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Protection From Injury Suits Widened

January 22, 1993|PHILIP HAGER | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — The state Supreme Court, rejecting a claim by a repairman who slipped on a slice of lunch meat, gave new protection Thursday to government agencies and business firms against lawsuits for injuries on their property.

In a 6-1 decision, the court held that a San Diego County school district could not be held liable for damages for such injuries without proof that its employees created a dangerous situation.

The ruling was an important victory for a coalition of 32 California cities and a business-backed group that had urged the court to overturn an appellate decision they said could substantially widen their vulnerability to personal injury lawsuits.

Lawyers said Thursday's holding will make it more difficult for persons claiming injury to go to trial without specific proof of defendants' negligence. Government and businesses, they said, will be less likely to settle claims to avoid the cost of a trial.

San Diego Deputy City Atty. Leslie J. Girard, representing the municipalities who backed a local school district in the dispute, said the ruling "certainly lessens our potential exposure, which is significant these days when funds are very tight throughout the state."

Sidney A. Stutz of San Diego, attorney for the Poway Unified School District, said the decision had broad implications, strengthening protections not only for government entities but stores, markets and other private concerns.

The ruling also will probably curb rising personal injury claims against property owners, said Fred J. Hiestand, general counsel for the Assn. for California Tort Reform. Had the high court left defendants more vulnerable to such claims, they would often choose to settle--regardless of fault--to avoid trials costing $20,000 even in the simplest of cases, he said.

Attorneys for the victim in the case did not return telephone calls.

In the ruling, the justices imposed limits on a venerable legal doctrine that holds that certain accidents are so likely to have been caused by a defendant's negligence that fault must be presumed--"the thing speaks for itself"--until the defendant proves otherwise.

In the case before the court, computer repairman Francis Brown brought suit after he suffered serious back and head injuries when he slipped and fell in a hallway of a school district maintenance facility near an area where employees sometimes ate their lunches. Brown blamed the fall on a piece of lunch meat found stuck to the sole of his shoe.

Only district employees held keys to the building, but there were three non-employees who also had been in the hall the morning of the accident. No one saw the lunch meat in the hallway before Brown fell, nor was anyone seen eating at the employees' lunch table or in the hallway.

The district sought dismissal of the suit on the grounds that there was no proof an employee left the lunch meat. Brown countered that the law required the presumption that the district was responsible and that a jury should hear the case.

A San Diego County Superior Court agreed with the district and ordered a dismissal. But in 1991 a state Court of Appeal reinstated the suit, finding that the accident would not ordinarily occur without someone's negligence and that the district must go to trial to show it was not responsible.

On Thursday, Justice Edward A. Panelli, writing for the court majority, said that it could not be presumed such accidents resulted from negligence or that the premises was exclusively controlled by the district.

"Such an occurrence ordinarily does not 'speak for itself,' " Panelli wrote. "The lunch meat might have been dropped by an employee, but it might also have been dropped by a visitor, tracked in from the outside or from Brown's van."

The majority said further that under state statutes, the district and other government entities could not be held financially responsible for injuries without proof that their employees caused a danger.

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