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Letizio v. Ritacco

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

April 4, 2019

Claire Letizio et al.
Natale J. Ritacco et al.

          Washington County Superior Court (WC 15-533) Associate Justice Bennett R. Gallo

          For Plaintiffs: Todd D. White, Esq.

          For Defendants: Robert P. Corrigan, Esq.

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


          Associate Justice Gilbert V. Indeglia

         In this negligence action, the plaintiffs, Claire Letizio and Christopher Letizio (the Letizios), appeal from an order of the Superior Court denying their motion for a new trial after a jury found in favor of the defendants, Natale J. Ritacco and Margaret H. Ritacco (the Ritaccos). This matter came before the Court on February 28, 2019, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised should not be summarily decided. After considering the arguments set forth in the parties' memoranda and at oral argument, we are convinced that cause has not been shown. Thus, further argument or briefing is not required to decide this matter. For the reasons outlined below, we affirm the order of the Superior Court.

         I Facts and Travel

         The facts of this case, which are largely undisputed, are as follows. On March 5, 2015, there had been a light snowfall, leading to some accumulation at the Ritacco residence in Westerly, Rhode Island. The Ritacco residence has a long, relatively flat driveway and a side entrance with two stone steps that lead up to a side door. That day, Mr. Ritacco cleared the snow off his driveway using a snow blower. He used a shovel to clean the stone steps. As was his custom, he did not spread ice melt, fearing that it could be tracked into the house after having been caught underfoot. Also, when later asked if he had spread ice melt, he recalled that there was no surface "icing up" on that day.

         The next day, March 6, was a cold but sunny day in Westerly, and there was no precipitation all day. That night, sometime between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m., Mrs. Letizio arrived at the Ritacco residence, along with her daughter, who went there to meet the Ritaccos' daughter and two other classmates to get ready for a high school dance that was taking place later that night. Mrs. Letizio parked in front of the right bay door of the Ritaccos' garage, which was located at the end of their driveway, and proceeded to the side door of the house. As she was making her way up the steps, Mrs. Letizio's daughter slipped on some ice that had formed on the stone stairs, but she was not injured.

         Once in the house, the girls went upstairs to get ready for the dance. Mrs. Letizio waited downstairs with Mr. Ritacco and informed him multiple times that his steps were icy.[1] After Mrs. Ritacco had arrived home and the girls had finished getting ready, Mrs. Letizio told the Ritaccos that she could give the girls a ride to the dance because her house was close to the school where the dance was taking place. Sometime around 7 p.m., as she was getting ready to leave, Mrs. Letizio reminded Mr. Ritacco that it was getting icy outside and that the steps were icy. As a result, Mr. Ritacco advised Mrs. Letizio and the girls to leave the house through the garage.[2]However, Mr. Ritacco did not follow the group outside of his home.

         Upon arriving outside, the girls safely entered Mrs. Letizio's vehicle through the passenger's side front and back doors. Mrs. Letizio was not so fortunate. As she was walking to the driver's side front door, she slipped on some ice that had formed on the pavement near the front left wheel of her car, and she broke her ankle. She lay on the ground until she was able to get the attention of her daughter, who immediately went to get the Ritaccos to aid her mother. Although the Ritaccos offered to call for an ambulance, Mrs. Letizio refused, and instead ambulated herself into the passenger's front seat of the vehicle. Mrs. Ritacco then drove Mrs. Letizio to the hospital, while Mr. Ritacco brought the girls to the dance. On his way home, Mr. Ritacco purchased some ice melt at the store, which he later spread on the area of his driveway where Mrs. Letizio had fallen.

         At the hospital that night, doctors discovered that Mrs. Letizio had fractured the tibia, fibula, as well as the talus bones in her leg as a result of the fall.[3] However, due to the swelling in her leg, doctors could not perform surgery at that time, so she was sent home and told to return five days later. Then, on March 11, Mrs. Letizio underwent an open reduction, internal fixation surgery, in which doctors inserted six screws, two wires, and a plate to mend the broken bones in her leg. As a result, Mrs. Letizio endured hundreds of hours of treatment and physical therapy.

         The Letizios filed a complaint in Washington County Superior Court on November 12, 2015, alleging negligence against the Ritaccos, and seeking damages for the cost of Mrs. Letizio's medical expenses and lost wages, as well as pain and suffering.[4] Additionally, they sought punitive damages, alleging that the Ritaccos' conduct was reckless and willful. The parties attempted, unsuccessfully, to arbitrate their dispute. Later, a three-day trial began on July 24, 2017, during which the jury heard from six witnesses, all called by the Letizios.

         The Letizios called Mr. Ritacco as their first witness, pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 9-17-12.[5]He recounted that March 5, 2015, was a cold and snowy day and that he had cleared off the driveway with his snow blower and the stone steps with a shovel. Mr. Ritacco stated that the next day, when he went out to get the paper and the mail, there was no visible ice on the driveway. He also testified that there was no ice around the spot where he had parked his car when he went to pick up his daughter from school, between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Mr. Ritacco stated that Mrs. Letizio informed him of the icy condition of the steps when she walked into the house. Additionally, after having his memory refreshed, he testified that, as she was getting ready to leave, Mrs. Letizio reminded Mr. Ritacco that the steps were icy; therefore, Mr. Ritacco led the guests out a different way. He testified that he pointed them to the garage, that they exited through a door attached to the garage, and that Mrs. Letizio slipped soon after the group was outside. He also noted that, although he went outside to aid Mrs. Letizio, he was unable to help Mrs. Letizio to her feet because he had a bad back. Upon further questioning from the Letizios' counsel, Mr. Ritacco testified that he had not put ice melt on the driveway, despite the fact that the area ...

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