The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that a bar patron in search of the men's room who mistakenly opened a door marked "employees only" that led to a fatal fall down the stairs behind the door was not legally a "trespasser" and so the bar owes his estate damages.
The bar, Smitty's Sports Pub in Taunton, appealed a jury's verdict that it shared part of the blame for Ronald Leger's death because the door had a sign marked "Employees Only," which meant that by opening it he was legally a trespasser on that part of their property, and the law says property owners should be blameless for any harm that befalls trespassers.
The state's highest court disagreed. Because the bar's owners did not dispute the basics of what happened, the court said, whether or not the man was a trespasser was up to the judge, not the jury to decide and so the judge was within his rights to declare the man was not trespassing on Smitty's property. The court continued:
It was undisputed that the decedent's intention was to use the men's room and that he mistakenly opened the wrong door. Additionally, the defendant disclosed that it was the usual business practice to keep the "Employees Only" door locked during business hours. ... There was sufficient evidence here for the jury to conclude that it was the negligence of the defendant that caused or permitted the decedent to mistakenly use the wrong door to enter what he believed to be a public restroom. The unlocked door opened inward, instead of outward, to an unlit staircase onto a more than two and one-half feet drop to the cellar stairs. The three doors [for the two restrooms and the basement stairs] looked similar, were close in proximity, and had similar looking signage. The doors were also in a hallway where there were distractions to the patrons, such as a Keno lottery game machine and signs that advertised games and alcoholic beverages. The negligence of the defendant occurred within premises that were open to the public and to whom were owed a duty of reasonable care in all the circumstances.
The ruling comes three years after the court held Our House East on Gainsborough Street responsible for the death of a man who fell to his death down a set of stairs.
However, in that case, the jury found the bar was not negligent, but then the judge found for the dead man's estate on the grounds the bar violated the state consumer-protection law in part because they knew about the potential problem for more than 20 years and never fixed it - and had the man known, he might have taken his business elsewhere.