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Stephen and Lynda Garton, H/W v. Inn At Nichols Village

September 28, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: (judge Caputo)


Presently before the Court is Defendant Inn at Nichols Village, Inc.'s Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 14). Plaintiffs Stephen and Lynda Garton brought this action against Defendant seeking damages for negligence and loss of consortium resulting from a slip-and-fall accident. Defendant alleges that Summary Judgment is warranted because of a prior agreement excepting it from liability. The Court disagrees, and for the reasons below will deny Defendant's Motion.

I. Background

The instant action is based upon diversity between Plaintiffs Stephen Garton ("Plaintiff Garton") and his wife, Lynda Garton, both residents of New Jersey, and Defendant Inn at Nichols Village, Inc. ("Nichols Corp."), a Pennsylvania corporation with a principal place of business in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania.

On the evening of July 30, 2008, Plaintiff Garton was injured while stepping into a shower in room #162 at the Inn at Nichols Village ("the Inn"). Plaintiff's foot slipped out from under him while entering the shower, causing him to fall backwards and strike his head on the bathroom counter, suffering bodily injury. Plaintiffs allege that the tub was in a dangerous, defective condition since its instillation as it lacked the non-slip protection that apparently existed in other rooms. (Doc. 19 at 18). Furthermore, Plaintiffs believe that cleaning product residue served to make the shower more slippery than otherwise. (Doc. 19 at 19). Plaintiffs bring this action for negligence and loss of consortium.

Defendant Nichols Corp. has motioned for summary judgment, claiming that "the material facts make it clear that Defendant had no legal or contractual duty or obligation to perform any maintenance with respect to the bathtub that caused Plaintiff Stephen Garton to fall and injure himself; therefore, Defendant cannot be liable for the alleged negligent maintenance of the bathtub." (Doc. 14 at 1). Specifically, Defendant points to a October 1, 2005 Management Agreement with Crescent Hospitality Corporation ("Crescent") that allegedly delegated sole responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the Inn. As such, Defendant contends that Nichols Corp. is not a proper party to the action since as of the date of the accident, "the duty to maintain safe bathtubs rested solely with Crescent Hospitality Corporation, the tenant in possession of the Inn at Nichols Village, and not with Defendant Inn at Nichols Village, Inc." (Doc. 15 at 5).

Specifically, Defendant asserts that a landlord-tenant relationship had been established between itself and Crescent, and as a landlord out of possession, Nichols Corp. had disclaimed any liability for injuries sustained at the Inn. (Doc. 15 at 8). Furthermore, Nichols Corp. claims it had no duty to supervise or carefully hire employees of the Inn as these responsibilities were allocated to Crescent per their agreement. (Doc. 15 at 12).

In its response to Defendant's Motion, Plaintiff alleges that the Management Agreement between Nichols Corp. and Crescent effectively expired on October 1, 2007--well before the July 2008 accident. (Doc. 19 at 5-6). Additionally, Plaintiff contends that even if the Agreement had not expired, its language did not actually surrender exclusive control of the Inn to Crescent, and that Defendant is still therefore a proper party to this negligence action. (Doc. 19 at 6). Further, Plaintiff indicates that beyond the agreement, the owners of Nichols Corp. did not truly relinquish their responsibilities but instead continued their oversight presence at the Inn. (Doc. 19 at 9-13).

II. Discussion

A. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2). A fact is material if proof of its existence or nonexistence might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

Where there is no material fact in dispute, the moving party need only establish that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2). Where, however, there is a disputed issue of material fact, summary judgment is appropriate only if the factual dispute is not a genuine one. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. An issue of material fact is genuine if "a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. Where there is a material fact in dispute, the moving party has the initial burden of proving that: (1) there is no genuine issue of material fact; and (2) the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See 2D Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2727 (2d ed. 1983). The moving party may present its own evidence or, where the nonmoving party has the burden of proof, simply point out to the court that "the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

All doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party, and the entire record must be examined in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. White v. Westinghouse Elec. Co., 862 F.2d 56, 59 (3d Cir. 1988). Once the moving party has satisfied its initial burden, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to either present affirmative evidence supporting its version of the material facts or to refute the moving party's contention that the facts entitle it to judgment as a matter of law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256--57. The Court need not accept mere conclusory allegations, whether they are made in the complaint or a sworn statement. Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888 (1990).

"To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must show specific facts such that a reasonable jury could find in that party's favor, thereby establishing a genuine issue of fact for trial." Galli v. New Jersey Meadowlands Comm'n, 490 F.3d 265, 270 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)). "While the evidence that the non-moving party presents may be either direct or circumstantial, and need not be as great as a preponderance, the evidence must be more than a scintilla." Id. (quoting Hugh v. Butler County Family YMCA, 418 F.3d 265, 267 (3d Cir. 2005)). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, "the judge's function ...

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