Benham v. King

Citation700 N.W.2d 314
Decision Date08 July 2005
Docket NumberNo. 03-1518.,03-1518.
PartiesSteve BENHAM and Christine Benham, Appellants, v. Ronald E. KING, Appellee.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa

Patrick W. O'Bryan, Des Moines, for appellants.

Stephen J. Powell and Jim D. DeKoster of Swisher & Cohrt, P.L.C., Waterloo, for appellee. CADY, Justice.

In this appeal, we address a recurrent issue in premises liability law concerning the duty of care under the particular circumstances of a case to support a claim for negligence. Because we find the plaintiffs' proof in this case to be insufficient, we vacate the decision of the court of appeals and affirm the decision by the district court to grant a directed verdict for the defendant.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings

Steve Benham went to the dentist's office of Ronald King, D.D.S., on October 18, 2000 to have his teeth cleaned. Benham was placed in a dental chair, and a dental assistant cleaned his teeth. The dental assistant then began to raise the chair while Benham was in a supine position. The chair suddenly collapsed. Benham fell against a sink and cabinet located near the chair. He was injured.1

The dental chair used by Benham was one of six chairs in the dental office. King purchased and installed the chairs in 1981. The chairs could be raised and lowered into various positions by pressing a switch. The switch operated a motor, which turned a large gear or screw held in place by a white plastic housing unit located beneath the chair. The owner's manual provided to King by the chair manufacturer did not advise owners to inspect or replace the components of the chair, and King did not have an inspection program in place. The only prior problem King experienced with any of the chairs was that some of the set screws used to hold the lift unit in place would occasionally loosen. When this occurred, the lift mechanism would not operate, and the chair would not move up or down. Once King would tighten the loose screws, the lift mechanism would operate. King never had the chair serviced or inspected by anyone outside the office.

King examined the chair after the incident that resulted in the injury to Benham. The set screws were all securely in place, but the white plastic housing unit that held the gear or screw used to raise and lower the chair had split open. King had never heard of any similar failures to dental chairs and had never been warned of the possibility of any such failures.

Benham and his wife brought a personal injury lawsuit against King. They claimed in their petition that King was negligent in failing to provide a safe place for Benham to be seated during the dental treatment. The case proceeded to trial.

At the conclusion of the Benhams' case in chief, King moved for a directed verdict. He argued:

Under the essentials for recovery in a premises liability case, the plaintiff has the burden of proving by preponderance that Dr. King knew or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known of two things, number one, a condition on the premises; number two, that involved an unreasonable risk of injury to the plaintiff.
Plaintiff's case in chief is devoid of any evidence which would indicate that Dr. King knew of the condition on the premises, that being it's undisputed what caused the chair to fall [was the plastic housing].

In resisting the motion, the Benhams asserted a jury question was generated on the issue of whether King should have known of the dangerous condition of the chair under the circumstances. They claimed the circumstances presented at trial gave rise to a duty to protect him from the danger of a collapse of the chair. These circumstances included the age of the chair, the failure to professionally service the chair, the prior problems with the set screws, and the failure to periodically inspect the chair. They also claimed the case could go to the jury under the theory of res ipsa loquitur.

The district court granted King's motion for directed verdict. It concluded there was no evidence to support a finding that King should have known of the defective condition of the white plastic housing unit that caused the chair to collapse. In particular, there was no evidence that a crack or other defect in the housing unit could have been observable prior to the incident. The district court also rejected the res ipsa loquitur doctrine as a means to get the case to the jury.

The Benhams appealed. They claimed sufficient evidence was presented to support a negligence claim and, in particular, that King owed Benham a duty to inspect the chair. We transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals reversed the district court decision and remanded the case for a new trial. It held King had a legal duty to inspect the chair for any dangerous condition, and a jury question was generated on the issue whether an inspection would have revealed the apparent defect in the plastic housing unit. In reaching this conclusion, the court of appeals relied on the evidence concerning the age of the chair, the past need for King to repair the chair, and the relative ease of inspecting the chair. We granted further review.

II. Standard of Review
The court reviews a challenge to the denial of a motion for a directed verdict for correction of errors at law. The evidence is considered in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. If there is substantial evidence in the record to support each element of a claim, the motion for directed verdict must be overruled. Additionally, if reasonable minds could reach different conclusions based upon the evidence presented, the issue is properly submitted to the jury.

Wolbers v. Finley Hosp., 673 N.W.2d 728, 734 (Iowa 2003) (citations omitted).

III. Premises Liability

Negligence is conduct that falls short of the standard of care established by law for the protection of others against unreasonable risks of harm. Knake v. King, 492 N.W.2d 416, 417 (Iowa 1992) (per curiam) (citation omitted). To establish a claim for negligence, the plaintiff must normally prove: (1) the existence of a duty owed by the defendant to conform to a standard of care, (2) the failure to conform to the standard, (3) proximate cause, and (4) damages. Stotts v. Eveleth, 688 N.W.2d 803, 807 (Iowa 2004) (citing Van Essen v. McCormick Enters. Co., 599 N.W.2d 716, 718 (Iowa 1999)).

Generally, the standard of conduct that applies to an action for negligence is the care of a reasonable person under the circumstances. Kastler v. Iowa Methodist Hosp., 193 N.W.2d 98, 101 (Iowa 1971) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 283 (1965)). However, additional rules have developed over the years to define the extent of the duty of a landowner or possessor of land depending on the status of the person who entered the land. Yet, we need not address the different standards in this case because there is no dispute that Benham was an invitee. See Van Essen, 599 N.W.2d at 719 n. 2

("`A business invitee is one who is invited to enter or remain on land for a purpose directly or indirectly connected with business dealings with the possessor of the land.'" (Citation, internal quotation marks, and brackets omitted.)). Thus, King had a duty to use reasonable care to maintain his office in a reasonably safe condition to protect Benham against foreseeable risks of harm. Frantz v. Knights of Columbus, 205 N.W.2d 705, 708-09 (Iowa 1973). This duty of owners and possessors of land has been more fully described in section 343 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which we have adopted. Section 343 provides:

A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to his invitees by a condition on the land if, but only if, he
(a) knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees, and
(b) should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and
(c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger.

In other words, under our law, possessors and owners of land have a duty to exercise reasonable care to determine the actual condition of the premises, and once the premises are discovered to be dangerous or potentially dangerous, possessors and owners of land must either make the premises reasonably safe or warn of the condition and risk. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343 cmt. e, at 217.2 This law actually identifies two corresponding duties. The first is to use reasonable care to discover the condition of the premises, and the second is to use reasonable care to make the premises safe or protect others from the harm that was discovered or should have been discovered in the exercise of the first duty. See Richardson v. Commodore, Inc., 599 N.W.2d 693, 697 (Iowa 1999)

; Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343 cmt. b, at 216 ("To the invitee the possessor owes . . . the additional duty . . . to ascertain the condition of the land. . . ."). Yet, liability is not imposed unless the possessor "knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343(a). Liability is not imposed in the absence of such actual or constructive knowledge of a dangerous condition because this knowledge is essential to establish a breach of the duty. See Salima v. Scherwood S., Inc., 38 F.3d 929, 932 (7th Cir.1994) (breach of duty of care by landowners centers on an objective proof of owners' knowledge). We have repeatedly said that a possessor is not the insurer of safety. E.g., Sheets v. Ritt, Ritt & Ritt, Inc., 581 N.W.2d 602, 606 (Iowa 1998) (plurality opinion); Meader v. Paetz Grocery Co., 259 Iowa 1101, 1106, 147 N.W.2d 211, 215 (1966); Christianson v. Kramer, 255 Iowa 239, 243, 122 N.W.2d 283, 286 (1963).

Once a duty is imposed, the existence of a breach of the duty turns on an objective evaluation of the...

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