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Yattaw v. The City of East Providence

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

April 2, 2019

Austin Yattaw
The City of East Providence et al.

          Supreme Court No. 2017-274-Appeal. (PC 13-820)

          For Plaintiff: Adam J. Resmini, Esq. Ronald J. Resmini, Esq.

          For Defendants: Caroline V. Murphy, Esq. Marc DeSisto, Esq.

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


          Richard A. Licht Justice

         Once again, the Supreme Court is confronted with a case involving an innocent adolescent who suffered serious injuries, alleged to be caused by defects in a public park, and who is denied a judicial remedy because the municipality is immune from liability for any negligence. Although we affirm the entry of summary judgment in this case, we hasten to add that, no matter the age of the child nor the severity of the injury, in light of the protections afforded by the Recreational Use Statute, G.L. 1956 chapter 6 of title 32 (the RUS), there is no recourse in our courts, because users of most public parks are treated as trespassers under the law.[1]

         This case came before the Supreme Court on December 6, 2018, on appeal by the plaintiff, Austin Yattaw (Yattaw or plaintiff), from the entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendants (collectively the city or defendants).[2] The plaintiff brought suit to recover damages for injuries he suffered while riding his bicycle in Glenlyon Park, [3] located in East Providence (the park). For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         Facts and Travel

         On June 8, 2010, plaintiff, who was seventeen years old, was injured while riding his bicycle through the park. Presuming that he was riding down a grassy slope on the side of a stairway, plaintiff was unaware of a series of concrete retaining walls located on the slope. The plaintiff alleged he was thrown from his bicycle after his tire became wedged in a crack in one of the concrete retaining walls. As a result, plaintiff sustained a double compound fracture to his left arm.

         On February 18, 2013, plaintiff filed suit, asserting that defendants were negligent in maintaining the park. Pretrial discovery proceeded; in its interrogatory answers, the city stated that there had been no previously reported injuries in that area of the park. During his deposition, John Arrighi (Arrighi), a city employee who performed routine maintenance work in the park, testified that at the end of each shift, city employees are required to prepare paper logs, which they call "trip tickets," identifying the location and type of work performed during the shift. When shown a photograph of the area where plaintiff alleged that he had been injured, Arrighi confirmed that he did not observe the condition that was depicted in the photograph, and stated: "If I saw this, I would have documented it on my trip ticket. * * * [S]o it would have [gone] to the correct channel so it would have been repaired." Arrighi testified that the trip tickets he personally filled out were "a lot more extensive" than a document, identified as an expenditure log, that he was shown during his deposition.

          Also during discovery, the city produced "Work Order Detail Reports" (work orders) and "Detailed Location Expenditures" (expenditure reports), documenting the maintenance work performed at the park. The plaintiff subsequently made a discovery request for "any and all daily work logs and trip tickets regarding any work to be done, or that was done" at the park, to which the city responded: "Upon information and belief, none known." According to the city, it was not in possession of these logs, which are routinely destroyed.

         On May 27, 2015, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, on the ground that the city was immune from liability under the RUS[4] because the park was open to the public for recreational purposes and the city did not act in a willful or malicious manner in failing to guard or warn against a known danger. The plaintiff filed an objection in which he contended that, under the doctrine of spoliation of evidence, [5] the city's destruction of the trip tickets gave rise to an adverse inference-namely, that the city knew about the defective condition of the retaining wall. According to plaintiff, this negative inference was sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether an exception to the RUS applied in this case.

         On August 4, 2015, the motion for summary judgment was argued; and, in a bench ruling, a justice of the Superior Court determined that the only evidence before the court was "speculation that there may have been trip-tickets that would have documented the hazard." Specifically, the hearing justice found that there was "no evidence that these tickets were destroyed in an attempt to conceal something from the plaintiff" and that there was "no other evidence that anyone had any knowledge of this defect[.]" Accordingly, the hearing justice concluded that "the plaintiff has not put forward sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact that would defeat the recreational use's strong standard and show that the town was aware there was a strong likelihood of injury in that park." The city's motion for summary judgment was therefore granted, and final judgment subsequently entered in favor of defendants. The plaintiff appealed.

         Standard ...

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