Dawson v. Rhode Island Auditorium, Inc.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
Citation104 R.I. 116,242 A.2d 407
Docket NumberNo. 113-A,113-A
Decision Date03 June 1968
Edward I. Friedman, Mary Ellen McCabe, Providence, for plaintiff

KELLEHER, Justice.

This is a negligence action which was tried before a superior court jury and resulted in a verdict for the defendant. Thereafter the trial justice granted the plaintiff's motion for a new trial. The case is before us on the defendant's appeal from the superior court's dismissal of its motion for a directed verdict and its granting of the plaintiff's motion for a new trial.

The defendant owns in the city of Providence the Rhode Island Auditorium, Inc. which it operates as a place for the public use and entertainment.

The plaintiff was a professional basketball player who toured the country as a performer with the Harlem Magicians, a team known as much for their farcical antics on a basketball court as they are for their skill as players of the game. On March 12, 1962, the Harlem Magicians appeared at the auditorium to exhibit their comical basketball routine. As part of their usual pre-game warm up, the Harlem Magicians would assemble in a circle near the middle of the court and commence a display of unusual dexterity and wizardry in the art of ball handling and passing. At the completion of this facet of their performance on that evening, plaintiff was to leave the 'magic circle,' as it is so billed, dash toward the basket, receive a soft 'lead' pass from a teammate and thereafter was to utilize his 6

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250-pound frame to good advantage by propelling himself through the air and at the height of his leap, 'dunk' the basketball through the 'hoop.' In the parlance of the basketball world, a player has performed a 'dunk shot' when he successfully lifts the ball to a level of height above the basket and thereafter forcefully hurls he ball down through the basket in a missile-like fashion with vigor and strength. This difficult ritual, when executed with grace and style, invariably evokes spontaneous responses of excitement and appreciation from those spectators familiar with the sport.

In accordance with this rehearsed procedure, plaintiff broke from the huddled circle of teammates, proceeded with increasing speed toward the basket but, just as he was about to receive the expected pass from one of his teammates, he slipped on 'something slick' and fell with a hard bang hitting his left knee, twisting his back, and striking his head on the wooden floor of the basketball court. Aside from the crashing ignominy he doubtlessly suffered from this mishap, plaintiff sustained serious injuries which he claims have prematurely caused him to terminate his activities as a professional athlete.

Testimony elicited at the trial indicates that what caused plaintiff's unexpected tumble was a puddle of water which plaintiff claims had accumulated on the floor as a result of a leaky roof over the playing court. Additional evidence was introduced through the testimony of a local meteorologist from the United States wheather bureau for the Providence area. He told the court that on March 12, 1962, Rhode Island was under siege of a 'northeaster' with all the hard driving rain and high winds which normally accompany such storms. Meteorological records indicated that 1.61 inches of rain mixed with some snow and sleet descended on the state during the course of the day and evening in question. This storm began at 6:25 in the morning and continued in varying intensity until after midnight.

The plaintiff's complaint 1 contains four counts each of which fashions a different theory of recovery but all of which sound in negligence. The varied allegations contained in these counts may be summarized as follows: defendant failed to furnish a reasonably safe surface on which plaintiff could properly perform his duties as a basketball player because, first, defendant allowed water to accumulate on the floor; second, defendant permitted such water to remain on the floor; third, defendant failed to warn plaintiff of the hazardous conditions of the playing surface caused by the presence of water thereon; and fourth, defendant maintained a roof over the playing court which, because of its state of disrepair, was prone to leak and cause water to accumulate on the floor which accumulation resulted in treacherous underfooting. The plaintiff also alleged that defendant had actual or constructive notice of these conditions.

Under the posture of this appeal, defendant asks us to rule on two points; first, the trial justice's denial of its directed verdict and second, the trial justice's granting plaintiff's motion for a new trial. We shall review them seriatim.

Denial of Directed Verdict

At the conclusion of plaintiff's case, defendant without resting moved for a directed verdict which motion the trial justice denied. Thereupon, defendant opened its case and at the completion of all the evidence, defendant renewed its motion for a directed verdict which motion was again denied. It is the second motion for a directed verdict with which we are concerned on this appeal as defendant is deemed to have waived its rights to seek review for the denial of the first motion once evidence was introduced on its behalf. See rule 50 of the rules of civil procedure for the superior court and reporter's notes thereon.

In considering a motion for a directed verdict, the trial justice has a clearly defined duty. He must view all the evidence in the light most favorable to the party moved against and is obliged to give the non-movant the benefit of all reasonable and legitimate inferences which may properly be drawn therefrom, without, of course, sifting or weighing the evidence or exercising his independent judgment as to the credibility of those witnesses who have testified before him. Nicholson v. Narragansett Tastee-Freez Co., 101 R.I. 323, 222 A.2d 776; Gaudette v. Carter, 10 R.I. 259, 214 A.2d 197; Marsh v. Bliss Realty, Inc., 97 R.I. 27, 195 A.2d 331. If, after taking such a view, the trial justice finds that there exists issues upon which reasonable men might draw conflicting conclusions, the motion for the directed verdict should be denied and the issues should be left for the jury to determine. Morrarty v. Reali, 100 R.I. 689, 219 A.2d 404; 5 Moore's Federal Practice (2d ed.), 50.02(1), p. 2320.

In reviewing the trial justice's decision on a motion for a directed verdict the supreme court reviews all the evidence in the same manner and fashion as is expected of the trial justice and is bound by the same rules as those which govern him. Hill v. A.L.A. Construction Co., 99 R.I. 228, 206 A.2d 642; Priestley v. First Nat'l Stores, Inc., 95 R.I. 212, 186 A.2d 334.

In conformance with the abovementioned rules, we have reviewed all the evidence which was before the trial justice at the completion of the case and we are of the opinion that he correctly denied defendant's motion for a directed verdict. In our judgment, the evidence in the record, considered in a complexion most advantageous to plaintiff, indicates that there existed several controvertible issues of fact which warranted their being sent to the jury for determination. For instance, the evidence in this case raised the issue of whether or not, on the facts testified to at the trial, defendant could be charged with the notice of either the leaks in its roof or the water later discovered on the floor; furthermore, if defendant was deemed to have had notice of these conditions, there existed the issue of whether or not it had taken such reasonable steps in the exercise of due care to assure plaintiff of a reasonably safe place on which he could exhibit his basketball skills. As to the issues of notice and due care, each side took a position contrary to the other, and each party introduced evidence in support of its position. Under such circumstances it would have been inappropriate for the trial justice to have granted the motion for a directed verdict. Accordingly, therefore, we affirm his decision denying defendant's motion.

Granting of a New Trial

On a motion for a new trial, the trial justice has a clearly defined duty under our law. He must utilize his superior judgment by independently reviewing all of the material evidence, passing upon the weight thereof, and determining the amount of credibility which he believes should be attached to the witnesses who appear before him. In carrying out this important function, the trial justice is permitted to reject some evidence or testimony, either because it was impeached, or contradicted, or because other circumstances render it inherently improbable; he may also draw inferences which are reasonable in view of the testimony and evidence which are in the record. Barbato v. Epstein, 97 R.I. 191, 196 A.2d 836. Upon scrutinizing all the evidence in the fashion and manner outlined in Barbato, the trial justice must then relate in his ultimate decision those portions of the evidence which he rejects, those principal witnesses who in his opinion are worthy of belief or disbelief, those inferences and conclusions he has drawn and the reasons which influence his determination. Israeloff v. Whitehall Taxicab Co., 96 R.I. 231, 190 A.2d 588.

After conforming with the above requirements, the trial justice must elect one of two paths to follow; first, in those instances in which his judgment tells him that the evidence is so evenly balanced that reasonable men could arrive at different results in the consideration of the case, he is obliged to deny the motion and to affirm the verdict. Waltz v. Aycrigg, R.I., 235 A.2d 338. On the other hand, in those instances when the trial justice is satisfied that the verdict is contrary to the fair preponderance of the evidence and thereby fails either to respond to the merits of the...

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    ...to him; [and] that the breach of duty was the proximate cause of the injury sustained * * *." Dawson v. Rhode Island Auditorium, Inc., 104 R.I. 116, 124-25, 242 A.2d 407, 413 In our judgment, this complaint, although perhaps less than ideally clear in its draftsmanship, sufficiently alleged......
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