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Machado v. Yacht Haven U.S.V.I., LLC - 61 V.I. 373 (2014)

Rule:

The foundational elements of negligence—(1) a legal duty of care to the plaintiff, (2) a breach of that duty of care by the defendant (3) constituting the factual and legal cause of (4) damages to the plaintiff— are so widely accepted and fundamental to the practice of law in the Virgin Islands and every other United States jurisdiction that maintaining these elements is unquestionably the soundest rule for the Virgin Islands.

Facts:

Elissa Machado ended her shift at a retailer in the Yacht Haven Grande complex on St. Thomas and walked to her car in the Yacht Haven Grande parking lot. The section of the parking lot where her car was located that night had three rows of parking spaces with a median dividing the two rows closest to the storefronts. The median was three feet wide, bounded on each side by a cement curb rising eight inches off the ground. At the time, the median contained trees and shrubbery, a sprinkler system servicing the vegetation, and had no designated walkway for pedestrians to cross it. Machado's car was on the opposite side of the median, and instead of walking around she took her “usual route,” attempting to walk over the median, as she and others had done before. At the time, there were no signs warning against walking across the median, nor did the property owner discourage people from doing so. As she attempted to walk across the median, she tripped over a sprinkler head, falling forward over the median's curb and breaking both bones in her lower right leg. At the time she tripped, it was “very, very dim” outside, as “[t]he lighting wasn't great.” When she called for help, her coworker used the light from her cell phone to find Machado lying between two cars in the parking lot. Paramedics also had trouble seeing in the parking lot when they arrived 15 minutes later, using flashlights while bracing her leg.

On September 20, 2010, Machado brought this premises liability action against Yacht Haven, U.S.V.I., LLC (“Yacht Haven”), the owner of the parking lot and surrounding Yacht Haven Grande complex. Following discovery, Yacht Haven moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted summary judgment to Yacht Haven finding that Machado “had no reason to believe [Yacht Haven] invited her to use the decorative median as a walkway.”  As a result, the trial court concluded that Yacht Haven did not owe her a duty of care as an invitee.  The court held that even if Machado was a licensee when she entered the median — as opposed to a trespasser — there was no evidence that Yacht Haven had notice that the sprinkler system created an unreasonable risk of harm or that Yacht Haven failed to exercise reasonable care in making this area safe. The court further found that, even assuming the median was poorly illuminated and Yacht Haven had notice of this condition, Machado had “reason to know of the condition and risk involved when traversing the decorative median in the dark,” which she knew featured “trees, ornamental plants, and other vegetation.”  “The physical condition of the land coupled with the level of illumination,” the court continued, “indicated that there might be hidden dangers present and put [Machado] on notice … that she entered the decorative median at her own risk.” Machado filed a timely notice of appeal on December 4, 2012.

Issue:

Did the trial court err in holding, as a matter of law, that Yacht Haven did not owe Machado a duty of care as an invitee?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands held that because in all premises liability actions, the foreseeability of harm was the touchstone of the existence of a land possessor's duty of reasonable or ordinary care, Yacht Haven owed a duty of care to Machado, who was injured by a sprinkler system when walking across a median to avoid having to walk around the entire length of a parking lot. There was a genuine issue of material fact regarding Yacht Haven's notice of a dangerous condition, as there was evidence that the sprinkler heads, which were supposed to retract when not in use, had not been operating properly several months before Machado tripped over them and that Yacht Haven failed to maintain adequate lighting in the parking lot. Maintaining implied assumption of risk as a complete defense to negligence conflicted with the comparative negligence statute, V.I. Code Ann. tit. 5, § 1451(a).

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