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Cochrane v. Kopko

June 3, 2009

WILLIAM COCHRANE, APPELLANT
v.
LARRY KOPKO, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS WARREN COUNTY SHERIFF, THE WARREN COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT, JOHN BORTZ, JR., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS CHAIRMAN OF THE WARREN COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS, JOHN EGGLESTON, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS WARREN COUNTY COMMISSIONER, DAVID BAUER, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS WARREN COUNTY COMMISSIONER, AND THE COUNTY OF WARREN



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Leavitt

Argued: May 5, 2009

BEFORE: HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge, HONORABLE JOHNNY J. BUTLER, Judge, HONORABLE JIM FLAHERTY, Senior Judge.

OPINION

William Cochrane appeals an order of the Court of Common Pleas of the 37th Judicial District, Warren County Branch (trial court), granting summary judgment in favor of the County of Warren and Commissioners John Bortz, Jr., John Eggleston and David Bauer (collectively, County) in Cochrane's negligence action. The trial court held that the County did not breach the duty of care it owed to Cochrane, who was injured in his cell while he was incarcerated in the Warren County Prison. We affirm.

William Cochrane was an inmate at the Warren County Prison from November 8, 2002, until he was released on February 18, 2003. Cochrane was committed to several different cells during his incarceration and was assigned to Cell 307 beginning on November 28, 2002. Walking into Cell 307, one finds a metal-framed bunk bed bolted to the wall on the right side. At the foot of the bed is a steel sink and a toilet. Cochrane slept in the top bunk. To get to his bed, Cochrane had to climb onto the toilet and hoist himself up. Dismounting the bed required Cochrane to climb over the foot of the bed, place one foot on the sink, slide down and place the other foot on the sink, step from there onto the toilet below, and from there to the floor. Cochrane successfully mounted and dismounted his bed without incident from November 28, 2002, until February 16, 2003, when he was injured.

Cell 307 has a solid cell door with an opening that allows guards and inmates to pass food and other items back and forth. The door opens outward from the cell into the corridor. All of the cell doors in the prison are designed to unlock and open when the guard on duty activates a buzzer. Every morning at 6:00 a.m. the guard presses the buzzer for approximately five seconds. The guard repeats this process two additional times, at fifteen to twenty second intervals. All inmates are required to be out of bed with their cell door open, ready for inspection, after the third buzzer. Failure to do so may result in disciplinary action.

Many of the automatic door-opening mechanisms no longer work properly.*fn1 Inmates in cells with malfunctioning doors must manually open the door by pushing on it when the buzzer sounds. Thus, these inmates have three opportunities to open their door each morning. From the day he was first incarcerated, Cochrane had never been in a cell with a door that swung open automatically; he was thoroughly familiar with the dynamics of opening the cell door.

On the morning of February 16, 2003, Cochrane had already been awake for approximately one hour when he heard the first buzzer. He remained in bed because his cellmate usually got up to push the door open. On that morning, however, Cochrane's cellmate did not arise during the first buzzer. When Cochrane heard the second buzzer he got up on his knees to try to push the door open from his bed but he was not able to do so before the buzzer ended. When Cochrane heard the third buzzer he panicked, got up on his knees again, reached out from his bed and pushed on the cell door with both hands. This time the door popped open, leaving Cochrane with no support and causing him to tumble from the bunk. As he fell, Cochrane struck his back on the sink, his left hip on the bed frame and his head on the floor. He lost consciousness but was roused a minute later by a guard who had entered the cell. Cochrane was treated at a hospital and released to his home since his sentence ended on February 18, 2003.

Cochrane initiated the underlying civil action by complaint filed February 9, 2006.*fn2 Cochrane averred that the County was aware or should have been aware of the malfunctioning cell door in Cell 307 and negligently failed to correct that dangerous condition. Cochrane claimed that as a result of the County's negligence, he sustained severe and permanent injuries to his back, hips and right calf, as well as neurological injuries and loss of vision.*fn3 The County moved for summary judgment, arguing that any duty of care it owed to Cochrane as an invitee was abrogated when he chose a dangerous course of action in the face of an open, obvious, known and avoidable danger. The trial court granted the County's motion and the present appeal followed.

On appeal, Cochrane argues that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the County. He contends that the County owed him a special duty of care because, as an inmate, he had no control over his surroundings. Cochrane asserts that the County was aware that the door to Cell 307 was defective and that it would have to be opened manually in order to comply with the prison's wake-up protocol. Therefore, Cochrane maintains that it was foreseeable that an inmate might attempt to open a malfunctioning cell door by pushing on it from the top bunk and then injure himself as he fell to the floor.

An appellate court may reverse the granting of a motion for summary judgment only if there has been an error of law or an abuse of discretion. Phillips v. Selig, 959 A.2d 420, 428 (Pa. Super. 2008). Our scope of review is plenary, and in reviewing the trial court's order we apply the same standard for summary judgment as the trial court. Id. Pursuant to PA. R.C.P. No. 1035.2(2),*fn4 a trial court shall enter judgment if, after the completion of discovery, an adverse party who will bear the burden of proof at trial fails to produce "evidence of facts essential to the cause of action or defense which in a jury trial would require the issues to be submitted to a jury." In considering the merits of a motion for summary judgment, a court views the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party. Phillips, 959 A.2d at 427.

We begin with the standard of care owed by the County to the inmates in its prison. It is well settled that the standard of care owed to an individual by a possessor of land depends upon whether the individual is a trespasser, licensee or invitee. Carrender v. Fitterer, 503 Pa. 178, 184, 469 A.2d 120, 123 (1983). This Court has held that inmates are analogous to invitees for purposes of determining the duty of care owed by prison officials. Graf v. County of Northampton, 654 A.2d 131, 134 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1995).*fn5

Possessors of land owe a duty to invitees to protect them from foreseeable harm. Carrender, 503 Pa. at 185, 469 A.2d at 123 (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 341A, 343 and 343A (1965)). Regarding conditions on the land which are either known to or discoverable by the possessor, the possessor is subject to liability only if he

(a) knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable ...


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