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Norman v. Ritter-Rittenhouse Corp.

August 19, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Karen E. Schreier Chief Judge


Plaintiffs, Leona and John Van Norman, move for partial summary judgment. Defendant, Ritter-Rittenhouse Corporation, opposes the motion. The motion is denied in part and granted in part.


On November 28, 2005, Leona and John Van Norman checked into a Super 8 Motel in Mitchell, South Dakota, an entity owned and operated by Ritter-Rittenhouse Corporation. Docket 35, Plaintiffs' Statement of Material Facts, ¶¶ 4--5; Docket 44, Defendant's Response to Plaintiffs' Statements of Material Facts, ¶¶ 4--5. After receiving their second-floor room assignment, the Van Normans proceeded to the flight of stairs in the front desk area. Docket 35, ¶ 7; Docket 44, ¶ 7. As Leona ascended the stairs, she fell backward down the flight of stairs and sustained injuries, including pain in her hip. Docket 35, ¶ 8; Docket 44, ¶ 8; Docket 1, Complaint, ¶¶ 12, 18; Docket 5, Answer, ¶¶ 7, 10.


The Van Normans filed a complaint on November 24, 2008, alleging negligence on the following grounds: failure "to properly construct and/or maintain hand railings;" failure "to provide a safe and accessible alternative to the second floor;" failure "to otherwise exercise reasonable care in the design, construction, and maintenance of [the motel's] premises;" and failure "to meet and adhere to the building codes of the City of Mitchell and other applicable building codes." Docket 1, ¶ 15. Further, John alleged a loss of consortium. Docket 1, ¶ 20. Ritter-Rittenhouse denied the allegations and alleged four affirmative defenses: contributory negligence, assumption of risk, comparative negligence, and failure to mitigate damages. Docket 5, ¶¶ 8, 11--14.

At the court's request, the Van Normans filed a Memorandum of Legal Issues on April 23, 2010. Docket 32. Soon after, the Van Normans supplemented their memorandum with a motion for partial summary judgment, in which they asserted that they were entitled to judgment on the issues of duty of care, breach of the duty of care, and the waiver of any grandfather rights defenses. Docket 34. Ritter-Rittenhouse opposes summary judgment on the issues of duty of care and breach. Docket 45.


Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c)(2), summary judgment is proper when "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits 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." See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (applying an almost identical standard). In assessing the aforementioned facts, the court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Woods v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 409 F.3d 984, 990 (8th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted).

A genuine issue of material fact arises "when 'a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party' on the question." Id. (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). In such an instance, summary judgment would be inappropriate. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250 (noting that it is improper to grant dispositive motions such as summary judgment "[i]f reasonable minds could differ as to the import of the evidence"); see also Casillas v. Schubauer, 714 N.W.2d 84, 88 (S.D. 2006) ("Summary judgment is generally not feasible in negligence cases." (citations omitted)). But where the disputed issues are primarily legal in nature, "summary judgment is particularly appropriate." Adams ex rel. Harris v. Boy Scouts of Am.-Chickasaw Council, 271 F.3d 769, 775 (8th Cir. 2001).

I. Negligence

To recover on a claim for negligence under South Dakota law, a plaintiff must prove the following: (1) there was a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, (2) the defendant breached that duty, (3) factual causation, or the plaintiff would not have suffered harm "but for" the defendant's breach, (4) proximate causation, or the harm suffered by the plaintiff was a foreseeable consequence of the defendant's breach, and (5) the plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the breach. Lien v. McGladrey & Pullen, 509 N.W.2d 421, 423 (S.D. 1993). Here, the Van Normans argue that Ritter-Rittenhouse had an undisputed duty of care and that it breached that duty. Therefore, the Van Normans assert that they are entitled to summary judgment on the elements of duty and breach.

A. Duty of Care

The Van Normans assert that Ritter-Rittenhouse, as the owner and operator of the Super 8 Motel in Mitchell, South Dakota, owe their guests, including the Van Normans, a duty of care-a duty which encompasses the proper construction and maintenance of handrails on staircases. Typically, "the existence of a duty, i.e. whether a relation exists between the parties such that the law will impose upon the defendant a legal obligation or [require the defendant to engage in] reasonable conduct for the ...

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