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Williams v. Wilson

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

April 5, 2017

JACK WILSON, et al., Defendants.



         Presently before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants Jack Wilson and Diane Hannah-Wilson (“the Wilsons” or “Defendants”) (Doc. No. 16), and Plaintiff Thelma Jean Williams's (“Williams” or “Plaintiff”) response in opposition (Doc. No. 17). In this case, Williams asserts a negligence claim against the Wilsons and seeks to recover damages as a result of an alleged fall from the front porch of a home owned by the Wilsons and leased by Williams.[1] For the reasons that follow, this Court will grant Defendants' Motion.


         In 2006, the Wilsons purchased a single family dwelling at 1642 Taney Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Defs.' Mot. at ¶¶ 1, 5. The Wilsons knew Williams as a family acquaintance, and in 2008 they leased the property to Williams. Id. at ¶¶ 5, 7. Williams signed a lease agreement and resided at the property with her husband, Milton Turner. Id. at ¶¶ 5, 8. The house contained a front porch or landing atop approximately four exterior steps that led to the sidewalk below. Id. at ¶ 1; Pl.'s Resp. Ex. B (Doc. No. 17-1), at 47-50. A handrail ran along the top landing down these exterior steps. Defs.' Mot. at ¶¶ 14-15; Pl.'s Resp. Ex. B, at 47-50.

         At approximately 1 a.m. on March 9, 2016, Williams was sitting outside in a chair on the landing of her front porch, at the top of the exterior steps. Defs.' Mot. at ¶¶ 1, 27, 28. When Williams got up from her chair, she fell down the steps. Id. at ¶ 28. Although she was sitting outside with a friend, no one witnessed her fall. Id. at ¶¶ 27, 30. Williams testified at her deposition that the handrail along the exterior steps had been loose, and that when she got up from her chair the handrail “was not there.” Id. at ¶ 28. Williams claims that at some point prior to her fall, she provided a note to the Wilsons informing them of the loose handrail with one of her rent checks, and that her husband also informed Jack Wilson of the issue. Id. at ¶¶ 25-26. The Wilsons, however, dispute ever being notified or made aware of the alleged loose handrail prior to Williams's fall. Id. at ¶¶ 38, 45-4


         A. Legal Standard

         “A federal court sitting in diversity must apply state substantive law and federal procedural law.” Chamberlain v. Giampapa, 210 F.3d 154, 158 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938)). Under the well-established summary judgment standard, “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Summary judgment is appropriate when ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Williams v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. 14-2345, 2015 WL 1573745, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 9, 2015) (quoting Wright v. Corning, 679 F.3d 101, 105 (3d Cir. 2012)).

[T]he plain language of Rule 56[a] mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. In such a situation, there can be ‘no genuine issue as to any material fact, ' since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial. The moving party is ‘entitled to judgment as a matter of law' because the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of [his or] her case with respect to which [he or] she has the burden of proof.

Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).

         “By its very terms, this standard [that there be no genuine issue as to any material fact] provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original). A material fact is one that “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Id. at 248.

         When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court shall consider facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Scheidemantle v. Slippery Rock Univ. State Sys. of Higher Educ., 470 F.3d 535, 538 (3d Cir. 2006). To prevail on summary judgment, however, “the non-moving party must present more than a mere scintilla of evidence; ‘there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-moving party].'” Burton v. Teleflex Inc., 707 F.3d 417, 425 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Jakimas v. Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc., 485 F.3d 770, 777 (3d Cir. 2007)); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. As this case is in federal court on diversity jurisdiction, we will apply Pennsylvania law to this dispute. Erie R.R. Co., 304 U.S. at 78; Sheridan v. NGK Metals Corp., 609 F.3d 239, 253 (3d Cir. 2010).

         B. Defendants Are Entitled to Summary Judgment on Williams's Claim for Negligence

         The Wilsons argue that they are entitled to summary judgment on Williams's negligence claim because: (1) as out of possession landlords, they are not liable to Williams, their lessee, for physical harm caused by any dangerous condition which came into existence after the lessee took possession of the property; (2) even if traditional negligence principles apply, there was no evidence of notice of the alleged dangerous condition; (3) Williams can only speculate that the condition of the handrail caused her fall and consequently, she fails to establish causation; and (4) the indemnification clause in the lease agreement bars Williams's claim. Defs.' Mot. at 17.

         The Wilsons are correct that, generally, landlords out of possession are not liable for harm incurred on the property by the lessee. Sentry Cas. Co. v. Spray Prods. Corp., No. 06-cv-1664, 2008 WL 205229, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 23, 2008). This rule, however, is subject to certain exceptions and a landlord out of possession may incur liability if: (1) the landlord has reserved control over a defective portion of the demised premises; (2) the demised premises are so dangerously constructed that the premises are a nuisance per se; (3) the lessor has knowledge of a dangerous condition existing on the demised premises at the time of transferring possession and fails to disclose the condition to the lessee; (4) the landlord leases the property for a purpose involving the admission of the public and he neglects to inspect for or repair dangerous conditions existing on the property before possession is transferred to the lessee; (5) the lessor undertakes to repair the demised premises and ...

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