Darter v. Greenville Community Hotel Corporation

Decision Date20 March 1962
Docket NumberNo. 8432.,8432.
Citation301 F.2d 70
PartiesBertha Preston DARTER and O. L. Darter, Appellants, v. GREENVILLE COMMUNITY HOTEL CORPORATION, Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Alfred F. Burgess, Greenville, S. C. (Donald T. Stant, Stant & Roberts, Bristol, Va., and Wyche, Burgess & Wyche, Greenville, S. C., on brief), for appellants.

Robert F. Plaxco, Jr., and W. H. Arnold, Greenville, S. C. (Love, Thornton & Arnold, Greenville, S. C., on brief), for appellee.

Before SOBELOFF, Chief Judge, and HAYNSWORTH and BOREMAN, Circuit Judges.

BOREMAN, Circuit Judge.

Bertha Preston Darter and O. L. Darter, husband and wife and residents of Tennessee, brought this action for damages for personal injuries sustained by Mrs. Darter. The defendant corporation was the owner and operator of the Poinsett Hotel in Greenville, South Carolina. Mr. Darter was engaged in business activities which required that he travel extensively throughout parts of the United States and Canada. Mrs. Darter usually accompanied him and they stayed at many different hotels.

In the course of Mr. Darter's business activities he and his wife were in Greenville on November 12, 1958, and registered as guests of the Poinsett Hotel. They were assigned to room No. 328 on the third floor and the bathroom connected therewith was equipped with a combination tub and shower bath and a wash basin. Mrs. Darter was then 65 years of age and had been afflicted with arthritis for a number of years. The year before the occurrences here recited she had an acute attack of arthritis in one knee.

On the evening of their arrival each took a shower bath and Mrs. Darter's bath was regulated by her husband by mixing both hot and cold water at a suitable temperature for her to enter. On the following evening this procedure was repeated. During the interval both plaintiffs had drawn water in the wash basin without incident and without noticing any unusual condition.

In the early morning hours of November 14, between two thirty and three o'clock, while Mr. Darter was asleep, Mrs. Darter was suffering pain from her arthritic condition and decided to take a hot tub bath to obtain relief. She closed herself in the bathroom and, after removing her clothing, seated herself in the tub. She noticed that the drain was at the opposite end of the tub from the faucets. In her sitting position she faced the faucets and turned on the hot water without having previously tested or determined the temperature. According to her testimony, hot water accompanied by vapor or steam immediately came from the faucet. With the water still running she pushed herself back in the tub and attempted to get out but slipped and fell to a prone position on her back in the tub. Her screams aroused her husband who started in the darkness toward the bathroom but he fell over a luggage rack and was delayed. When he reached the bathroom he turned off the hot water (there was no cold water running) and assisted his wife from the tub. She was severely scalded and burned over about twenty per cent of her body. Her injuries were serious and she was hospitalized under medical care for a long period of time. She brought this action to recover damages for her personal injuries and Mr. Darter joined as plaintiff to recover for medical and hospital bills and loss of consortium.

The Poinsett Hotel is equipped with two hot water tanks located in the basement and used alternately. No record is kept to show when use is shifted from one tank to the other and there is no evidence as to which tank was in use at the time of the accident. The water in each tank is heated by steam contained in and passed through coils, the steam being generated in a boiler. Steam lines from the boiler to each tank are fitted with valves to reduce the steam pressure to five to fifteen pounds. The steam then passes through a regulator valve for each tank, and each valve is activated and controlled by a thermostat located within the hot water tank. When the water is below a certain temperature, the regulator valve opens to allow steam to pass through the heating coils, and when the water reaches the desired temperature the valve closes to shut off the supply of steam. From circulating pumps in the basement, the water is carried from the tanks to the top of the hotel and then comes back down through lines supplying the rooms. It was explained that in this manner hot water was provided much more quickly than in a private home not equipped with a circulating system.

The case was tried before the court sitting without a jury. Plaintiffs contend that one "thermostat control valve" was defective, the defendant had notice of such defect, the hotel was negligent under the laws of South Carolina in maintaining water in the pipes heated to such a temperature that it would scald and burn and that Mrs. Darter's injuries resulted from such negligence. The District Court found that the hotel was not negligent and that Mrs. Darter was guilty of contributory negligence. The complaint was dismissed and judgment was entered for the defendant. This appeal followed. The plaintiffs here urge that the findings of the trial court were incomplete, that the findings which were made were contrary to the uncontradicted evidence and testimony and that this court is not bound thereby. Upon the whole record we find support for the order of dismissal and judgment for the defendant.

It is unnecessary to engage in an extended discussion of the established rule that the findings of fact of the District Court may not be set aside unless clearly erroneous — that is, unless unsupported by substantial evidence, unless against the clear weight of the evidence or unless induced by an erroneous view of the law. Rule 52(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 28 U.S.C.A., in pertinent part provides: "Findings of fact shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the trial court to judge of the credibility of the witnesses." The plaintiffs urge that findings based upon uncontradicted testimony, where credibility of witnesses is not seriously questioned or involved, are not within the contemplation of the rule, and that this principle is applicable here.

In Jersey Ins. Co. of New York v. Heffron, 242 F.2d 136 (4th Cir. 1957), the appeal was from a finding that a house collapse was an explosion within the coverage of a fire insurance policy. Judge Sobeloff, speaking for this court, at page 139, said:

"* * * While the Court of Appeals has broader powers in reviewing a District Judge\'s findings of fact than in reviewing the findings of a jury, * * * it will not disturb his findings merely because it may doubt their correctness. It is required that the Court of Appeals be satisfied that the District Judge is clearly in error before it will set his findings aside. * * *"

The same rule has also been applied to inferences to be drawn from proven facts. In Thompson v. United States, 268 F.2d 426 (4th Cir. 1959), this court stated:

"* * * The sole question is whether the facts require an inference that the United States waived the defaults of its contractor with respect to the contract * * *. That may have been a permissible inference, but the facts as found and recited in the opinion of the District Court do not require it. The factual question was settled by the findings of the District Court which we must accept."

The transcript of the testimony covers nearly three hundred pages. We shall advert to pertinent portions of the evidence in our discussion of certain findings and conclusions of the trial judge which are principally the subject of the plaintiffs' challenge.

Mr. Alexander, who was called as a witness, had been the manager of the Poinsett Hotel for thirty years. He was quite candid in testifying that on occasions in the mornings when he was shaving he found the water hotter than desirable or "too hot" — sometimes as high as 170° F.; that from time to time during his tenure adjustments and repairs were required to remedy fluctuations in the water temperature. The trial judge stated that there was no indication as to the times of these occurrences. It was shown that the thermostat control was set at 150° F. There was no testimony to even remotely relate any of these fluctuations or necessary adjustments to the accident of November 14. No evidence, other than the fact that Mrs. Darter found the water extremely hot at three o'clock in the morning, was presented to show that the system was not functioning properly at the time of the accident or that it previously had been defective and not repaired. Uncontradicted was the only evidence on that point which was to the effect that whenever any malfunction or fluctuation in temperature had occurred, adjustments and repairs were promptly made.

Two permanent guests of the hotel testified that they had not found the water too hot on any occasions. Three other temporary guests who were at the hotel at the time of the accident noticed nothing wrong with the water. Plaintiffs argue that no weight should be accorded their testimony because they admitted they had never occupied rooms on the third floor and had not bathed in the hotel at any time close to three o'clock in the morning. But the weight to be given to their testimony and the credibility of these witnesses were matters for the determination of the trial judge.

Next, plaintiffs argue that the fact that a regulator valve on one of the hot water tanks was replaced two and one-half months after the accident establishes a defective condition in the water system at the time of the accident. Witness Miller, who is engaged in the installation of plumbing and heating systems and who assisted in installing the plumbing in the hotel, was called by the management on January 30, 1959, to check the hot water control. While inspecting the smaller tank he observed that the temperature...

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