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Summary judgment is uncommon in negligence actions, because the court must be able to say that no properly instructed, reasonable jury could find, based on the facts presented, that the defendants failed to exercise ordinary care. The concept of negligence is peculiarly elusive, and requires the trier of fact to pass upon the reasonableness of the conduct in light of all the circumstances, even where historical facts are concededly undisputed. Ordinarily, this is not a decision for the court.
Meriter Retirement Services, Inc. (Meriter) owns student apartments in Madison that are managed by Oakbrook Corporation (Oakbrook). On August 12, 1998, during the busy student turnover period, Oakbrook's property manager walked through a vacated apartment to inspect the premises. He did not remember checking the cabinets. The following day, a painting crew entered the apartment. One of the painters discovered what he believed to be a "candle" in the kitchen cabinet. Another painter recognized it as a firework device. They moved the item out of the way and continued working. No one in the crew informed Oakbrook or Meriter about the firework. On August 14, 1998, Dora Alvarado and Ron Boehm, the owner of the janitorial service retained by Oakbrook, entered the apartment to clean it. Boehm noticed what he thought to be a candle on the windowsill. He commented to Alvarado that it was a "strange looking candle." It was described as a wax candle with red, white, and blue colors, about six inches tall, and an inch in diameter. After Boehm left the apartment, Alvarado began cleaning the interior of the gas stove. She opened the stovetop to expose the burner trays for vacuuming. Alvarado knew it was necessary to preserve the flame of the pilot light, which occasionally extinguished during the cleaning process. Because she had forgotten to bring matches, she decided to use the "candle" to preserve the flame, and lit the device with the pilot flame. The firework exploded as she was setting it down, blowing off most of her right hand. Alvarado and her children filed a complaint in Dane County circuit court against Meriter, Oakbrook, the painting contractor, and each of their insurers. The plaintiffs sought damages as a result of Alvarado's personal injuries. The circuit court granted Oakbrook and Meriter’s motion for summary judgment, and concluded that they did not have a duty of care to protect Alvarado from a potential harm they neither knew nor reasonably could have foreseen. The court of appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment.
Did the court of appeals err in affirming the grant of summary judgment in favor of Oakbrook and Meriter?
This case requires a full factual resolution before application of a public policy analysis. It is not one of those simple cases where public policy can be used to limit liability before finding negligence. Here, there remain genuine issues of material fact, and public policy factors limiting liability should be considered only after a full resolution of the facts at trial. The parties dispute the purpose of Oakbrook's inspection. Alvarado claims part of the inspection's purpose was safety, while Oakbrook contends the inspection was only to note needed repairs, cleaning, and security-deposit withholdings. A jury would hear testimony about what constitutes a proper inspection, and whether Oakbrook's inspection satisfied that obligation. Ultimately, a jury would have determined whether Oakbrook had instituted adequate safety measures, and whether Oakbrook was negligent for failing to instruct contractors about what procedure to follow when a dangerous object is found. When the circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of Oakbrook and Meriter, it concluded that Oakbrook and Meriter did not owe Alvarado a duty to exercise ordinary care. However, everyone owes a duty of ordinary care to all persons. The effect of the circuit court's summary judgment was to limit the imposition of liability. Likewise, albeit with a different rationale, the court of appeals limited liability by applying public policy factors. Neither the court of appeals nor the circuit court had the benefit of a full presentation of facts or a jury's verdict on negligence before limiting liability. Because there remain genuine issues of material fact, summary judgment was erroneously granted.