Court: Bar shares responsibility for death of patron who opened wrong door in restroom search and fell to his death

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.

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daft

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"It was undisputed that the decedent's intention was to use the men's room and that he MISTAKENLY opened the wrong door."

It was a MISTAKE people, it happens - someone remind the judges. Maybe if I saw the actual site where this happened I would be convinced, but this otherwise looks like someone trying to place the blame for something that was really just a a drunken accident.I'm surprised they didn't also smack the bar for overserving the guy since he apparently drank so much couldn't read signs. Is the judge also saying that 'no trespassing' (/employees only) signs don't mean anything unless accompanied by a locked fence with barbed wire on top?

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Disagree

If the only thing keeping someone from falling to their death is a small plastic sign, you are doing something wrong. People make mistakes: misreading a sign and/or opening the wrong door in a bar shouldn't be punishable by death.

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exactly

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As you say, "People make mistakes" = exactly my point. It's not like the restaurant intended a death sentence. I really question where one should draw the line here. By the logic of this ruling, should every door with stairs behind it be locked with a big fluorescent sign stating "CAUTION! STAIRS!"?

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Pretty much yes

By the logic of this ruling, should every door with stairs behind it be locked with a big fluorescent sign stating "CAUTION! STAIRS!"

If a place of public accommodation has a hallway, accessible to patrons, with a door behind which there is a two-foot drop to the first step, then by any possible stretch of the imagination, leaving the door unlocked is negligence. In fact I'd go so far as to have such a setup, ,irrespective of whether the door is locked or unlocked, is probably some sort of significant safety code violation.

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code

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It depends, but generally you need a landing at least the width of the door before/after door that leads to stairs so this exact thing does not happen. In this case, with the venue being a bar, it fits into an "assembly" use, meaning the swing of the door cannot reduce the width of the landing by more than half the required width. So yes, a decently wide landing should be required.

Also, 7" is usually the max rise for a tread for a stair, so if the first step is 2' it would definitely not pass code today. It might be grandfathered in some strange way, but that's another story.

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I would think...

... that even for benefit of employees, the door should have a BIG warning -- Danger! Two foot drop to first stair!

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Yes, Exactly.

By the logic of this ruling, should every door with stairs behind it be locked with a big fluorescent sign stating "CAUTION! STAIRS!"?

Absolutely, if we're talking about that door being directly adjacent to bathroom doors in a public place, particularly one which serves booze.

If this was a lab or personal home and the only people with access to the doors would be employees or residents, a warning might not be required. But the bar in question seemed perfectly situated for serious injury due to a simple and common mistake. A small sign on the door is not sufficient.

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Lock

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It sounded like normally it would have been the patron's fault, but since the owner testified that the door is usually locked for safety but was not on the day that he fell, it was their fault. They were negligent for not locking it.

It's similar to those slip and fall cases were its the establishment's fault if you slip on the drink that someone else spilled. You have a reasonable expectation that moving about in a restaurant will not lead to your injury or death.

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If the law doesn't require

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If the law doesn't require locking such a door, why should it matter if the bar sometimes locked it voluntarily?

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Except for the fact that...

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"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."

Over 2'6"!

That's a huge drop "towards" the stairs, not the first step of the stairway itself, that the patron fell down.

In fact, to help quantify the height, it's about half that of a normal height woman. Certainly it was negligent to not have this door locked, especially since the door opened towards the stairs.

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The bar was not held completely at faul

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Apologies for not listing the exact number, but the jury found the bar was only 20% responsible for the man's death. The bar was contesting even that amount.

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80%

The ruling says the decedent (not the defendant) was 20% responsible, leaving 80% for the bar. If you're found more than 50% responsible for your own injury, you can't collect damages from anyone else at all.

Also, this was an Appeals Court ruling and not the SJC, but it's neither here nor there as I can't imagine the bar's insurance company wanting to pursue higher review after getting slapped down so firmly at this level.

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Using the court's logic, we

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Using the court's logic, we should be able to sue the city if you get towed for parking in a tow zone. "The signs are confusingly similar!" "There are lots of distractions on the street!"

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Bad analogy

If there was spot with an unassuming sign labeled "car crushing station" next to a normal parking spot then you'd have a point.

Have your car towed isn't the same as death. (At least not in the literal meaning.)

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False equivalent

The "guest" and "invitee" provisions of tort law are well established. They are neither unique or a torture theory of law. You run a business which invites the public into your business you assume, in general, responsibility to ensure that your guest is not injury from known or foreseeable injuries. If you have a door that lead to a condition that results in the injury of a patron, a sign is insufficient protection - the door should have been sealed or barred to prevent anyone (employees as well) from passing through the doorway. In short, you can not pass on one's duty to prevent injury to the victim.

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The question was whether

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The question was whether walking through an "Employees only" door is considered trespass, which would make everything you just said about tort irrelevant. Did walking through the door turn the "patron" into a "trespasser? The court decided no, essentially saying that trespass should be hard.

This throws a huge money wrench into parking enforcement. If you park in a Dunkin Donuts parking lot and walk away and get towed, you've been towed for trespass. Even parking in the wrong place on street cleaning day is trespassing on city property, as far as the law is concerned, allowing them to tow you. Using the court's logic, signs are not enough to stop trespassing.

The case may be about customer safety, but this decision is just about trespass.

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Parking

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So are you saying that it isn't trespassing to park illegally? Shouldn't the city need to barricade the parking spots (using the judges logic)?

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Towing =/= Death

There is no conflict. You can be towed or fined for parking violations but not sent to death.

If the bar wanted to kick this guy out for opening the employees only door, that would be fine. What isn't OK is not taking basic precautions to prevent someone from being serious injured as a result of accidentally opening the wrong door.

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Apples != Oranges

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If "the law says property owners should be blameless for any harm that befalls trespassers" then it doesn't matter if the result is towing or death or a boo-boo. You walk through the "employees only" door at your own peril.

If an employee or contractor or health inspector was hurt, that would be entirely different.

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You should read the opinion first

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Before posting a snarky and inaccurate comments, you should read the full opinion. The reason he was able to open the door was because it was also undisputed that the bar kept the door locked during business hours and made the mistake of leaving it unlocked. Had it been locked as it usually was, then this wouldn't have happened at all.

Also, the comment about parking signs is just totally irrelevant. This was a case about the rights and responsibilities of a customer and the business owners.

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That makes no sense

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The law says that someone can't be held liable for harm to trespassers. It's crazy that this judge is adding additional requirements for what constitutes trespassing. If I leave my home unlocked and someone comes in, they are trespassing. It doesn't matter if I left the door unlocked - it's clearly not their property. For the bar, the door was clearly marked. They shouldn't be held liable because someone decided to ignore the warning and trespass anyway.

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i think however

if you invite a person in your home and they open a random door and die on your murderstairs, you might have some liability for it

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Actually, at common law you

Actually, at common law you still owe a duty to even trespassers on private land. It's just a lesser duty such as the duty not to willfully harm an undiscovered trespasser (don't protect your house with a spring loaded gun...). For an anticipated trespasser (you are aware that people cut through a corner of your property for example), the duty is to warn of known dangerous conditions that would be hidden to them.

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