Staub v. Myrtle Lake, LLC & James Lown
Minnesota Supreme Court
On September 22, 2021, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that a plaintiff’s assertion that an alleged dangerous stairway condition caused a fall that resulted in a death, with no direct evidence regarding the cause of the fall, was enough to allow the plaintiffs’ claim to survive summary judgment. This holding is a marked departure from prior slip and fall case law, in which Minnesota courts have previously granted summary judgment to the defense in cases that would require a jury to engage in speculation to determine the cause of a slip and fall. In this case, although it was undisputed that no one knew or could prove what caused the deceased to fall down the steps, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that the Plaintiff’s inferential theory of liability was enough to take the case past summary judgment to a jury trial as to liability.
The case arose out of the death of Joyce Weeks when she tripped and fell down a flight of concrete stairs on July 10, 2016, at the Myrtle Lake Resort in Orr, Minnesota. A wrongful death action was commenced by Ms. Weeks’ next-of-kin; they alleged the stairs were unreasonably dangerous as the result of disrepair and that the disrepair caused Weeks’ fall. The evidence demonstrated that Ms. Weeks had repeatedly complained about the stairs; however, there were no eyewitnesses as to the cause of her fall.
The district court granted summary judgment to the resort and held that “to find that defendant’s negligence led to . . . death, a jury would have to engage in speculation” and that “there are no facts upon which a jury could determine that the negligence . . . caused the fall.” The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed and held that “one can only speculate as to what actually caused [Plaintiff] to fall” and that “mere speculation is not enough” to carry the burden of proof on proximate causation.
In a surprising decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed. The Court explained that, to carry the burden of proof on proximate causation, plaintiffs are not required to provide eyewitness testimony or direct evidence of the proximate cause of a slip-and-fall. Instead, inferences drawn from circumstantial evidence can, on their own, support a finding of proximate causation. However, in a marked change from current trends, the majority held that plaintiffs’ theories of proximate causation need only preponderate over alternative theories of causation advanced by defendants when plaintiffs’ theories are directly inconsistent and in conflict with defendants’ theories. But, where plaintiffs’ and defendants’ theories could both plausibly be a substantial factor in causing the result, plaintiffs need not demonstrate that their theories preponderate over the alternatives so long as a reasonable jury could conclude that plaintiff’s theory was at least one substantial factor in the resulting harm. As the dissent strongly argued, this ruling is a drastic shift from prior precedent which held that, if a plaintiff relies solely on circumstantial evidence of proximate causation, they must prove that their theory preponderated over any other alternative theory of causation regardless of whether it was consistent or inconsistent. In short, this opinion allowed the plaintiffs to continue the slip and fall claim based on mere speculation when previously summary judgment was mandated if a jury would be required to speculate regarding the cause of a fall.
This opinion and the dramatic change from slip and fall precedent appears to match the old adage, “bad facts make bad law”. This case had a sad grouping of facts, including the death of the only eye-witness, an alleged long-standing and known hazard near the point of injury, and clearly non-responsible family-member claimants with a sympathetic story. Unfortunately, it means that plaintiffs’ counsel may be more aggressive on slip and fall cases in the near future; and, that defense counsel may have an uphill battle to achieve summary judgment even when it is clearly called for because of speculation and lack of evidence.