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Appeals Court: Injured man proved dangerous condition' of Union bridge.

Byline: Nicholas Phillips

The Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District ruled May 14 in favor of a man who fell off a short bridge in Union and sued that city for negligence.

The question for the panel was whether Judge Gael D. Wood of Franklin County Circuit Court had been correct to grant the City of Union's motion for a directed verdict. Wood did so after finding that the plaintiff Jeffrey Pinnell had failed to make a submissible case for waiver of the city's sovereign immunity.

The appeals panel, which included the opinion's author Judge James M. Dowd and concurring judges Sherri B. Sullivan and Robin Ransom, reversed that order and remanded the case to Franklin County Circuit Court. They concluded that Pinnell had, in fact, presented substantial evidence of a "dangerous condition" as defined by state law.

"It's a correct decision," said Mark T. McCloskey, the St. Louis attorney who represented Pinnell. "The situation out there in Union was remarkably dangerous."

Matthew G. Koehler of Brown & James, who represented Union, declined to comment.

On Sept. 9, 2015, Pinnell sat down to smoke a cigarette on a headwall approximately 20 inches high on a short bridge near a bar called Maggie's Over the Creek, according to McCloskey and the appeals opinion. Pinnell lost his balance and fell 13 feet to the creek below, suffering a massive skull fracture and four vertebral fractures.

Pinnell sued Union on one count of negligence. The burden that Pinnell had to meet in order to overcome the city's claim of sovereign immunity was to show, among other things, that his injuries directly resulted from city property that was in dangerous condition.

At trial, the circuit judge reasoned that to prove a "dangerous condition," Pinnell had needed to present "evidence that the headwall showed a purely physical and intrinsic defect such as 'rotten' or crumbling concrete that gave way," thereby allowing Pinnell to fall and get hurt.

But the panel found that "The scope of what constitutes a dangerous condition in this context is not nearly so narrow."

They cited Cain v. Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, a 2007 decision in which the Missouri Supreme Court addressed this very issue. The high court ruled in that case that the "placement" of an object created a dangerous condition "even though there was no physical defect" or any "intrinsic defect" but rather because of the "positioning of various items of property."

In Pinnell's case, the panel found that "a jury reasonably could have found it was foreseeable that Pinnell might fall from the headwall down into the creek and be injured," so "he met his threshold burden."

The case is Pinnell v. City of Union, ED106881.

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Publication:Missouri Lawyers Media
Date:May 23, 2019
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