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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Eighth District: Trial Court Must Determine What Caused Patron to Tumble at Tri C Event

A woman who  took gifts for dance recital performers in Cuyahoga Community College’s auditorium fell on the last step between her seat and the stage, and now a trial court must determine if faulty aisle lighting was the cause.

The Eighth District Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision deeming Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) and two private dance companies not responsible for the injuries suffered by Tanya Robinson. The court said it was not ready to declare Tri-C and the companies liable, but rather directed a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court to hear more evidence.

At issue is whether two principles of Ohio law, the “open-and-obvious doctrine” and the “step-in-the-dark rule” apply in this case and prevent Robinson for recovering damages stemming from her fall.

Two dance companies, The Dance Studio and Soles N Sync, presented a recital in June 2011 at the Tri-C auditorium. Tri-C employees operated the house, stage, and aisle lighting. The record states that aisle lighting was always on while the auditorium was in use, but the house and stage lights went on and off during the recital.

The recital included 40 performances and before it started, Robinson left some gifts for a few performers in front of the stage. She then ascended to her seat in the fifth row. After the second performance, Robinson went for the gifts and descended down two stairs while the stage lights were still on. The stage lights were momentarily dimmed, and Robinson testified the auditorium became pitch black. She said she bent over to see the steps illuminated by the aisle lights as best she could,  but found the last couple of steps were not lit. She fell while trying to negotiate the last step. After she fell, the stage lights came back on as the third performance began.

Robinson filed suit against Tri-C and the dance companies. The Eighth District noted the trial court record was not clear whether Robinson argued that the accident happened because the aisle light failed to illuminate the step, if there was no light for the last step, or if multiple aisle lights were extinguished.

The defendants presented inconsistent versions of the lighting.  A Dance Studio representative testified that the last step was not lit, but could not say if a light was off or if it did not have a light. A Tri-C security guard noted there was a light on the step, which was dimmer than other aisle lights, but did not testify if the dimmer light was effective enough to actually illuminate the step.

Another Tri-C representative presented a diagram that indicated these were not simple steps in question, but rather each was two parts, a standard step and a platform. The steps alternated between a standard step and the platform, the appeals court noted, and the lights were attached to the sides of the seats. The court indicated there was a lack of evidence as to whether the lights were supposed to illuminate the standard step or just warn a patron the step was ahead.

Tri-C and the dance companies moved for and were granted summary judgment by the trial court arguing the open-and-obvious doctrine and the step-in-the-dark rule prevented Robinson from collecting damages. She appealed.

Writing for the appellate court, Judge Sean C. Gallagher said a business ordinarily owes a duty to warn its customers of any hidden dangers on the premises. The open-and-obvious doctrine bars any claims of negligence against the business owner if the dangerous condition is so obvious that there is no need for any warning.

Judge Gallagher wrote that neither Robinson nor the Dance Studio representative could adequately explain whether there were lights missing or not working adequately, so it was not obvious there was a danger when the stage lights were off. He determined there was not enough evidence on the record to rule in favor of the school and the dance company based on the open-and-obvious doctrine.

Turning to the step-in-the dark rule, Judge Gallagher presented several cases where the Eighth District has ruled upon issues when patrons tripped or slipped in darkened theaters. The rule requires a patron investigate the dangers of walking into a darkened theater before claiming the theater is responsible for any damages.

Judge Gallagher also said prior cases have dealt with cases involving aisle lighting or no lighting at all.

“In this case there was a lighting system in place to warn patrons of the stairs. Unlike previous cases, the issue in this case focuses on whether a defect in the aisle-lighting system existed and caused Robinson’s damages,” he wrote. “The alleged hazardous condition is not darkness, rather the failure to maintain the aisle lighting.”

Judge Gallagher indicated the appeals court decision “is not to be read as a steadfast refusal to apply the open-and-obvious doctrine,” but that more evidence needs to be produced to determine whether the lighting system was operational and serving as an appropriate warning about the stairs before concluding that the college and dance companies were liable.

Judges Frank D. Celebreeze Jr. and Eileen A. Gallagher concurred in the decision.

Robinson v. Dance Studio, 2015-Ohio-320
Civil Appeal From: Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: Jan. 29, 2015

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