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Bloome v. Joshua's Haven, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Western Division

December 5, 2019

ROBERT BLOOME PLAINTIFF
v.
JOSHUA'S HAVEN, INC. DEFENDANT

          ORDER

          DAVID BRAMLETTE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Joshua's Haven, Inc. (“Joshua's Haven”)'s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 40), Plaintiff Doctor Robert Bloome (“Dr. Bloome”)'s Response (Doc. 45), and the Defendant's Reply (Doc. 49). Having read the motion, memoranda in support, the applicable statutory and case law, and being otherwise fully informed in the premises, the Court finds that the Defendant's Motion should be

         DENIED.

         Background

         This case arises out of an injury that occurred on the premises of Joshua's Haven. Joshua's Haven is a non-profit Florida corporation with its principle place of business in Liberty, Mississippi. Susan Williams (“Williams”) serves as the Director of Joshua's Haven, an exotic animal sanctuary. Dr. Bloome lives in a camper on the premises of the animal sanctuary and has worked with Williams as a volunteer at Joshua's Haven for several years. Will Robinson (“Robinson”) was a volunteer worker at the sanctuary at the time of the accident.

         On or about June 26, 2017, Williams directed Dr. Bloome and Robinson to cut down several tree limbs and an oak tree that was approximately 60 to 70 feet tall. A Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks agent told Williams that the oak tree posed a risk to the animal pens. Dr. Bloome, in his deposition, testified that The Board of Directors at Joshua's Haven authorized Williams to hire a professional arborist to remove the tree. Bloome Dep. [ECF 46-2] at p. 16:20-21. However, instead of hiring a professional, she instructed volunteers to perform the task, citing financial concerns as her justification. Williams Dep. [ECF 46-1] at pp. 21:21- 22:1.

         Dr. Bloome and Robinson began to trim the limbs, at which point Williams returned inside to continue with other work. There is inconsistent testimony as to what happened next, i.e., who made what cut or cuts in the tree, where Dr. Bloome was when the tree began to fall, and to what degree Dr. Bloome and Robinson each participated in the tree removal. However, it is undisputed that in the process of cutting down the tree, the tree began to slide off the stump, becoming completely disconnected, and fell on Dr. Bloome. On the date of the accident, Robinson was an eighteen (18) year-old minor and Dr. Bloome was a 63-year-old physician who had recently undergone back surgery.

         Standard of Review

         A party is entitled to summary judgment if the movant “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The Court is not permitted to make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence at the summary judgment stage of litigation. See Deville v. Marcantel, 567 F.3d 156, 164 (5th Cir. 2009)(citing Turner v. Baylor Richardson Med. Ctr., 476 F.3d 337, 343 (5th Cir. 2010)). All facts and inferences must be made in “the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” See Sierra Club, Inc. v. Sandy Creek Energy Assoc., L.P., 627 F.3d 134, 138 (5th Cir. 2010)(citation omitted). “[S]ummary judgment is rarely appropriate on issues dealing with negligence and thus if reasonable minds could reach different conclusions and inferences from the evidence, the Court must submit the case to the jury.” Robinson v. Dickie Mach. Welding & Metal Works Inc., No. 74-433, 1975 WL 6444176 (E.D. La. May 6, 1975)(internal quotations omitted).

         Discussion

         Status of the Plaintiff

         The parties dispute which standard of care should be applied to these facts, whether the standard is that of a premise liability action or if the applicable standard is simple negligence. If the premise liability standard applies, the status of the Plaintiff - whether he was a licensee or invitee - determines the standard of care that the Defendant must meet. “[A]n invitee is a person who goes upon the premises of another in answer to the express or implied invitation of the owner or occupant for their mutual advantage.” Clark v. Moore Memorial United Methodist Church, 538 So.2d 760, 762-763 (Miss. 1989). A licensee is one who “enters upon the property of another for his own convenience, pleasure or benefit pursuant to the license or implied permission of the owner.” Id. at 763.

         A landowner owes a duty to refrain from “willfully or wantonly” injuring a licensee. Id. at 763. On the other hand, a landowner owes a duty to an invitee to “exercise reasonable care to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition and, if the invitor knows of, or by the exercise of reasonable care should have known of, a dangerous condition, which is not readily apparent to the invitee, the invitor is under a duty to warn the invitee of such a condition.” Id. at 764.

         However, The Hoffman exception, first articulated in Hoffman v. Planters Gin Co., 358 So.2d 1008, 1013 (Miss. 1978), established that the general distinctions between licensee and invitee do not always fit the factual circumstances at issue and therefore, do not control every premise liability action. As the court in Hoffman wrote,

“We are of the opinion the testimony presented a conflict of facts for resolution by a jury to be measured by the standard of ordinary and reasonable care rather than the standard of intentional or wanton negligence as held by the trial court. We think the premises owner is liable for injury proximately caused by his affirmative or active negligence in the operation or control of a business which subjects either licensee or invitee to unusual danger, or increases the hazard to him, when his presence is known and that the standard of ordinary and reasonable care has application.”

Id. at 1013. However, the Hoffman exception “has no place in determining whether a cause of action falls within the realm of premises liability versus that of simple negligence. Rather, the Hoffman exception is applicable only in premise liability cases where, by a finding of certain factors, the duty of care owed to a licensee should be elevated from ‘willful and wanton injury' to a ‘reasonable standard of care.'” Doe v. Jameson Inn, Inc., 56 So.3d 549, 553 (Miss. 2011).

         As a preliminary matter, this is a premise liability case because Dr. Bloome was “injured on a landowner's premises as a result of ‘conditions or activities' on the land.” See Doe, 56 So.3d at 553(citing Black's Law Dictionary 961 (7th ed. 2000)). “The determination of which status a particular plaintiff holds can be a jury question, but where the facts are not in dispute the classification becomes a question of law.” Clark, 538 So.2d at 763. As the facts relevant to classification are not in dispute, the Court must determine whether the Hoffman exception applies to this case.

         The Mississippi Supreme Court recently overturned cases that limited the Hoffman exception to the operation or control of a business. See Johnson v. Goodson, 267 So.3d 774, n.3 (Miss. 2019)(“[W]e find that the Hoffman Court's language does not limit its holding to business owners or business premises. Cases such as Little[1] and Hughes[2] are overruled to the extent they declare otherwise.”) If a case falls within the Hoffman exception, the issue becomes whether the defendant satisfied its duty of ordinary and reasonable care, “the degree of care and prudence that a person of normal intelligence would exercise under the same or similar circumstances.” Mork v. Ingalls Shipbuilding, No. 99-60534, 2000 WL 294442, at *2 (5th Cir. 2000). To determine if Hoffman applies, the Court must ask: (1) was there affirmative or active negligence that subjected Dr. Bloome to “unusual danger”, and (2) did Joshua's Haven know of Dr. Bloome's presence?

         Affirmative or ...


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