Renville v. United States, 1:15-CV-01024-CBK

CourtU.S. District Court — District of South Dakota
Writing for the CourtCHARLES B. KORNMANN United States District Judge
Decision Date24 April 2017
Docket Number1:15-CV-01024-CBK




April 24, 2017


Plaintiff Pamela Renville filed a complaint with this Court on June 1, 2015, claiming negligence against the United States of America pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act. This negligence action arises from a slip and fall accident that occurred at the Woodrow Wilson Keeble Memorial Health Care Center ("WWKM") in Sisseton, South Dakota. The defendant has moved for summary judgment. The Court is fully advised on the matter.


Renville was born on November 6, 1955, in Sisseton, South Dakota. She is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe and has lived in Sisseton, South Dakota, her entire life.

On January 11, 2013, Renville had a 3:00 p.m. appointment at WWKM in Sisseton, South Dakota. As she was driving to her appointment, she noticed the roads were still wet from rain that occurred the prior night and decided to drive more cautiously. Renville arrived at WWKM at approximately 3:15 p.m. and noticed the parking lot and sidewalk were wet. The temperature was approximately twenty-nine degrees Fahrenheit and the wind speed was eighteen miles per hour. She parked her

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vehicle in the north parking lot and proceeded to walk south on the sidewalk toward the entrance. At the entrance of WWKM, an awning extends east and covers the sidewalk and part of the road of the circular driveway. Renville was walking under the north side of the awning when she allegedly slipped on a patch of ice and fell approximately fifteen to twenty feet from the door. Pl.'s Dep. 51: 1-6. She testified she did not see the ice when she fell. Id. at 53:25-54:1. When asked to describe the nature of the fall, Renville indicated, "I didn't sway or go like, you know, from being icy, I didn't sway or nothing. I was just walking and then I just kind of like I just fell on my butt." Id. at 58:3-5. Angela Johnson, an employee working at WWKM, witnessed the fall and was close enough to hear a loud popping sound. Johnson testified that no salt was placed outside and that there was ample time for the maintenance employees to put salt around the main entrance of the building.

At approximately 4:00 p.m., Renville was driven by ambulance to Prairie Lakes Hospital in Watertown, South Dakota. Dr. Casey Johnston evaluated the plaintiff's leg and determined she fractured her left tibial shaft and performed surgery on her the next day. Dr. Johnston had follow-up appointments with Renville on January 31, 2013, March 7, 2013, and April 4, 2013.

WWKM has its own Maintenance Department. In the wintertime, the maintenance crew at WWKM typically puts salt and sand on the ground near the main entrance every hour. Id. at 14:8-12. Winfield Thompson, one of the maintenance employees, testified that one spot of particular importance was the sidewalk by the entrance near the north edge of the awning, and that it was a normal occurrence for water

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to accumulate and freeze on the sidewalk by the north side of the awning. W. Thompson Dep. 8:6-9:10, 11:10-22, 12:4-18.

The plaintiff has had prior injuries to her left leg. In 2009, she broke her left femur when she fell on the ledge of a sidewalk. As a result, she underwent surgery to have a rod placed in her left leg. Renville also suffers from left foot drop, which causes difficulty in lifting her left leg. Dr. Johnston noted that "[m]ost people with a foot drop will walk with what we call a steppage gait[,] [m]eaning they will look like they're trying to go up a step and their foot tends to hit on their toe first instead of the heel, as would be a normal gait pattern." Johnston Dep. 13:2-6. Lastly, Renville has screws in her knee from multiligament injuries. When asked whether the plaintiff's prior leg complications contributed to her fall on January 11, 2013, Dr. Johnston replied, "The fact that she has pre-existing osteoarthritis and pre-existing foot drop probably would put her at risk of falling just in and of themselves, yes." Id. 21:18-23. The plaintiff has designated Dr. Johnston as an expert in this case.


According to Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court "shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." "Summary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole, which are designed 'to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action.' " Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 1). The moving party has the burden of establishing the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 (c).

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Once the moving party has met its burden of demonstrating there is no genuine dispute of material fact, "a moving party may not rest upon mere denials or allegations, but must instead set forth specific facts sufficient to raise a genuine issue for trial." Rose-Maston v. NME Hospitals, Inc., 133 F.3d 1104, 1107 (8th Cir. 1998). A genuine dispute arises "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 206 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

The Court must view the admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences drawn from the evidence. Country Life Ins. Co. v. Marks, 592 F.3d 896, 898 (8th Cir. 2010). However, the scope of admissible evidence is quite finite: "Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing substantive law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Paulsen v. Ability Ins. Co., 906 F. Supp. 2d 909, 911 (D.S.D. 2012) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed. 202 (1986)).


I. Federal Tort Claims Act

The Federal Tort Claims Act is a limited waiver of the United States' sovereign immunity. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1) explains:

The district courts . . . shall have exclusive jurisdiction of civil actions on claims against the United States, for money damages, accruing on and after January 1, 1945, for injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the

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claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.

"When the FTCA action arises at an IHS facility within the territory of an American Indian Reservation, this Court must apply the substantive law of the state in which the reservation is located." Gunville v. United States, 985 F.Supp.2d 1101, 1105 (D.S.D. 2013). In this case, the negligent act or omission alleged by the plaintiff occurred at an Indian Health Services facility within the territory of the Lake Traverse Reservation. Because the Lake Traverse Reservation is located in South Dakota, South Dakota...

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