California Court Finds Landlord Did Not Owe Duty of Care in Lawsuit Following Drowning Accident 

In a personal injury lawsuit following a devastating drowning accident of two toddlers, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant landowner.  The issues before the court in this appeal included standing, or the ability of the plaintiff to pursue legal claims against the landowner and renter of the property, as well as whether the plaintiff had demonstrated that the landlord owed a duty of care.

Jason Bradford brought a lawsuit against Terrence Mann, individually and as a trustee of the Terrence W. Mann Trust, for negligence and wrongful death after the death of his two children in a swimming pool on Mr. Mann’s rental property.  The trial court had granted summary judgment in favor of Mr. Mann, finding that Mr. Bradford could not establish causation for his negligence claim and could not prove neglect by Mr. Mann for the wrongful death claim, nor did he have standing to pursue his wrongful death claim.

Mr. Bradford contended Mr. Mann owed him a duty of care regarding his toddler children, and triable issues remained as to whether Mr. Mann’s conduct as a landlord breached that duty.

The appellate court stated that Mr. Mann rented a single-family residence with an in-ground swimming pool.  To access the backyard from the street, there were three locking gates.  Mr. Mann leased the property to Larry D’Angelo.  At that time, there was no fencing around the pool’s perimeter.

At the time of the accident, Mr. Bradford’s children were visiting or living with Mr. D’Angelo, along with their mother. Both Mr. D’Angelo and the children’s mother were using the property as an illegal marijuana drug grow house.  One evening, they fell asleep after consuming drugs, and while they were sleeping, the young children exited the house, accessed the pool, and drowned.

Mr. Bradford sued Mr. Mann, as well as Mr. D’Angelo and the mother of his children, alleging negligent supervision and wrongful death under a premises liability theory. Mr. Bradford contended that Mr. Mann owed the children a duty of care to ensure his property was safe and to prevent their use of a pool when an adult was not available, and that Mr. Mann failed to exercise reasonable care because he had notice that the pool area was not fenced in and lacked adequate supervision.

Mr. Mann moved for summary judgment on the grounds that it was unforeseeable and outside the scope of his duty as a property owner to have foreseen the events that led to the drowning accident. He also argued Mr. Bradford could not show causation. Mr. Mann also argued Mr. Bradford could not establish standing to sue for wrongful death. Mr. Bradford opposed the motion, but the trial court, after arguments on the matter, granted summary judgment.  Mr. Bradford appealed.

The court stated that Mr. Bradford’s standing to bring the lawsuit was based on his financial support of his children.  Mr. Mann contended that Mr. Bradford could not show he provided financial support to his children, and he could produce no evidence showing that he did support them. The issue on appeal was whether Mr. Bradford could not prove standing, based on the evidence in his discovery responses.

The court stated that Mr. Mann’s special interrogatories were “sufficiently comprehensive” and that he met his burden of showing Mr. Bradford could not establish standing through these responses.  Instead, Mr. Bradford’s responses were incomplete and conclusory, and they simply stated he supported his family, without documentation or witnesses.

Regarding whether Mr. Bradford met his opposing summary judgment burden to show triable issues of material fact remained regarding his standing to sue for wrongful death, the court stated that Mr. Bradford solely relied on the children’s mother’s deposition, which was not before the court.  In other words, Mr. Bradford failed to present admissible evidence that would raise a jury question as to whether he contributed financially to his children.  Summary judgment on the standing issue was proper, according to the appellate court.

Turning to the wrongful death claim, the court stated that the elements are those of a negligence claim, death, and damages, including pecuniary losses suffered by the heirs. The underlying tort claim for Mr. Bradford was one of negligence, based on premises liability.  He needed to show a duty and a breach, as well as causation and damages.

Mr. Bradford, on appeal, argued that Mr. Mann owed a nondelegable duty of care to Mr. Bradford’s children. The appellate court stated that Mr. Bradford essentially maintained that Mr. Mann had a duty of care to install a fence around the pool, and by failing to do so, he breached the duty owed to Mr. Bradford’s children.

The appellate court stated that the rule regarding the scope and existence of a duty considers factors such as the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered, moral blame, and the cost and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved.  Here, Mr. Mann showed that when Mr. D’Angelo moved into Mr. Mann’s property, there were locking gates and other security measures that would have prevented unsupervised children from accessing the backyard pool.

The appellate court stated that while landowners have an affirmative duty to maintain their premises in a safe condition, in this case, the scope of Mr. Mann’s duty of care did not include installing a fence around the pool, in addition to the other security measures. Here, Mr. Mann rented his house to an adult male and provided locking gates from the front yard to the backyard, and there was no evidence that Mr. Mann should have foreseen the particular risk at issue.  Mr. Mann did not have an additional specific duty of care.

The court also noted that the moral blame that often accompanies ordinary negligence is not enough to tip the balance in favor of liability.  There was no evidence Mr. Mann intended or planned the harmful result.

The court concluded that summary judgment was warranted in Mr. Mann’s favor on the duty of care issue.

At Sharifi Firm, our Southern California swimming pool accident attorneys provide personalized, efficient representation to injured individuals pursuing claims for compensation. We offer a no-obligation, free consultation and can be reached by calling 1-866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court Affirms Judgment in Favor of City Because Injured Plaintiff Had Not Sufficiently Pled Facts Showing City’s Duty to Light Crosswalk, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 18, 2016

California Court of Appeal Finds Plaintiffs Failed to Show Unsafe Condition and Landlord Duty Regarding Water Heater Temperature Responsible for Burns, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, July 8, 2016

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