You Be the Judge: Enter at Your Own Risk

This issue’s You Be the Judge involves gruesome toilet injury, massive suits, and major changes to California law. Who was in the right? From the November/December 2018 issue.

A running faucet

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When James Rowland asked his friend Nancy Christian to take him to the airport, she agreed and told him to come to her apartment when it was time to leave. While there, he used her bathroom and was injured when a porcelain handle on the water faucet broke. Rowland was rushed to the hospital, where he was treated for severed tendons and nerves in his right hand.

Rowland sued Christian for negligence, asking for reimbursement of medical expenses, lost wages, and damage to his clothing, plus $100,000 in general damages. His attorneys argued that Christian was aware of the dangerous conditions and had failed to warn her guest.

Christian acknowledged that she had noticed cracks in the handle several weeks before the accident; she even reported it to her landlord and was waiting for a replacement when her friend was injured. But she also noted that Rowland could have used his own “eyesight” to see the cracks and avoided the injury without a warning from her.

Christian’s attorneys made a motion for a summary judgment — a final decision by the court without a trial when the basic facts of the case are not in dispute. They argued that their client could not be held liable for negligence because well-established California law states that social guests (such as Rowland) are “obliged to take the premises as they find them insofar as any alleged defective condition, and that the possessor of the land owes them only the duty of refraining from wanton or willful injury.”

How Would You Rule?

Should Christian have given her guest fair warning about the defective faucet, or should Rowland accept responsibility for his own injury? Based on the aforementioned California law, the court granted the summary judgment in Christian’s favor.

But the story doesn’t end there. Rowland appealed the judgment, claiming the question of facts and liability should have been determined by a fair trial.

His appeal went to the California Supreme Court, which agreed that “the summary judgment procedure is drastic and should be used with caution so that it does not become a substitute for an open trial.” The court went on to say that even though evidence showed Rowland was a social guest, it had not been established that the faucet handle crack was obvious. The court wrote that Christian was aware of the condition of the faucet and therefore should have realized that it involved an unreasonable risk of harm to her guest. Ultimately it reversed the decision of the lower court, ruling that Christian did not exercise reasonable care to eliminate the danger or warn him of it, and that he did not know or have reason to know of the danger, and her failure to warn of or repair the condition constituted negligence.

Not only was Rowland’s appeal successful, but the proceedings also led to a substantial change in California law. In deciding for Rowland, the court reversed the existing law and replaced it with a higher standard of responsibility for property owners for the safety of their guests, stating, “A man’s life or limb does not become less worthy of protection by the law nor a loss less worthy of compensation under the law because he has come upon the land of another.”

The Rowland standard of requiring property owners to exercise “reasonable caution” has now been either fully or partially adopted by many other states, providing personal protection against negligence to many who would not have had it under the traditional rules.

Rowland v. Christian, 1968

This article is from the November/December 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Comments

  1. I agree with the ruling in the subsequent appeal that led to the substantial change in California law (and the other states) in this regard.

    There’s always the risk of frivolous lawsuits by those looking for an easy payout at the expense of others. It’s the unfortunate part of the price of doing what’s right for the common good; protecting the vast majority who are not like that, and would be greatly harmed if such laws were not in place, as the 1968 case above shows.

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