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Rybas v. Riverview Hotel Corp.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 27, 2014

MARGARET " PEG" RYBAS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
RIVERVIEW HOTEL CORPORATION, et al., Defendants

Page 549

For Margaret " Peg" Rybas, Ed Balajewski, Plaintiffs: Craig Stephen Brodsky, George S Mahaffey, Jr, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Goodell DeVries Leech and Dann LLP, Baltimore, MD.

For Riverview Hotel Corporation, trading as Sandaway Bed & Breakfast, Defendant: Kristine A Crosswhite, LEAD ATTORNEY, Crosswhite Limbrick and Sinclair LLP, Baltimore, MD.

For Peachblossoms, Inc., Defendant, Cross Defendant, Cross Claimant: Andre M Forte, LEAD ATTORNEY, Wilson Forte LLP, Hagerstown, MD.

For Riverview Hotel Corporation, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Kristine A Crosswhite, LEAD ATTORNEY, Crosswhite Limbrick and Sinclair LLP, Baltimore, MD.

OPINION

Page 550

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Ellen Lipton Hollander, United States District Judge.

A joyful occasion did not end happily for plaintiffs Margaret " Peg" Rybas and her husband, Edward Balajewski, who were guests at a wedding held in Oxford, Maryland on October 4, 2010. While they were dancing on a portable dance floor, Ms. Rybas fell and sustained severe injuries. At the time of the wedding, Ms. Rybas was 75 years of age and her husband was 85 years old.

Plaintiffs subsequently filed suit against Riverview Hotel Corporation t/a Sandaway Bed & Breakfast (" Sandaway" ), the venue for the wedding, and the caterer, PeachBlossoms, Inc. (" PeachBlossoms" ), asserting causes of action for negligence and loss of consortium. See Complaint (ECF 1).[1] According to plaintiffs, despite rainy weather before and during the wedding, defendants allowed guests to use the dance floor, but failed to take adequate safety precautions

Page 551

and failed to warn the guests of danger due to slippery conditions.

In the Complaint, plaintiffs allege that, " as a result of the fall," Ms. Rybas fractured " the distal radius of the left wrist extending into the joint space with an associated fracture of the ulner styllid," and " also had a fracture of the distal radius extending into the joint space and an associated fracture of the ulner styllid of [her] right wrist." Id. ¶ ¶ 13-14. Several days after the fall, Ms. Rybas was also diagnosed with a lumbar compression fracture. Id. ¶ 15. Further, plaintiffs allege that Ms. Rybas underwent surgery on October 14, 2010, spent three nights in the hospital, and " required extensive rehabilitation" thereafter. Id. ¶ 16.

Defendants filed post-discovery motions for summary judgment, each supported by numerous exhibits. See Sandaway's motion (ECF 47, " S. Mot." ) and supporting memorandum (ECF 47-1, " S. Mem." ); PeachBlossoms' motion (ECF 50, " P. Mot." ) and supporting memorandum (ECF 50-1, " P. Mem." ). Plaintiffs have filed a consolidated response in opposition to both motions (ECF 55, " Opposition" or " Opp." ), with exhibits, and each defendant has filed a reply (ECF 56, by PeachBlossoms, " P. Reply" ; and ECF 57, by Sandaway, " S. Reply" ), along with additional exhibits.[2]

No hearing is necessary to resolve the motions. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons that follow, I will deny both motions.

I. Background[3]

On Monday, October 4, 2010, plaintiffs attended the wedding of Ms. Rybas's niece, held at the Sandaway Bed & Breakfast in Oxford, Maryland. See P. Mem. Exh. 18 (ECF 50-20); Opp. Exh. 1 (ECF 55-1) (the " Mills Report" ) at 6; Deposition of Laura A. Dennis, May 13, 2013, S. Mem. Exh. 3 (ECF 47-4), P. Mem. Exh. 1 (ECF 50-3), Opp. Exh. 4 (ECF 55-4), S. Reply Exh. 4 (ECF 57-4) (" L. Dennis Dep." ) at 112. Sandaway is owned by Wendy and Kenneth (" Ken" ) Gibson. The bride and groom hired PeachBlossoms, run by Laura (" Laurie" ) Dennis and Gregory Dennis, as the caterer for their wedding. See L. Dennis Dep. at 22-23; P. Mem. Exh. 7, Affidavit of Laura Dennis (" L. Dennis Aff." ) ¶ 1 (stating she is Vice President of PeachBlossoms); P. Mem. Exh. 8, Affidavit of Gregory Dennis (" G. Dennis Aff." ) ¶ 1 (stating he is President of PeachBlossoms). The wedding itself was held adjacent to a beach, on the lower of two terraces located between the Sandaway Bed & Breakfast and the beach. Mills Report at 22. Approximately 90 feet of grass separated the Bed & Breakfast and the tent in which the wedding dinner was held. Id. at 23.

PeachBlossoms provided the tent, which was erected by Mr. Dennis and an assistant on Saturday, October 2, 2010. L. Dennis Dep. at 25, 30-32. On the same date, inside the tent, PeachBlossoms assembled a portable dance floor, which it owned. Mills Report at 6; Opp. Exh. 3 (ECF 55-3, PeachBlossoms answers to

Page 552

plaintiff Rybas's interrogatories) at 15; L. Dennis Dep. at 33, 80. The dance floor measured 15 feet by 16 feet. See G. Dennis Dep. at 10-11. The owner's manual for the dance floor stated: " ALL FLOORS are slippery when wet, especially vinyl floors. Customers should be aware of this fact." See Opp. Exh. 2 (ECF 55-2) at 8 (owner's manual).

It did not rain on October 2, when the floor and tent were installed. Mills Report at 17; Deposition of Gregory H. Dennis, May 13, 2013, S. Mem. Exh. 5 (ECF 47-6), P. Mem. Exh. 2 (ECF 50-4) (" G. Dennis Dep." ) at 23. The record contains inconsistent information as to whether it rained on October 3, the day before the wedding. Measurements taken a quarter of a mile from the Sandaway Bed & Breakfast indicate that it did not rain on October 3. Mills Report at 17. Similarly, measurements taken 20 miles away at the Easton Airport reflect no precipitation on October 3. Id. However, Laurie Dennis testified that on " Sunday" --apparently a reference to October 3--" it was wet" and " raining very hard," which made the ground " muddy and wet." L. Dennis Dep. at 94-95.

According to PeachBlossoms' interrogatory responses, it had " recommended moving the location of the wedding to higher ground due to the anticipated adverse weather." Opp. Exh. 3 at 15.[4] However, " the wedding couple insisted that the tent and dance floor be installed at the originally agreed upon location," and " Sandaway also did not want anything moved because it would block the view of the water for its guests." Id.

It is uncontested that it rained on October 4, 2010, the day of the wedding. And, it appears to have rained both in the early morning hours and again later in the day, including during the wedding reception. By one measurement, taken a quarter of a mile from the Sandaway Bed & Breakfast, rainfall on October 4 totaled 0.7 inches. Mills Report at 17. And, measurements taken at the Easton Airport reflect a total rainfall of 0.58 inches. Id. Regarding the latter measurement, the Mills Report states, id.: " Hourly precipitation was recorded at the Easton Airport station where rain accumulation ranged between 0.01 inches and 0.08 inches until approximately 9am. Total accumulated rainfall recorded at the Easton Airport was 0.58 inches on October 4, 2010." Witness testimony indicates that heavy rain fell in the evening, near the start of dinner. See, e.g., Deposition of Maurice Shea, Dec. 16, 2013, Opp. Exh. 7 (ECF 55-7), P. Reply Exh. 1 (ECF 56-1), S. Reply Exh. 3 (ECF 57-3) (" Shea Dep." ) at 22-23. For her part, Ms. Rybas described the weather on October 4 as " cool and rainy," with " [o]n and off rain." Deposition of Margaret Rybas, May 9, 2013, S. Mem. Exh. 1 (ECF 47-2), P. Mem. Exh. 5 (ECF 50-7), Opp. Exh. 8 (ECF 55-8), S. Reply Exh. 1 (ECF 57-1) (" Rybas Dep." ) at 20-21.

The owners of Sandaway, Wendy and Ken Gibson, both testified that, on the day of the wedding, the grass was wet. Deposition of Wendy Lou Gibson, Nov. 26, 2013, S. Mem. Exh. 12 (ECF 47-13), P. Mem. Exh. 11 (ECF 50-13), Opp. Exh. 5 (ECF 55-5) (" W. Gibson Dep." ) at 42; Deposition of Kenneth Heisey Gibson, Nov. 26, 2013, Opp. Exh. 6 (ECF 55-6) (" K. Gibson Dep." ) at 51. Wendy Gibson also testified that she saw no signs that either warned guests of slipperiness or indicated that they would need to cross wet grass. W.

Page 553

Gibson Dep. at 43-44. And, when Ms. Dennis of PeachBlossoms was asked whether her employees had told " anybody that it was wet or muddy or anything like that the day of the wedding," she acknowledged that they had not. L. Dennis Dep. at 97. More generally, neither Sandaway nor PeachBlossoms provided any warnings to the guests that conditions on the dance floor might be wet and slippery. See W. Gibson Dep. at 43-44; L. Dennis Dep. at 95-97.

According to an event schedule, the wedding reception was to begin with an open bar under the tent, lasting from 5:15 until 6:30 p.m. P. Mem. Exh. 3 (ECF 50-5). Between 6:30 and 7:15 p.m., salad was to be served; several dances, including a traditional bride-groom dance, were to occur; and the dance floor was to be opened. Id. The main dinner service was scheduled to begin at 7:15 p.m. Id.

After the wedding ceremony, Ms. Rybas walked across the grass, which she described as wet and muddy, to get to her dinner table inside the tent. Rybas Dep. at 32. Prior to beginning dancing, Ms. Rybas also walked from her dinner table to the Sandaway Bed & Breakfast, across a muddy area, in order to use the restroom inside. Id. at 34. Ms. Rybas recalled that on the way back to her dinner table, she wiped her shoes on the grass in order to clean them. Id. at 35.

Heavy rain began around the start of dinner. Shea Dep. at 22-23. Dancing did not begin until after the dinner portion of the evening was over and the wedding cake had been cut. Rybas Dep. at 35; Deposition of Edward Balajewski, May 9, 2013, S. Mem. Exh. 7 (ECF 47-8), P. Mem. Exh. 13 (ECF 50-15), Opp. Exh. 11 (ECF 55-11) (" Balajewski Dep." ) at 12. Both plaintiffs stated that they had completed their dinners before beginning to dance. Rybas Dep. at 34-35; Balajewski Dep. at 12-13. The dancing started with a traditional bride-groom dance, and plaintiffs joined approximately five minutes later. Rybas Dep. at 35-36. Ms. Rybas recalled that the dance floor was slightly elevated, approximately three inches higher than the surrounding ground. Rybas Dep. at 36-37. Regarding her fall, Ms. Rybas testified, id. at 37-39:

Q Okay. How long had you been on the dance floor prior to your fall?
A Ten minutes.
Q And had you been dancing the whole time?
A Yes.
Q Had you been dancing with [Mr. Balajewski] the whole time?
A Yes.
Q Tell me what happened when you fell.
A Well, we were doing a jitterbug, and I was making a turn, and I turned, and my foot slipped, and all of a sudden, I came to a halt, sudden halt and my heel just stopped.
Q Okay.
A Something made me just stop and halt, and I flew back in the air and landed on the ground.
* * *
Q Did you ever see what it was that caused you to fall?
A No.
Q To this day, do you know what it is that caused you to fall?
A Not exactly.
Q What does that mean?
A Well, my foot slipped and hit something. But my nephew was -- when I was lying on the ground, he was trying to comfort me, and he said, well -- he said I could see where maybe your heel caught on the edge. That's what he told me. But all I remember is my foot

Page 554

slipped out from under me, and it just jammed to a dead halt, and I flew backwards.

An ambulance was summoned, arriving approximately a half-hour after Ms. Rybas had fallen. Rybas Dep. at 42. According to a document titled " EMAIS Patient Care Report," an emergency call was placed at 8:16 p.m., with responders arriving at 8:25. See Opp. Exh. 6 (ECF 50-6). In other words, it appears that Ms. Rybas's fall occurred shortly before 8:00 p.m. According to medical records, Ms. Rybas told medical personnel that " WHILE DANCING . . . SHE FELL BACKWARD, TRIED TO BREAK HER FALL W/ BOTH ARMS" and also stated: " 'I JUST TRIPPED ON THE HEEL OF MY SHOE & FELL BACKWARD.'" P. Mem. Exh. 6 (ECF 50-8) at 1, 12.

Regarding the circumstances surrounding Ms. Rybas's fall, the parties largely rely on deposition testimony from a number of witnesses. To begin, testimony from Ms. Rybas's husband, Mr. Balajewski, who was dancing with her at the time of the fall, is relevant:

Q Did you see anything that caused [Ms. Rybas] to fall?
A No.
Q So you don't know what made her actually go down?
A No.
Q You didn't see a wet spot on the dance floor?
A No.
Q You didn't see any mud?
A No.
Q You didn't see anything that she might have caught her foot or shoe on?
A No.

Balajewski Dep. at 17-18.

Mr. Balajewski was first made aware of the possibility that mud, grass, or moisture on the dance floor could have caused Ms. Rybas's fall at around the time the ambulance arrived, approximately 30 minutes after the incident. See Balajewski Dep. at 37-40; Rybas Dep. at 42. In particular, he testified that he " just took a glance and spotted something, and that was it . . . . I saw something that was slippery there, yes . . . . It looked to me like there was pieces of grass and a little bit of dirt with it." Balajewski Dep. at 38-39. However, Mr. Balajewski conceded that he could not say that the grass he saw had caused his wife to fall. Id. at 41.

Ellen Kobler, another relative who was present at the wedding, testified as follows with respect to the incident involving Ms. Rybas:

Q Did anyone, Mrs. Rybas or anybody else, tell you what caused Mrs. Rybas to fall?
A No. No one seemed to know.
* * *
Q Have you ever to this day had anybody tell you why Ms. Rybas fell?
A I have had people sort of guess, but nobody has known for sure.
Q Who has guessed?
A I don't remember.
Q Okay. And what have the guesses been, if you remember?
A Tripped on something. I don't know. It really was people without --
Q Knowledge?
A -- any knowledge or evidence saying, oh, maybe it was this or maybe it was that. Nobody has told me why she fell with any credibility.

Deposition of Ellen Langan Kobler, Dec. 17, 2013, S. Mem. Exh. 8 (ECF 47-9), P. Mem. Exh. 14 (ECF 50-16), S. Reply Exh. 5 (ECF 57-5) (" ...


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