Hundt v. La Crosse Grain Co., Inc.

Decision Date15 March 1983
Docket NumberNo. 1282S495,1282S495
Citation446 N.E.2d 327
PartiesEverett HUNDT, Appellant/Cross-Appellee (Plaintiff below), v. LA CROSSE GRAIN CO., INC., Appellee/Cross-Appellant (Defendant below).
CourtIndiana Supreme Court

Michael C. Harris, Harris & Welch, Chesterton, for appellant/cross-appellee, Everett Hundt.

Leon R. Kaminski, Mark L. Phillips, Newby, Lewis, Kaminski & Jones, LaPorte, for appellee/cross-appellant, La Crosse Grain Co., Inc.

HUNTER, Justice.

This case is before this Court upon the petition to transfer of defendant-appellee, LaCrosse Grain Co., Inc. (LaCrosse). The Court of Appeals, Fourth District, reversed the trial court's order granting LaCrosse a new trial on all issues and remanded for a limited new trial on the issue of damages only based upon an improper instruction. The court further clarified two issues in a separate opinion on rehearing. Hundt v. LaCrosse Grain Co., Inc., (1981) Ind.App., 425 N.E.2d 687, reh'g denied, 432 N.E.2d 71. We now grant transfer and vacate the opinions of the Court of Appeals.

This case began when Everett Hundt, a professional exterminator, filed a complaint for damages as a result of a fall down the basement stairs in the office building of The underlying facts of this action are not in dispute. Mr. Hundt and his son went to LaCrosse Grain Company on March 9, 1976, to do pest control work which involved spreading a chemical on rafters in a storage shed to discourage birds from being present and damaging the grain. After finishing this work, Hundt and his son went into the office building to wash up. Mr. Hundt had done pest extermination work for LaCrosse since 1955, and was thoroughly familiar with the office building and its facilities. On this occasion, Hundt entered the back door of the office building and then mistakenly opened the door leading to the basement rather than the washroom door. He stepped through the doorway and fell down the basement stairs through his own momentum. It was uncontradicted that the basement door was closed, the hallway was well lighted, and there were signs above two doors indicating the men's and ladies' washrooms. It was also uncontradicted that the basement door opened inward, there was no landing inside the door, and there was no handrail or bracing device beside the stairs.

LaCrosse Grain Company in LaCrosse, Indiana. Hundt had been employed by LaCrosse as an exterminator for a number of years preceding the accident. The jury ultimately found for Hundt and awarded him $25,000 in damages. However, the trial court sustained LaCrosse's motion to correct errors upon the basis that certain testimony of a state fire marshal was outside the scope of a pretrial order and had been erroneously admitted. The court ordered a new trial on all issues. On appeal, the Fourth District found that the pretrial order was broad enough to permit the introduction of the complained of testimony and that other alleged errors involving issues of contributory negligence and incurred risk were without merit and, therefore, reversed the trial court's decision granting a new trial. They also found, however, that there was reversible error in the giving of an instruction on future medical expenses which was not supported by the evidence and ordered a new trial on the sole issue of damages.

Hundt acknowledged at the trial that he knew where both the washroom and the basement were located and had been in these areas about 100 times during the twenty years he had visited the LaCrosse buildings. He also admitted that he was familiar with the fact that the basement door opened inward while the washroom door opened outward, and that the basement stairway had no landing or handrails. He also testified that he had never entered the building from the rear door before, but had previously always entered from the front. The State Fire Marshal was allowed to testify, over LaCrosse's timely objections, as to the existence, scope and content of statutes and regulations of the Administrative Building Council concerning safety features such as landings and handrails required for stairways in public buildings. The theories relied upon by the parties were set out in the pretrial order. The plaintiff alleged that his injuries were caused by the negligent acts or omissions of LaCrosse in maintaining on its premises a dangerous condition consisting of a basement door which opened into a stairway with no landing and no handrail. LaCrosse alleged that Hundt was a licensee and that therefore no duty was owed to him other than to refrain from willful, wanton misconduct. They further contended that Hundt was guilty of contributory negligence as a matter of law and had incurred the risk of his injuries as a matter of law.

In this petition for transfer LaCrosse raises six issues for our consideration. We find that the dispositive issue in this case is whether Hundt was guilty of contributory negligence as a matter of law and our affirmative finding on that issue precludes any consideration of the other five issues.

It is well settled that contributory negligence is generally a question of fact for the jury where the facts are such as to be subject to more than one reasonable inference. However, where the facts are undisputed and only a single inference can reasonably be drawn therefrom, the question of contributory negligence becomes one This Court has consistently held that the basis for contributory negligence is conduct on the part of the plaintiff which falls below the standard to which he should conform for his own protection and safety. Lack of reasonable care that an ordinary man would exercise in like or similar circumstances is the factor upon which the presence or absence of negligence depends. Memorial Hospital of South Bend, Inc. v. Scott, (1973) 261 Ind. 27, 300 N.E.2d 50; Bixenman v. Hall, (1968) 251 Ind. 527, 242 N.E.2d 837; Hedgecock & Orlosky, supra; Bain, Administratrix v. Mattmiller, supra. Further, it must be shown that the plaintiff's negligent act was a proximate cause of his injury and that he was actually aware of or should have appreciated the risks involved. Memorial Hospital of South Bend, Inc. v. Scott, supra; Hedgecock v. Orlosky, supra.

                of law. 1  Hedgecock v. Orlosky, (1942) 220 Ind. 390, 44 N.E.2d 93;  Bain, Administratrix v. Mattmiller, (1938) 213 Ind. 549, 13 N.E.2d 712;  New York, etc.  R. Co. v. Hamlin, (1907) 170 Ind. 20, 83 N.E. 343;  Stallings v. Dick, (1965) 139 Ind.App. 118, 210 N.E.2d 82;  Standard Oil Company v. Henninger, (1935) 100 Ind.App. 674, 196 N.E. 706

Accordingly, Indiana courts have found contributory negligence as a matter of law in cases in which the voluntary conduct of the plaintiff exposed him to imminent and obvious dangers which a reasonable man exercising due care for his own safety would have avoided. See Hedgecock v. Orlosky, supra (standing between two cars in order to disengage locked bumpers); Standard Oil Company v. Henninger, supra (opening closed door to basement stairway in mistaken belief that it led to washroom); Stallings v. Dick, supra (standing on rear bumper of an automobile while a truck was attempting to push it); Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway Company v. Pinchin, (1887) 112 Ind. 592, 13 N.E. 677 (attempting to pass between two cars of a standing train).

In the instant case, the facts are undisputed and are almost identical to the facts in Standard Oil Co. v. Henninger, supra, in which the court found contributory negligence as a matter of law. There, the plaintiff, Henninger, had stopped at an unfamiliar gas station to see a map. After the attendant showed him a map and gave him directions, Henninger received permission to use the washroom. He then proceeded to open an unmarked door and his own momentum caused him to fall down a flight of stairs to his injury. The court overturned a verdict for Henninger and found that "the conduct of the appellee, as disclosed by the uncontradicted evidence established contributory negligence" as a matter of law. Id. 100 Ind.App. at 682, 196 N.E. at 709. The court said that a closed door to a stairway does not constitute a trap or pitfall. The fact that a door is there is a warning that it is the means of exit or of entrance to some other area, room, or stairway. It defies common sense to assume that persons will precipitately open a door and, without the use of their ordinary senses, enter without a thought as to where it leads.

Here, the fact is undisputed that the door to the stairway was closed, thus guarding that area. 2 Hundt was an adult and did not have any disability or limitation of perception. The hallway area where the basement and washroom doors were located was well lighted and the washroom doors were clearly marked. Hundt had been in the building and in both the washroom and basement on numerous prior occasions. He acknowledged that he was familiar with the We find that the undisputed evidence establishes that Hundt was guilty of contributory negligence which was the proximate cause of his injury. Such negligence is contributory negligence as a matter of law under the circumstances of this case and for this reason the verdict of the jury is contrary to law.

fact that the basement door opened inward while the washroom door opened outward. In this case, the plaintiff was thoroughly familiar with the hallway area of the building and with the types of rooms and areas that were protected by the closed doors. The only conclusion which can be drawn from the facts in this case is that Hundt was...

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