Richardson v. Corvallis Public School Dist. No. 1, 96-497

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Montana
Citation950 P.2d 748,54 St.Rep. 1422,286 Mont. 309
Docket NumberNo. 96-497,96-497
Parties, 123 Ed. Law Rep. 930 Donna RICHARDSON, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. CORVALLIS PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1, Defendant and Respondent.
Decision Date23 December 1997

Page 748

950 P.2d 748
286 Mont. 309, 123 Ed. Law Rep. 930
Donna RICHARDSON, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
CORVALLIS PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1, Defendant and Respondent.
No. 96-497.
Supreme Court of Montana.
Submitted on Briefs April 24, 1997.
Decided Dec. 23, 1997.

Page 749

[286 Mont. 310] Dennis E. Lind, Paul N. Tranel, Datsopoulos, MacDonald & Lind, Missoula, for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Bradley J. Luck, Garlington, Lohn & Robinson, Missoula, for Defendant and Respondent.

NELSON, Justice.

This is an appeal from the Twenty-first Judicial District Court, Ravalli County. Following a hearing, the District Court granted Defendant Corvallis Public School District No. 1 (the School) summary[286 Mont. 311] judgment. From this judgment, Plaintiff Donna Richardson (Donna) appeals. We affirm.

The only issue raised on appeal is whether the District Court erred in granting summary judgment.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On the morning of December 17, 1992, Dan Rochester (Donna's boyfriend) drove Donna and her son, Lance Richardson, to the Corvallis High School. After parking their car, Donna walked with Lance into the School to explain his tardiness. Taking the straightest route from their parked car to the school building, Donna uneventfully walked over a path in the snow which crossed a grass area in front of the School. After remaining in the School for approximately five minutes, Donna returned by way of the same route

Page 750

toward her car. However, part way across the path in the snow which crossed the grass area, Donna slipped, fell and sustained injuries. Donna testified in her deposition that it was a cold morning, that the path consisted of packed, but not slippery snow, and that the path appeared to be safe.

On May 1, 1995, Donna filed a complaint against the School in the Twenty-First Judicial District Court, Ravalli County. On January 8, 1996, the School filed a motion for summary judgment. The District Court heard oral argument on the School's motion on May 21, 1996, and, thereafter, granted summary judgment on June 20, 1996. From this judgment, Donna appeals.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

In Wiley v. City of Glendive (1995), 272 Mont. 213, 216, 900 P.2d 310, 312, we set forth the standard of review concerning a district court's grant of summary judgment:

Under Rule 56(c), M.R.Civ.P., summary judgment is proper only when no genuine issue of material fact exists and when the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The moving party has the initial burden to establish that there are no genuine issues of material fact. Once that burden has been met, the burden then shifts to the party opposing the motion to establish otherwise. Our review of a grant of summary judgment is de novo; we use the same criteria as the district court.

Ordinarily, negligence actions involve questions of fact and are not susceptible to summary judgment. However, when reasonable minds cannot differ, questions of fact can be determined as a matter of law. For example, if the moving party establishes that [286 Mont. 312] one element of a cause of action lacks any genuine issue of material fact and the non-moving party does not come forward with proof that a genuine issue does exist, summary judgment is proper. [Citations omitted.]

Furthermore, if the district court reaches the correct result, we will uphold the court's judgment regardless of the reasons supporting its decision. Singleton v. L.P. Anderson Supply Co. (1997), 284 Mont. 40, ----, 943 P.2d 968, 970, 54 St.Rep. 738, 739 (citation omitted).

DISCUSSION

Did the District Court err in granting summary judgment?

Relying on Donna's undisputed version of the facts, the District Court granted the School summary judgment as a matter of law. The District Court ruled that the School had no duty to warn because the path where Donna fell contained no hidden or lurking dangers. Rather, the District Court concluded that the condition of the path was open and obvious. Citing Cereck v. Albertson's Inc. (1981), 195 Mont. 409, 637 P.2d 509, the District Court held that even assuming that the School took affirmative action to plow or maintain the path, such action did not create or increase the hazard. Additionally, the District Court concluded that nothing in the record indicated that the School should have anticipated injury to Donna. Accordingly, the District Court held that the School used ordinary care to keep the premises reasonably safe.

Donna argues that the District Court erred in granting the School summary judgment. Based on the evidence in the record which consists of Donna's deposition testimony, pictures of the area where she fell and the affidavits of Lance Richardson and Dan Rochester, Donna asserts that material questions of fact exist. Specifically, relying on Cereck, 637 P.2d 509, and Willis v. St. Peter's Hospital (1971), 157 Mont. 417, 486 P.2d 593, Donna contends that material questions of fact exist concerning whether the School altered the normal condition of the area where she fell by designating and maintaining a walkway over natural ground; whether the School affirmatively allowed the appearance of a walkway over uneven natural ground, thus creating a new or increased hazard; whether the School created a hidden dangerous condition; and, consequently, whether the School had an obligation either to provide a sign warning of the altered conditions or to block off the area. The School responds that the District Court correctly granted summary judgment because [286 Mont. 313] Donna failed to

Page 751

present evidence sufficient to raise any genuine issues of material fact. We agree.

To prove negligence, a plaintiff must establish four elements: (1) duty; (2) breach of duty; (3) causation; and (4) damages. Wiley, 900 P.2d at 312 (citation omitted). "[A]ctionable negligence arises only from breach of a legal duty. Therefore, in order for there to be a genuine issue of material fact in a negligence case there must be a duty imposed upon the defendant and allegations which, if proven, would support a finding of a breach of the duty." Rennick v. Hoover (1980), 186 Mont. 167, 170, 606 P.2d 1079, 1081 (citations omitted).

We have consistently held as a matter of law that "the owner of a premises has a duty to use ordinary care in maintaining his premises in a reasonably safe condition and to warn of any hidden or lurking dangers." Brown v. Demaree (1995), 272 Mont. 479, 482, 901 P.2d 567, 569 (citing Limberhand v. Big Ditch Co. (1985), 218 Mont. 132, 144-45, 706 P.2d 491, 498; Davis v. Church of Jesus Christ of LDS (1990), 244 Mont. 61, 67, 796 P.2d 181, 184). However, while we have consistently held that a property owner owes this general duty of care, we have not consistently articulated a standard by which the fact finder can determine whether a property owner has breached this duty. That is, we have not articulated a standard to determine what constitutes a "reasonably safe condition." Rather, in Luebeck v. Safeway Stores, Inc. (1968), 152 Mont. 88, 446 P.2d 921; Cereck, 637 P.2d 509; Kronen v. Richter (1984), 211 Mont. 208, 683 P.2d 1315; and Limberhand, 706 P.2d 491, we have set forth conflicting standards. Consequently, we take this opportunity to set forth one consistent standard.

In Luebeck v. Safeway Stores, Inc., Luebeck, a customer, sued Safeway Stores, Inc. for damages after she slipped, fell and broke her ankle while walking back to her car across Safeway's parking lot which was covered with a natural accumulation of ice and snow. Before a jury, Luebeck testified that she knew she had to walk carefully because the condition of the parking lot was bad. Additionally, the manager of Safeway testified that he also knew the condition of the parking lot was hazardous but had done nothing about it. Thereafter, the district court entered judgment upon a jury verdict in Luebeck's favor and Safeway appealed. Luebeck, 446 P.2d at 922.

On appeal, we held that Safeway, as a property owner, had a duty to use ordinary care to have the premises reasonably safe or to warn of any hidden or lurking dangers. Luebeck, 446 P.2d at 922-23. However, we also held that "where danger created by the elements [286 Mont. 314] such as the forming of ice and the falling of snow are universally known, or as here, actually known, there is no liability." Luebeck, 446 P.2d at 924. Accordingly, we reversed the judgment of the district court and dismissed the cause of action against Safeway. Luebeck, 446 P.2d at 924.

Subsequently, in Cereck, we again held that the defendant property owner had a duty to use ordinary care to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition and to warn of any hidden or lurking dangers. Cereck, 637 P.2d at 511. Additionally, we also stated that "[this] duty is satisfied if the condition is obvious or actually known." Cereck, 637 P.2d at 511 (citing Rennick, 606 P.2d 1079; Luebeck, 446 P.2d 921; and Regedahl v. Safeway Stores, Inc. (1967), 149 Mont. 229, 425 P.2d 335). More specifically, we pointed out that in prior cases involving injuries caused by icy conditions, we had held that "no liability [is] imposed upon the landowner where the danger created by the elements such as the forming of ice and the falling of snow is universally known or actually known." Cereck, 637 P.2d at 511 (citing Rennick, 606 P.2d 1079; Dunham v. Southside National Bank (1976), 169 Mont. 466, 548 P.2d 1383; Luebeck, 446 P.2d 921). However, because the property owner in Cereck altered the natural accumulation of ice and snow, we did not apply the standard set forth in Luebeck. Rather, we adopted a new standard for determining property owner liability in situations where natural accumulations of ice and snow had been altered. Cereck, 637 P.2d at 511.

Cereck, a customer, sued defendants, Albertson's grocery store and Holiday Village Shopping Center, for damages after she slipped, fell and injured her left leg and hip

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