Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Court: Apartment Owners Not Liable For Tenant’s Fall
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The owners of an apartment complex were not liable to a middle-aged man who was injured while attempting to traverse a four-inch wide railing on the exterior of the second story of the building as a means of access to his unit, the First District Court of Appeal has ruled.
In an unpublished decision Friday, Div. Three said Paul Ruegg’s actions were unforeseeable and the property owners had no duty to provide him with a safe passageway on top of the deck railing he had fallen from.
Ruegg, who was 49 years old and weighted 240 pounds at the time of his injury, said he had accessed the ledge by climbing up a metal ladder that was permanently attached to the wall in the rear courtyard of the apartment complex.
The base of the ladder was located in a common area, and “access to the ladder [was] not blocked in any manner at its base,” Ruegg said. He also claimed there was “no warning or sign located near the ladder informing tenants of any restrictions on using the ladder.”
At the top of the ladder, a tenant had installed a lattice-work privacy screen around the deck at the rear of his apartment, which was attached to a frame sitting on the top of the deck railing. Ruegg said he was attempting to edge along the railing on the outside of the privacy screen in order to reach the deck of his own apartment, holding on to the frame to balance himself, when the frame broke and he fell.
Ruegg later sued the owners and managers of the apartment building, asserting causes of action for premises liability and negligence based on their failure to maintain, repair, warn of, or impede access to the ladder and railing which they knew or should have known tenants used “from time to time” to gain access to their apartments, and was in a dangerous condition.
The defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds they did not owe Ruegg a duty of care, and Ruegg could not prove causation because his injuries were caused solely by his own recklessness.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Peter Busch granted the motion, and Justice Stuart R. Pollak agreed with his decision.
The justice noted Ruegg’s evidence that the ladder was readily accessible and was used by various tenants and guests in the past, but emphasized the ladder was not the cause of Ruegg’s injuries and that “there [was] no reason to believe he would have been injured had he simply climbed the ladder and entered the gate at the top of the ladder leading to his neighbor’s porch.”
Pollak opined the ledge which Ruegg had attempted to cross “quite obviously was not an intended means of access to his apartment and, simply because it was physically possible to reach the apartment in that manner, there was no reason for the owner to anticipate that a tenant would attempt to do so.”
He said the “risk inherent in that course was obvious” concluded by citing Edwards v. California Sports, Inc., (1988) 206 Cal.App.3d 1284, for the proposition that “[t]here is a limit as to how far society should go…in order to protect individuals from their own stupidity, carelessness, daring or self-destructive impulses.”
Presiding Justice William R. McGuiness joined Pollak in his decision, but Justice Peter J. Siggins dissented.
“In considering the general foreseeability of Ruegg’s injury for purposes of duty analysis, I would not conclude as a matter of law that the danger presented by his chosen route was so apparent or great that it was unreasonable for him to encounter it,” Siggins said.
He contended that there was a legal duty on the part of defendants to take precautions that someone would not use the fixed ladder in the rear courtyard to gain entry to the building, and the question of whether the defendants owed Ruegg a duty of care to prevent his injury was a triable issue of material fact sufficient to defeat the summary judgment motion.
The case is Ruegg v. Palmer, A126646.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company