Sclafani v. Mannion, 050120 RISUP, PC-2019-5454

Docket Nº:C. A. PC-2019-5454
Opinion Judge:M. DARIGAN, J.
Party Name:KRYSTLE SCLAFANI, Plaintiff, v. JOHN MANNION, Alias John Doe, MICHAEL F. DURGIN, Alias John Doe, DANTE PROCOPIO, Alias John Doe, CHARLES ROGERS, Alias John Doe, MARTHA ROGERS, Alias Jane Doe, and JOHN DOES 1 through 10, Defendants.
Attorney:For Plaintiff: Michael J. Kiselica, Esq. For Defendant: Neil P. Philbin, Esq.; Peter E. Garvey, Esq.; David E. Revens, Esq.; J. Richard Ratcliffe, Esq.
Case Date:May 01, 2020
Court:Superior Court of Rhode Island
 
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KRYSTLE SCLAFANI, Plaintiff,

v.

JOHN MANNION, Alias John Doe, MICHAEL F. DURGIN, Alias John Doe, DANTE PROCOPIO, Alias John Doe, CHARLES ROGERS, Alias John Doe, MARTHA ROGERS, Alias Jane Doe, and JOHN DOES 1 through 10, Defendants.

C. A. No. PC-2019-5454

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence

May 1, 2020

For Plaintiff: Michael J. Kiselica, Esq.

For Defendant: Neil P. Philbin, Esq.; Peter E. Garvey, Esq.; David E. Revens, Esq.; J. Richard Ratcliffe, Esq.

DECISION

M. DARIGAN, J.

Charles Rogers, Martha Rogers (the Rogers), and Michael F. Durgin (Durgin) (collectively Defendants) move this Court for dismissal pursuant to Super. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). They each assert that Krystle Sclafani (Plaintiff) has failed to state a claim for relief because Defendants did not owe her a legal duty to protect her from harm caused by the acts of a third party. Plaintiff objected, arguing that Defendants did owe her a legal duty as possessors of land and as social hosts. For the reasons that follow, this Court denies Durgin's Motion to Dismiss and grants the Rogers' Motion to Dismiss.

I

Facts and Travel

The Rogers are co-owners of property located at 4 Castle Road in Narragansett, Rhode Island (the Premises). (Compl. ¶¶ 5-6.) At all times pertinent to this case, co-defendants Durgin, John Mannion (Mannion), and Dante Procopio (Procopio) (collectively Tenant Defendants) were students at the University of Rhode Island (URI) and members of the URI Rowing Club (Rowing Club) who rented the Premises from the Rogers. Id. ¶¶ 2-4. The Rogers have rented the Premises to members of the Rowing Club for a number of years. Id. ¶ 28.

During the late night of October 27, 2018 and into the early morning of October 28, 2018, Durgin and Mannion planned, supervised, and hosted a party on the Premises where they expected a large number of guests, many of whom would be under the age of twenty-one. Id. ¶ 10. Procopio knew that Durgin and Mannion were planning a party on this date but he did not attend the party, and he was not present on the Premises at the time of the party. Id. ¶ 11. The Rogers had no knowledge of this particular party, but prior tenants had used the Premises to host large parties involving underage drinking in the past. Id. ¶¶ 29-30.

On the night of the party, Durgin and Mannion initially restricted access to the Premises to only those guests who were closely related to the Rowing Club by placing someone at the Premises' front door to monitor guests' admission to the party. Id. ¶ 13. Later in the night, however, other URI students, including Plaintiff and her friends, learned that the party had been opened up to all students and there was no longer anyone monitoring guests at the Premises' front door. Id. ¶ 14.

Upon Plaintiff's arrival, Rowing Club member Noah Key (Key) offered Plaintiff a can of Red Bull containing an unknown mix of alcohol, which Plaintiff accepted and drank. Id. ¶ 15. Plaintiff and her friends then began serving themselves alcohol from a supply of liquor placed on a table in the open that Durgin and Mannion purchased and provided for guests' consumption during the party. Id. ¶ 16. She subsequently began playing various drinking games in the house. Id. As a result, Plaintiff became severely intoxicated. Id. ¶ 18. On this date, Plaintiff was eighteen years old. Id. ¶ 1.

At one point, Plaintiff and her friends needed to use the bathroom on the second floor of the home, which was deemed off limits by Durgin and Mannion such that Plaintiff and her friends were escorted to and from the second-floor bathroom by a guest stationed at the top of the stairs. Id. ¶ 21. Later in the night, after Plaintiff had become intoxicated, Rowing Club member Colin Moulton (Moulton), another party guest, led Plaintiff to the second floor of the Premises and into Procopio's private bedroom where he and Plaintiff engaged in unconsensual sexual intercourse. Id. ¶¶ 19-20. At this time, there was no one stationed at the top of the stairs restricting access to the second floor of the home. Id. ¶ 21.

Plaintiff timely filed a Complaint sounding in negligence against Mannion, Durgin, Procopio, and the Rogers. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the Tenant Defendants, as persons in possession of property and social hosts, breached their duty of care to protect Plaintiff from foreseeable acts of intoxicated party attendees. Id. ¶ 12. Plaintiff further alleges that the Rogers, as property owners and landlords, breached their duty to control tenant activities that presented a foreseeable risk of harm to Plaintiff. Id. ¶ 27. Excluding Mannion, all Defendants filed motions to dismiss pursuant to Super. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). This Court granted Procopio's motion to dismiss at a hearing on August 28, 2019 after finding that Procopio did not owe Plaintiff any legal duty because he was not present on the Premises at the time of the party. Thus, only Durgin's and the Rogers' motions are addressed here.1

II

Standard of Review

"'The sole function of a motion to dismiss is to test the sufficiency of the complaint.'" Palazzo v. Alves, 944 A.2d 144, 149 (R.I. 2008) (quoting Rhode Island Affiliate, ACLU, Inc. v. Bernasconi, 557 A.2d 1232, 1232 (R.I. 1989)). Under Rhode Island law, "a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss is appropriate when it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the plaintiff would not be entitled to relief from the defendant under any set of facts that could be proven in support of the plaintiff's claim." Barrette v. Yakavonis, 966 A.2d 1231, 1234 (R.I. 2009) (internal quotations omitted). In making its Rule 12(b)(6) determination, the Court "'assumes the allegations contained in the complaint to be true and views the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs.'" Giuliano v. Pastina, 793 A.2d 1035, 1036 (R.I. 2002) (quoting Martin v. Howard, 784 A.2d 291, 297-98 (R.I. 2001)).

III

Analysis

A

Premises Liability

"[L]iability for alleged negligent conduct cannot attach to a defendant absent a recognized duty of care." Gushlaw v. Milner, 42 A.3d 1245, 1252 (R.I. 2012). The issue of whether a defendant owes a plaintiff a legal duty is a question of law decidable by the court. Martin v. Marciano, 871 A.2d 911, 915 (R.I. 2005). If no duty exists, the plaintiff's claims must fail as a matter of law. Selwyn v. Ward, 879 A.2d 882, 886 (R.I. 2005).

The duties owed by landowners are well-defined under Rhode Island law. Generally, "a landowner has no duty to protect another from harm caused by the dangerous or illegal acts of a third party." Martin, 871 A.2d at 915. However, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has articulated a heightened standard of care for landowners and possessors2 of land when a landowner is both present and there exists a potential of intentional harm to third parties. In Volpe, the Court adopted the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 318 (1965) and held that: "when possessors of property allow one or more persons to use their land or personal property, they are, if present, under a conditional duty to exercise reasonable care to control the conduct of such users to prevent them from intentionally harming others or from conducting themselves on the possessors' property in a manner that would create an unreasonable risk of bodily harm to others." 821 A.2d at 706.

Two conditions must be met for such a duty to arise: "the possessors of the property must (1) know or have reason to know that they have the ability to control the person(s) using their land, and (2) know or should know of the necessity and opportunity for exercising such control."3 Id.

Importantly, this duty is imposed only on property owners who are present at the time. Correia, 162 A.3d at 638. In Correia, the Rhode Island Supreme Court specifically addressed the issue of whether a possessor of land must be physically present on the land for a duty to arise or if it is sufficient for the possessor of land to know and have the ability to control the persons using his land. Id. at 636. In that case, the plaintiff and some friends were target shooting on the defendant's property when one of the plaintiff's friends accidentally shot the plaintiff in the stomach. Id. at 633. The plaintiff and his friends were all invited to the defendant-landowner's property as guests but the defendant-landowner was not present when the incident occurred. Id. at 634. After the accident, the plaintiff filed an action against the defendant-landowner alleging, in pertinent part, that the defendant breached his duty to control the guest who injured the plaintiff. Id. at 633-34...

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