumed the risk of falling and would not be entitled to recover from the Defendant for her injuries. In the Motion for Summary Judgment, the Defendant also argued that the Plaintiff’s actions were negligent in an amount greater than 51%, which would bar recovery against the Defendant as a matter of law. In granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, the Superior Court agreed that Plaintiff was negligent in an amount greater than 51% as a matter of law and therefore could not recover from the Defendant. The Court also held that Plaintiff clearly recognized and appreciated the risk of descending the stairs and proceeded anyway. The Court held, therefore, the Plaintiff primarily assumed the risk, which precluded her from recovering damages for her injuries against the Defendant.

The Delaware Supreme Court disagreed with the Superior Court’s holdings. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that primary assumption of the risk is reserved for limited scenarios where a person has expressly relieved another of a legal duty. The Supreme Court referenced sporting events and sports activities as the applicable scenarios for the defense of primary assumption of the risk. The Supreme Court further held that only in rare cases should a trial judge grant summary judgment based on contributory negligence. The Court emphasized that the question of percentage of negligence should ordinarily be left to the jury as the finders of fact. The Court found that the facts of the present case were not the rare facts that warranted summary judgment based on contributory negligence and reversed the Superior Court’s grant of summary judgment.

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