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Lemont v. Estate of Ventura

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

April 4, 2017

Gary Lemont
Estate of Mary Della Ventura.

         Appeal from Providence County Superior Court No. PC 06-4776, Susan E. McGuirl, Associate Justice.

          For Plaintiff: Gary Lemont, Pro Se

          For Defendant: Robert P. Corrigan

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


          Paul A. Suttell, Chief Justice

         The plaintiff, Gary Lemont, appeals from a Superior Court judgment in favor of the defendant, the Estate of Mary Della Ventura.[1] The plaintiff filed a negligence suit after falling and sustaining injuries while on the defendant's property; and, following a jury trial, the jury returned a verdict finding the defendant to be 65 percent negligent. The trial justice, however, subsequently granted the defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law and motion for a new trial on the grounds that the elements of the plaintiff's negligence claim had not been established by the evidence adduced at trial. This case came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties' written submissions and reviewing the record, [2] we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.


         Facts and Procedural History

         On or about September 12, 2003, plaintiff assisted a friend in moving her belongings from a second-floor apartment at 32 Waller Street in Providence. The defendant was the owner of the apartment building at that time. While plaintiff was attempting to maneuver a two-drawer nightstand out of the apartment, into the hallway, and down the stairs, plaintiff fell from a landing area on the second floor onto the first floor. On September 11, 2006, plaintiff filed a complaint in Providence County Superior Court against defendant. In his complaint, plaintiff alleged that, at the time of the incident, defendant knew or should have known of the unsafe and dangerous condition of the property and that she failed to warn plaintiff of the danger. He alleged that he suffered serious injuries as a result of defendant's negligence.

         A jury trial began on October 5, 2010. The plaintiff was the first and only witness to testify and he described what occurred on the day of the incident. He testified that, on September 12, 2003, he was helping his friend move some items from her second-floor apartment. The plaintiff said that he had gone up and down the stairs roughly "seven to ten" times carrying boxes down for his friend before he attempted to bring down the two-drawer nightstand. He claimed that he proceeded to drag the nightstand outside of his friend's apartment and towards the doorway and "maneuver it to get it down * * * [the] small, tight spiral staircase" and that he "leaned on the bannister [sic] that was behind [him]." He stated that, "[a]s [he] leaned against the bannister [sic], it cracked and [he] fell * * * downstairs." He explained that the stairs were to his left and that he fell straight "down the drop, " meaning that he did not fall down the stairs, but rather made a direct fall to the first-floor landing. He testified that, as the banister gave way, he pushed the furniture back so that it would not fall with him. At the moment just before the fall, both of his hands were on the nightstand and his backside was leaning against the banister. He denied putting any type of force against the banister to try to break it and instead said that he put "[j]ust a little bit of pressure." He explained that the only reason he touched the railing was because the area was small and he "had no where [sic] else to go."

         The plaintiff testified that, after his fall, his friend took him home and that, on the next day, after observing that his wrist was "really swollen[, ] * * * [he] knew [he] had to go to the hospital." He proceeded to describe his injuries, which included a broken wrist, strained back, and cut knee, and he described the different treatments he received, including surgery to his wrist. Furthermore, he explained that he was unable to work for a period of time due to his wrist injury and that this injury had a financial and physical impact on his life. He testified that, as of the time of trial, he still felt pain.

         On cross-examination, he conceded that he had not checked the railing on the second-floor landing area before he began moving but that he "might have touched it a couple times"- never rattling or shaking it. He testified that he did use the railing on the side of the stairs to help him go up and down the stairs. He acknowledged that the railing was not broken before he started moving, but he also expressed that he did not think he broke it. He recognized that he had simply heard a crack, the banister had broken, and he had fallen through.

         At the close of plaintiff's testimony, and outside the presence of the jury, defendant moved for judgment as a matter of law on the basis that there was no evidence to suggest that anything was wrong with the banister or landing, nor was there any evidence that defendant knew or should have known of a danger or defect. The defendant argued that plaintiff failed to present any evidence that defendant breached her duty of care. The plaintiff strongly opposed the motion, arguing that the elements of negligence had been met. Specifically, plaintiff argued that the trial evidence showed that there was inadequate space to move furniture in and out of the second-floor apartment without having to lean into the banister due to the small size of the landing. The plaintiff insisted that defendant, therefore, had a duty of placing a strong railing and post on the landing and, had she done so, he would not have been injured. The trial justice expressed concern over plaintiff's case, highlighting that "there[] [was] no evidence what the defect was" or that any defect could have been discovered. The trial justice explained that it was "not a per se liability or a strict liability" case; nevertheless, she reserved her decision on defendant's motion until after the jury verdict.

         During plaintiff's closing argument, plaintiff proposed that the jury should conclude that the railing was defective by virtue of the fact that it broke when he leaned on it. He also claimed that because the landing was very small, the jury could "assume common sense, that a landlord knew that was a dangerous situation" and had notice of said danger. He claimed that, because the ...

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