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Plaintiff was licensee and can amend complaint.

Byline: Virginia Lawyers Weekly

Where a plaintiff was injured on a defendant's property while performing work that did not provide any special benefit to the defendant, the plaintiff could not sue the defendant on the ground that he was an invitee at the time of his injury, but he may have been able to state a claim against the defendant based on his status as a licensee.

Background

Defendant SprintCom Inc. is a foreign corporation with significant business transactions in Virginia. SprintCom leases space on the roof of Rouse Tower in Newport News, for their communication equipment. Pursuant to the lease, SprintCom maintained an elevated platform on the roof that had a metal grate surface that people could walk on to check equipment. Sometime prior to March 29, 2018, the date of the accident that forms the basis of this suit, SprintCom had removed some of its equipment from the elevated platform, leaving several large openings.

Plaintiff Donald Terry Hall is the Director of Emergency Communications for the counties of York, Poquoson and Williamsburg. On March 29, 2018, Hall went onto SprintCom's elevated platform to plan the placement of equipment for use by 911 emergency calls. While performing his job, he stepped into one of the openings in the metal grate, fell, and suffered an injury.

Hall filed a complaint against SprintCom on Sept. 17, 2018 and, following a motion to dismiss by SprintCom, filed an amended complaint on Oct. 24, 2018. The amended complaint contains a single count of negligence, claiming that SprintCom breached the duty of care it owed to Hall as an invitee. SprintCom now moves to dismiss the amended complaint.

Analysis

This case is governed by the substantive tort law of Virginia because that is the state in which the alleged harm occurred. Under Virginia law, owners and occupiers of property may be held liable for injuries caused to other persons by conditions on their premises and tenants or lessees, as possessors or occupiers of the leased premises, owe the same duties that an owner would.

SprintCom argues that it should not be considered an occupant because it did not have exclusive possession of the roof and further claims that the landlord retained the duty of maintenance and repair. However, while SprintCom may not have had possession of the entire roof, it did have possession of the portion it leased, and it was on this leased portion that the subject accident occurred. In addition, case law in Virginia suggest that tenants who assign a duty of maintenance and repair to landlords may still have liability.

Notably, contrary to SprintCom's contentions, the lease did not place the duty of repair and maintenance exclusively on the landlord. Rather, the lease explicitly states that the tenant has a duty to repair damages it caused. Here, SprintCom arguably caused the damage by removing its equipment and creating the hole that caused plaintiff's injury.

For these reasons, SprintCom did owe some duty of care to Hall. The scope of that duty, however, depends on whether Hall is considered a trespasser, licensee or invitee.

Hall claims he was an invitee because SprintCom knew and allowed individuals like him to use the elevated platform for purposes related to the various communications equipment thereon. However, this allegation is only sufficient to establish that Hall was on the property with SprintCom's implied consent. Moreover, Hall only claims he was on the property to plan the placement of equipment for 911 calls. There is no explanation as to how this benefited SprintCom or even related to SprintCom's business in any way.

As Hall's amended complaint only alleges that he was owed a duty of care based on his status as an invitee, and as he fails to demonstrate that he was, in fact, an invitee, the amended complaint fails to state a cause of action upon which relief can be granted.

Nevertheless, because the allegations demonstrate that Hall was at least a licensee who was owed some duty of care, he may be able to assert a valid claim for relief if appropriate amendment takes place, and he should be given the opportunity to make such an amendment.

Motion granted.

Hall v. Sprintcom Inc., Case No. 4:18-cv-115, Jan. 25, 2019. EDVA at Newport News (Davis). VLW 019-3-064. 15 pp.

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Title Annotation:Hall v. Sprintcom Inc., U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia
Publication:Virginia Lawyers Weekly
Date:Mar 8, 2019
Words:722
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