119 F.2d 253 (8th Cir. 1941), 11858, Fort Dodge Hotel Co. of Fort Dodge, Iowa v. Bartelt

Docket Nº:11858.
Citation:119 F.2d 253
Case Date:April 23, 1941
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

Page 253

119 F.2d 253 (8th Cir. 1941)




No. 11858.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit.

April 23, 1941

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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B. B. Burnquist, of Fort Dodge, Iowa (George H. Bradshaw, of Fort Dodge, Iowa, on the brief), for appellant.

Alan Loth, of Fort Dodge, Iowa, for appellee.

Before GARDNER, SANBORN, and THOMAS, Circuit Judges.

SANBORN, Circuit Judge.

Margaret E. Bartelt on April 30, 1938, while a guest at the Wahkonsa Hotel, operated by the Fort Dodge Hotel Company in Fort Dodge, Iowa, tripped over her luggage in a second floor hallway of the hotel, fell and was injured. Attributing her injuries to negligence of the Hotel Company, and asserting her freedom from contributory negligence, she brought this action for damages. The Hotel Company denied that it was negligent, and asserted that she was guilty of contributory negligence. The case was tried to a jury, which returned a verdict for the plaintiff; and from the resulting judgment the defendant has appealed, contending that it was entitled to a directed verdict and that the court erroneously instructed the jury that the burden of proving contributory negligence was upon the defendant.

The plaintiff was a large woman weighing more than two hundred pounds and approximately fifty-four years of age. She and her husband arrived at the Wahkonsa Hotel at about 5:30 o'clock in the afternoon of April 30, 1938. They were familiar with the hotel, having stayed there for a few days several times each year for some thirteen years. They had always before occupied room 230, which was to the left or south of the elevator on the second floor. Mr. Bartelt left his wife in their car outside and went into the hotel and registered. The clerk told him that room 230 had not been cleaned, and suggested that he and his wife take room 214 or room 208, which were also on the second floor. A bell boy went out to the car and carried in three small bags and a portfolio. He was followed by the plaintiff into the hotel. She was carrying her purse and a small, 'round box' about twelve inches in diameter and four or five inches high. The plaintiff, together with the bell boy and her husband, took the elevator to the second floor. The entrance to the elevator on the second floor

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was on the east side of a hallway running north and south. The bell boy left the elevator first, followed by Mr. and Mrs. Bartelt, turned to the right and proceeded north until he came to an inside intersecting hallway which ran east and west. This hallway was 92 feet long and 7 feet wide. Opening off the north wall of the hallway, and running from east to west, were rooms 216 to 202. The hallway was without natural light, but had artificial light furnished by two electric bulbs, one in about the middle of the hallway, and the other at the west end. The bell boy, upon reaching this hallway, turned to his left, proceeding west. He was followed by Mr. Bartelt, and the plaintiff brought up the rear. The boy stopped at room 214, put down the luggage against the north wall of the hallway to the left or to the west of the door of the room, unlocked the door, and turned on the lights in the room. The plaintiff and her husband entered the room, but did not like it, and the boy suggested that they look at room 208, which was the third room west of room 214. To reach this room, it was necessary for them to pass the spot where the luggage had been placed by the bell boy. The boy left room 214 first, but did not pick up the luggage in the hallway. He was followed by Mr. Bartelt, who went toward the center of the hallway to give his wife 'the inside turn'. The plaintiff stayed behind and turned out the lights in the room. When she emerged from room 214, the boy had reached room 208 and was unlocking, or was about to unlock, the door. Mr. Bartelt was then about 6 feet west of the plaintiff in the hallway. As she came from the door of room 214 and turned to her right to go to room 208, she tripped over the luggage and fell. She had not seen the luggage and had not noticed where the boy had deposited it. The hallway was dimly lighted. She had not looked at the floor. In the plaintiff's experience it had been the custom of bell boys at hotels to carry the luggage with them. At no time at a hotel had she concerned herself with her luggage after it was entrusted to a bell boy, until a room had been selected and occupied. She was wearing bifocal glasses and had worn glasses since she was eight years old. She had just come from a lighted room into a dimly-lighted hallway. She could, however, see her husband and could see the bell boy at the door of room 208. She did not see the luggage or look for it or concern herself about it until she fell over it and was injured. It was her claim that the luggage was deposited at an improper place, where it was not readily observable, due to the inadequate lighting of the hallway and the blending of the luggage with the dark-colored carpet and the dark baseboard of the hallway.

At the close of the evidence, the defendant moved for a directed verdict upon the ground that the plaintiff had failed to show by substantial evidence that it was negligent; that she had failed to establish that she was free from contributory negligence; and that the evidence disclosed conclusively that she was guilty of contributory negligence. The motion was denied and the case submitted to the jury, which was instructed by the court that the burden of proving contributory negligence was upon the defendant. The defendant took exception to this instruction, and, after its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict had been denied, it took this appeal.

This cause of action arose in Iowa, and the case was tried in Iowa. The controlling substantive law is that of Iowa. The duty of an innkeeper under the law of that State-- like the duty of any proprietor of a building to which the public is invited-- is to use reasonable care to keep his premises safe for the use of his guests and patrons, 1 which, of course, includes keeping the halls and passageways free from hazards. 2 A violation of that

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duty constitutes negligence. In a case such as this, the questions of negligence and contributory negligence are ordinarily questions of fact for the jury, and it is only when the evidence is such that all reasonable minds would reach the same conclusions that they become questions of law for the court. 3 We think the court below did not err in submitting the issue of the defendant's negligence to the jury. Taking into consideration all of the facts and circumstances in the aspect most favorable to the plaintiff, the jury might reasonably have believed that an innkeeper, in the exercise of due care, would not have left the luggage of a large woman, wearing glasses and carrying a purse and a hat box, in a not too well lighted hallway, where it would be underfoot if she followed the shortest path between the room which she had just looked at and another room which she had been invited to inspect

The defendant contends that the plaintiff, under the evidence, was guilty of contributory negligence as a matter of law, and that the case is ruled by Walker v. Roosevelt Hotel Co., 214 Iowa 1150, 241 N.W. 484, which was a case where a roomer in a hotel fell over a laundry cart in a passageway. It appeared in that case that the cart and its attendant were inseparable, as the roomer knew. He saw the attendant, who was in close proximity to the cart, but testified that he did not see the cart. The roomer's only excuse for not seeing the cart was that he failed to look for it. There was no lack of light and the cart was in plain sight. The handle-bar which was used in pushing it was waist high. The cart itself was about four feet long, two feet wide, and six inches high. The Supreme Court of Iowa was of the opinion that, on the plaintiff's own testimony, he was clearly negligent. In the case at bar there was evidence of inadequacy of light; the plaintiff was large and was wearing glasses; she had just emerged from a lighted room into a darker hallway; the luggage over which she fell was against the wall and close to the door of the room, and her opportunity to observe it was limited. She was not bound to assume that the bell boy had not taken it with him or that he had left it in a place where she would come in contact with it if she followed the north wall of the hallway. There was no reason for her to anticipate that it would be any more dangerous to follow the route which she took than any other route leading to room 208. Ordinarily a guest or patron may rely upon the safety of passageways which he is invited to use. 4 While the jury might have found that the plaintiff failed to use due care and failed to employ her faculties to the extent that an ordinarily prudent person would have employed them under the same or similar circumstances, 5 we think the question of her contributory negligence was a question of fact for the jury. 6

The plaintiff contends that this Court should refuse to consider the question of...

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