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Sanders v. Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

November 20, 2013

WILLIE SANDERS and JOSIE SANDERS, Plaintiffs,
v.
SHILOH MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

GLEN H. DAVIDSON, District Judge.

Presently before this Court is a motion for summary judgment [32] filed by Defendant Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. After due consideration, the Court finds the motion [32] should be denied.

A. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiffs Willie Sanders ("Mr. Sanders") and Josie Sanders ("Mrs. Sanders") (collectively, "Plaintiffs") bring this civil action against Defendant Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church ("the Church"). Plaintiffs allege that on or about October 29, 2011, Mr. Sanders was attending his father's funeral at the Church in Shelby, Mississippi, when he tripped and fell on uneven flooring in the Church sanctuary. Plaintiffs allege that as a result of the fall, Mr. Sanders suffered serious injuries to his knee, and Mrs. Sanders sustained loss of consortium and loss of services of her husband. Plaintiffs allege that these injuries and damages were directly and proximately caused by the Church's negligence and gross negligence in maintaining its premises in an unsafe manner.

The Church denies liability for damages arising from the alleged incident and has filed a motion for summary judgment [32]. Plaintiffs have filed a response, and the Church has filed a reply. The matter is now ripe for review.

B. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment "should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). See FED. R. CW. P. 56(a); Weaver v. CCA Indus., Inc., 529 F.3d 335, 339 (5th Cir. 2008). The rule "mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a sufficient showing to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548.

The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. Under Rule 56(a), the burden then shifts to the nonmovant to "go beyond the pleadings and by... affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (internal quotation marks omitted). Accord Littlefield v. Forney Inaep. Sch. Dist., 268 F.3d 275, 282 (5th Cir. 2001); Willis v. Roche Biomedical Labs., Inc., 61 F.3d 313, 315 (5th Cir. 1995).

Where, as here, the parties dispute the facts, the Court must view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007) (internal citations omitted). "However, a nonmovant may not overcome the summary judgment standard with conclusional allegations, unsupported assertions, or presentation of only a scintilla of evidence." McClure v. Boles, 490 F.Appx. 666, 667 (5th Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (citing Hathaway v. Bazany, 507 F.3d 312, 319 (5th Cir. 2007)).

C. Analysis and Discussion

At issue in this premises-liability case are whether Mr. Sanders should be classified as a licensee or an invitee and whether Plaintiffs have raised a genuine dispute of material fact that precludes summary judgment. The distinction between whether Mr. Sanders is an invitee or licensee has great significance in this case. If Mr. Sanders was a licensee at the time of his injury, the Church's duty was to refrain from willfully or wantonly injuring him. See Lucas v. Buddy Jones Ford Lincoln Mercury, Inc., 518 So.2d 646, 648 (Miss. 1988). If, however, Mr. Sanders was an invitee, then the Church's duty was to exercise reasonable care to keep the premises in a safe condition, and if the Church knew of-or by the exercise of reasonable care should have known of-a dangerous condition not readily apparent to Mr. Sanders, then the Church was under a duty to warn Mr. Sanders of such condition. See Clark v. Moore Mem'l United Methodist Church, 538 So.2d 760, 764 (Miss. 1989).

The Church contends that Mr. Sanders was a licensee and that Plaintiffs' claims must be dismissed because Plaintiffs fail to show either that the Church willfully and wantonly injured Plaintiffs, or that the Church engaged in active conduct and knew of Mr. Sanders' presence and that its active-negligence caused Plaintiffs' injuries. The Church alternatively contends that even if Mr. Sanders was an invitee and thus owed the duty of reasonable care, Plaintiffs fail to raise a genuine dispute of material fact that would sustain their claims past summary judgment.

In a premises-liability case, "duty is contingent on the status of the injured person. Thus, the first step in determining duty is to identify the status of the injured at the time of the injury." Albert v. Scott's Truck Plaza, Inc., 978 So.2d 1264, 1266 (Miss. 2008) (quoting Massey v. Tingle, 867 So.2d 235, 239 (Miss. 2004)).[1] If the facts are not in dispute, the plaintiffs classification is a question of law; however, if the facts are in dispute, "[t]he determination of which status a particular plaintiff holds can be a jury question." Id. at 1267 (quoting Clark, 538 So.2d at 763 (citing Lucas, 518 So.2d at 648; Adams v. Fred's Dollar Store, 497 So.2d 1097, 1100 (Miss. 1986))). Because the pertinent facts to the determination of Mr. Sanders' classification are not in dispute, his classification is a question of law for the Court.

The pertinent undisputed facts are as follows: Mr. Sanders entered the Church on the date in question for the purpose of attending his father's funeral and was listed as an honorary pallbearer in the funeral program. See Funeral Program [42-13] at 6. The Church is an entirely self-owned, self-operated, and self-maintained entity that relies on the tithes of members and contributions from others to support itself financially. See Pls.' Resp. Opp'n to Def.'s MSJ [42] ¶ 3; Def.'s Reply Supp. MSJ [48] ¶ 2; Harris Dep. [42-4] at 15-16. Neither Mr. Sanders nor Mrs. Sanders attended the Church prior to the date of the funeral or at any date subsequent thereof. See Pls.' Resps. to Def.'s RFA [32-3] ¶¶ 1-2; Def.'s Reply Supp. MSJ [48] ¶ 1. The deceased's ex-wife, who was a long-time, regularly tithing Church member, requested that the Church hold the funeral; the Church did so. See Pls.' Mem. Br. SUpp. Resp. to Def.'s MSJ [43] at 3; Def.'s Mem. Br. SUpp. MSJ [33] at 2; Rev. Miller Dep. [42-7] at 32; Harris Dep. [42-4] at 15. Neither the Church nor the officiating pastor, Reverend James E. Miller, charged for use of the building or funeral services performed at the building. See Pls.' Mem. Br. Supp. Resp. Opp'n to Def.'s MSJ [43] at 3; ...


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