Bass Custom Landscapes, Inc. v. Cunard, A02A0909.

Decision Date07 November 2002
Docket NumberNo. A02A0909.,A02A0909.
Citation258 Ga. App. 617,575 S.E.2d 17
PartiesBASS CUSTOM LANDSCAPES, INC. v. CUNARD.
CourtGeorgia Court of Appeals

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Jones, Cork & Miller, W. Kerry Howell, Macon, for appellant.

McKenney, Jordan & Carey, John D. Carey, Macon, for appellee.

PHIPPS, Judge.

Judith L. Cunard sued Bass Custom Landscapes, Inc. for personal injuries incurred when she fell down ice-covered stairs located outside her place of employment. Cunard alleged that Bass had negligently performed its service contract by failing to properly maintain and operate the outdoor sprinkler system to prevent the system from discharging water onto the grounds, walkways, and parking surfaces during freezing weather, resulting in the creation of a hazardous condition. Bass sought summary judgment, primarily contending that Cunard had assumed the risk of injury. The trial court denied the motion. We granted Bass's application for interlocutory review and now affirm.

Summary judgment should be granted only when the moving party demonstrates the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and establishes that the undisputed facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party warrant judgment as a matter of law.1 When so considered, the record shows that on January 5, 1999, while dropping her children off at school and driving to work, Cunard did not see any ice. But, upon her arrival at the bank, at about 8:15 a.m., she noticed "a lot of ice" around the bank whose grounds resembled a "winter wonderland." Cunard recalled being careful as she proceeded toward the bank and trying to avoid the ice. Despite the hazardous conditions, she managed to walk up the ten steps from her parking spot without incident. When she was almost inside, she saw one of the tellers, Elaine Colbert, suddenly fall and receive help from another teller. After working on some of the night deposits, Cunard stopped to check on Colbert's leg which "was swelling." As teller coordinator and supervisor, Cunard was Colbert's immediate boss.

The branch manager, Keith Crusan, thought the sprinkler system had been disconnected but it apparently had discharged during the night. Crusan began undertaking prophylactic measures to remedy the danger. He testified that he was looking for salt to place on the ice and was in contact with the property management company. Although no one thought that Colbert's injury was a life-threatening emergency, several bank employees suggested that she have it examined.

Crusan and Cindy Burnham, the customer service manager, were Cunard's immediate supervisors. Crusan testified that "when I came in and looked at [her knee], it was swelling more, we decided we needed to go ahead and take her to the hospital to get checked." When asked, "[w]ho is we?" he responded, "[p]robably Cindy [Burnham] and I. Ultimately I guess it was my decision." Cunard testified that Crusan told her that he had to stay at the bank "to get the situation cleared up as best as possible before our customers got to the banking center, and Cindy [Burnham] had to stay because she was on the phone with workman's comp." Cunard testified, "I was asked—I was told that a supervisor had to take Elaine [Colbert] to the hospital." When asked, "So when [Crusan] told you that a supervisor needed to take Elaine [Colbert] to get medical treatment, did he tell you you're it?" she responded, "[y]es." When asked, "[w]hat was your response to [Crusan when he had told you to take Colbert to the hospital]?" she said, "I asked him if he wanted me to take her then, and he said yes." She added, "he told me to go get my car and pick her up."

Cunard testified that when Crusan told her to take Colbert to the hospital, she believed the situation was an emergency in that "she was genuinely hurt. [H]er leg was swelling. To me, ... that's an emergency. She was hurting." According to Cunard, after he told her to go get her car, he "just told me to be careful." She admitted that she knew it was dangerous to cross the ice and conceded that she did not protest or question her supervisor's instruction to take Colbert to the hospital.

While going to get her car, halfway down the steps, Cunard suddenly slipped, landed at the bottom of the stairwell, and injured her back and neck. She testified that when she fell down the concrete steps, she was using the handrail and knew that the steps were icy and slick. As a result of her fall, she underwent neck fusion surgery.

In seeking summary judgment, Bass claimed that Cunard "knew about the icy conditions before she elected to risk them again," and failed to exercise ordinary care for her own safety. Bass argued that her fall "resulted from a defective and unsafe condition of the premises of which she was aware."

The trial court determined that material issues of disputed fact remained for jury resolution and denied the motion. Specifically, the trial court found that a jury should decide "whether plaintiff voluntarily acted to take her injured co-worker to the hospital and whether or not she assumed the risk of injury."

1. Bass contends that the trial court misconstrued the law on the doctrine of assumption of risk. In essence, Bass argues that Cunard assumed the risk of injury, as a matter of law, by knowingly walking upon a slippery, ice-covered stairway, and that her assumption of that risk was not excused by the branch manager telling her to get her car and take the injured employee to the hospital. But, when the controlling law is applied to the undisputed facts, the result is not so straightforward.

"Generally, whether a plaintiff assumed the risk of injury is an issue for the jury. [Cit.]"2 Moreover,

[i]ssues of negligence, including the related issues of assumption of risk, lack of ordinary care for one's own safety, lack of ordinary care in avoiding the consequences of another's negligence and comparative negligence, are ordinarily not susceptible of summary adjudication but must be resolved by a trial in the ordinary manner, except where the facts are so plain and palpable that they demand a finding by the court as a matter of law.3

This is not such a case.

To prevail on the affirmative defense of assumption of risk, a defendant "must establish that the plaintiff (1) had actual knowledge of the danger; (2) understood and appreciated the risks associated with such danger; and (3) voluntarily exposed [her]self to those risks."4 "Exposure to the known risk must be voluntary, the result of a deliberate choice."5 And, the defense of "[a]ssumption of risk assumes that the actor, without coercion of circumstances, chooses a course of action with full knowledge of its danger and while exercising a free choice ... whether to engage in the act or not."6

In Russell v. Superior K-9 Svc.,7 an employee volunteered to undertake a task outside of her normal job duties and at her own request. In so doing, she was injured. This Court found that the defendant was entitled to a jury charge on assumption of risk in light of the uncontroverted evidence that the injured employee had volunteered to let a trained attack dog out of his pen the night she was attacked and that she knew Rocky was a guard dog and not a pet.8 In York v. Winn-Dixie, we found that jury issues remained whether an employee had exercised his free choice to undertake the activity that resulted in his injury or whether that choice was restricted by the coercion of combined circumstances.9

Absent the combination of circumstances here, the injured plaintiff had no reason to leave the safety of the bank. And, unlike the injured employee in Russell, supra, who asked her supervisor if she could let the guard dog out of his pen, Cunard did not ask to encounter the danger.10 In fact, she testified, "I would not have chosen to leave the bank building at that time but for my boss telling me to do so and the fact that my co-worker was hurting." Bass, who bears the burden of proving this affirmative defense, has offered no evidence to the contrary.11

The branch manager, Cunard's supervisor, testified that the decision "we needed to go ahead and take her to the hospital to get checked," was ultimately his. In these circumstances, we find that a jury should determine whether Cunard chose a course of action with full knowledge of its danger and while exercising a free choice whether to engage in the act or not.12

2. Bass asserts that the trial court erred in finding that a jury must determine whether Cunard assumed the risk of walking across an ice-covered parking lot despite her admission that she did not think any adverse employment action would be taken against her if she questioned her supervisor's instruction. Bass claims that evidence of the element of "coercion of circumstances" is lacking when Prophecy Corp. v. Charles Rossignol, Inc.13 is applied. We do not agree.

Under the Prophecy Corp. rule, a party must offer "a reasonable explanation" for her self-contradictory, vague, or equivocal testimony or it will be construed most strongly against her.14 But the opposing party is entitled to judgment only when the party's self-contradictory testimony is the sole evidence of her right to recover or of her defense.15 Whether a reasonable explanation for the testimony has been offered presents an issue of law for the trial court whose decision will be upheld unless it is clearly erroneous.16

Here, Bass argues that Cunard's affidavit testimony contradicts her deposition testimony on the issue of whether she was coerced by the circumstances to risk walking on the ice. Bass complains that Cunard offered no reasonable explanation for her inconsistent testimony whether she believed that she would be fired if she did not comply with her supervisor's instruction.

By affidavit, Cunard testified that "[a]s Mr. Crusan was manager of the branch, I did not feel comfortable in challenging his order...

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