Saucier Through Saucier v. Biloxi Regional Medical Center

Decision Date19 March 1998
Docket NumberNo. 97-CA-00079-SCT,97-CA-00079-SCT
PartiesPatrick SAUCIER, Through his next friend, Virginia SAUCIER and Virginia Saucier, individually v. BILOXI REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER, City of Biloxi, Mississippi and Cynthia H. Bamburg.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Robert P. Myers, Jr., Joe Sam Owen, Owen & Galloway, Gulfport, for Appellants.

George F. Bloss, III, Richard W. Sliman, Mary Margaret Alexander, Bryant Clark Dukes Blakeslee Ramsay & Hammond, Gulfport, Robert H. Tyler, Biloxi, Dee Aultman, Aultman Tyner McNeece & Ruffin, Gulfport, for appellees.

Before SULLIVAN, P.J., and BANKS and MILLS, JJ.

BANKS, Justice, for the Court:

¶1 Here, we are called upon to assess the duty of care owed one who breaks into vacant premises and consumes controlled substances found therein. We conclude that the plaintiff was, in fact, a trespasser, that the trial court applied the correct duty of care in resolving this matter based upon the evidence shown and that summary judgment was proper. Thus, we affirm.

I.

¶2 On or about July 21, 1993, sixteen-year-old Patrick Saucier and a couple of his buddies entered an abandoned hospital building known as the Old Biloxi Regional Medical Center in Biloxi, Mississippi through a broken out window with the intent to smoke marijuana and see the ghosts that purportedly lived in the morgue of the hospital. The teenagers stayed in the facility for about twenty minutes while they smoked marijuana and spray painted their names on the walls.

¶3 The next night they returned to the facility and upon searching the building discovered a large amount of drugs in the hospital's pharmacy area. The teenagers found a box and filled it with various pills. They then went to the home of one of the boys and used a Physician's Desk Reference Manual, to compare pictures of pills in the book with the pills they took from the facility. After identifying as many pills as they could and determining what kind of high they would get, the boys divided the identified pills and threw away those they could not identify. All of them ingested some pills at some point. 1

¶4 On July 24, 1993 at 3:30 p.m., Patrick's father returned home from work to find Patrick unconscious in the bathtub. Mrs. Saucier was quickly summoned, and together they took Patrick to the hospital where it was determined--via urine and blood tests--that amphetamines, barbituates and marijuana were in his system. While the Sauciers waited for Patrick's test results, they went to the abandoned hospital after Patrick told his disbelieving parents that he got the drugs from the facility. Patrick's story, i.e., that there was a large quantity of prescription drugs in the abandoned hospital, was confirmed by his parents.

¶5 The next day Mrs. Saucier called the local police department and talked with Officer O'Bannon, informing him that there were prescription drugs in the abandoned hospital. O'Bannon sent an officer to the hospital to investigate. The officer confirmed Mrs. Saucier's allegations. The following day Mrs. Saucier, Officer O'Bannon and a few other people returned to the abandoned hospital where it was noted that, besides drugs, there were syringes, hypodermic needles, an operative x-ray machine, medical files, IV bags and fluids and other hospital equipment and items strewn throughout the building.

¶6 Extremely upset by their findings, Mrs. Saucier, on behalf of Patrick and herself, sued the City of Biloxi (the owner of the facility at the time of the incident), the Biloxi Regional Medical Center (the previous owner of the facility), and Cynthia Bamburg (the director of the pharmacy department at the center). The complaint alleged that the drugs had been negligently and carelessly left in the abandoned building, that all of the defendants knew or should have known the drugs had been left unsecured in the building, and that the lack of a secured premise created a danger to Patrick. Additionally, the complaint alleged that the defendants negligently allowed confidential medical records to remain in the unsecured premises, thereby breaching the duty of confidentiality owed to former patients including Mrs. Saucier. Finally, the complaint posited that all of the defendants were wanton, willful, and that their negligence was the product of gross negligence evidencing a reckless disregard for the safety of others.

¶7 All of the defendants denied liability and filed motions for summary judgment, premised upon the argument that Patrick was a trespasser or, at most, a licensee and that there was no evidence the defendants intentionally or wantonly injured him.

¶8 The trial court granted the summary judgment motion, finding that the Sauciers failed to provide evidence that any of the medical records found in the facility belonged to Mrs. Saucier, that Patrick was a trespasser or a mere licensee and that, either way, the duty of care owed to him by the defendants was the same--not to willfully or wantonly injure him while he was on the landowner's premises. Additionally, the trial court concluded that Patrick knew the hospital was shut down, knew that he did not have the owners' permission to enter the facility, and as such he was a trespasser who voluntarily assisted in removing the pills from the building and who voluntarily ingested the pills off the premises.

¶9 Aggrieved, the Sauciers appeal to this Court for relief.

II.

¶10 This Court employs a de novo standard of review when reviewing a lower court's grant of summary judgment. See Townsend v. Estate of Gilbert, 616 So.2d 333, 335 (Miss.1993) (citing Short v. Columbus Rubber & Gasket Co., Inc., 535 So.2d 61, 63 (1988)). "This entails reviewing all the evidentiary matters in the record: affidavits, depositions, admissions, interrogatories, etc. The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the ... non-moving parties, and they are to be given the benefit of every reasonable doubt." Townsend, 616 So.2d at 335 (citing Smith v. Sanders, 485 So.2d 1051, 1054 (Miss.1986); Dennis v. Searle, 457 So.2d 941, 944 (Miss.1984)).

¶11 A motion for summary judgment is proper only when there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Townsend, 616 So.2d at 335 (citing Miss.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). We do not try issues on a Rule 56 motion; this Court only determines whether there are issues to be tried. Townsend, 616 So.2d at 335. In reaching this determination, we examine affidavits and other evidence to determine whether a triable issue exists, rather than for the purpose of resolving that issue. See Miss.R.Civ.P. 56 cmt; Seymour v. Brunswick Corp., 655 So.2d 892, 895 (Miss.1995). The trial judge's decision is reversed if a triable issue of fact exists; otherwise, the decision is affirmed. Brown v. Credit Center, Inc., 444 So.2d 358, 362 (Miss.1983).

III.

¶12 The Sauciers argue the trial court failed to apply the correct duty of care owed to Patrick by the defendants and therefore improperly granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment. 2 In particular, they argue that Patrick Saucier was a known licensee and that the proper duty of care was the duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care, citing Hoffman v. Planters Gin Co., Inc., 358 So.2d 1008 (Miss.1978).

¶13 The determination of which status a particular plaintiff holds can be a jury question. Where the facts are not in dispute, however, the classification becomes a question of law for the trial judge. See Adams By and Through Adams v. Fred's Dollar Store of Batesville, 497 So.2d 1097, 1100 (Miss.1986) (citing Graves v. Massey, 227 Miss. 848, 853, 87 So.2d 270, 271 (1956); Hoffman v. Planters Gin Co., Inc., 358 So.2d 1008 (Miss.1978); Langford v. Mercurio, 254 Miss. 788, 805-06, 183 So.2d 150, 157-158 (1966); Wood v. Camp, 284 So.2d 691, 695-96 (Fla.1973)).

¶14 Here, the facts surrounding Patrick's entry into the abandoned hospital were undisputed and uncontested. The record evidence showed that he and his friends entered the building on the first night to smoke marijuana and see the ghosts that were believed to inhabit the facility. The second night, the night they found and removed the drugs, they returned to the facility to find the ghosts. None of the parties disputed the facts surrounding the instant incident. Furthermore, the evidence was not sufficient concerning the prior practices of other individuals going into the facility to trigger an issue for the jury; therefore, the classification of Patrick's status was a question properly before the trial judge for determination. Adams, 497 So.2d at 1100.

¶15 The trial judge concluded that Patrick was a trespasser because he was not invited into the hospital, did not have permission (explicit or implicit) to enter the facility, was not the owner, and knew that the hospital had been shut down. This Court's role is only to determine, via de novo review, whether the trial court erred in finding that Patrick was a trespasser and in granting the summary judgment motion premised upon his status as such. The Sauciers argue the trial court did, in fact, err as the evidence as a whole showed that Patrick was a licensee under the Hoffman exception to which a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care was owed.

¶16 A licensee is one who enters upon the property of another for his own convenience, pleasure or benefit pursuant to the license or implied permission of the owner. The duty of care owed to a licensee by the owner of premises is to refrain from willfully or wantonly injuring him. Astleford v. Milner Enterprises, Inc., 233 So.2d 524 (Miss.1970).

¶17 In Hoffman, however, this Court carved out an exception to the general duty of care owed to a licensee and it is upon this exception the appellants rely. In Hoffman, a fourteen year-old boy occasionally assisted his father on his job by helping to unload his father's truck at a gin. Once, the boy, his father, and another gin employee were inside a...

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