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Sutton-Witherspoon v. S.A.F.E. Management, Inc.

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

February 26, 2019

LAKISHA SUTTON-WITHERSPOON, et al.
v.
S.A.F.E. MANAGEMENT, INC., et al.

          Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 24-C-16-000613

          Wright, Berger, Leahy, JJ. [*]

          OPINION

          LEAHY, J.

         To celebrate their Super Bowl victory in 2013, the Baltimore Ravens and the City of Baltimore held a victory parade on Tuesday, February 5, 2013. The parade route ran from Baltimore City Hall to M&T Bank Stadium, where fans were invited to a free, unticketed event immediately following the parade (the "Celebration"). The Celebration featured Ravens team members, live entertainment, and concessions and merchandise for sale.

         The gates to the stadium opened at 10:00 a.m., and the stadium reached capacity before the parade even began. By 12:30 p.m., the parade was still making its way to the stadium with an "unprecedented public crowd" following behind. The fire marshal ordered the gates to the stadium closed, and the Baltimore City Police Department responded by re-assigning officers from the parade route to the stadium. The gates remained unlocked in case of emergency.

         Among the fans who arrived at the stadium following the parade were Ms. Lakisha Sutton-Witherspoon and her eight-year-old son, Nicholas Witherspoon (collectively, "Appellants"). While getting autographs from Ravens players and taking pictures outside of the stadium, Ms. Sutton-Witherspoon heard someone announce that the gate near her was open, even though she had heard an announcement earlier from a helicopter that the stadium was full. She took her son's hand and walked toward the gate. As they walked, a crowd surged toward the gate, knocking over and trampling Ms. Sutton-Witherspoon and her son, injuring them both.

         Appellants filed a negligence action in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against the Baltimore Ravens LP ("Ravens LP"); Maryland Stadium Authority ("MSA"), which owned the stadium; and S.A.F.E. Management, Inc. ("SAFE"), the Ravens crowd-control and guest-services contractor (collectively, "Appellees"). The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of each of the Appellees, finding that the facts did not give rise to an inference that they had constructive notice of any dangerous conditions at the stadium. Appellants noted a timely appeal, and present the following questions for our review:

1. "Did the trial court improperly grant summary judgment without consideration of Appellants' contention that the Appellees' negligent security efforts allowed the crowd surge to occur?"
2. "Did the trial court err in finding that appellants failed to make a prima facie showing of negligence?"

         We conclude that the circuit court, in granting the summary judgments in the underlying case, failed to address Appellants' alternative theory of negligence set out in the complaint. The court did not resolve the allegation that a crowd of the size that attended the stadium event was reasonably foreseeable and could create a risk of the type of harm suffered by Appellants, and that the Appellees failed to undertake reasonable safety precautions to control the crowd they invited to the stadium. Accordingly, we must reverse the court's grants of summary judgment and remand the case.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         Ms. Sutton-Witherspoon, her husband, and their three children arrived in Baltimore City sometime between 10:00 and 10:30 a.m. on the day of the parade. After parking their car, they proceeded to the corner of Light and Pratt Streets to await the parade. Once the parade passed, they headed toward the stadium and the parade convoy, walking west on Conway Street, past Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Around the time they walked past the warehouse at Camden Yards, Ms. Sutton-Witherspoon heard a police helicopter overhead announce that the stadium was full. This was the only time she heard an announcement that the stadium was full.

         When Ms. Sutton-Witherspoon and her family arrived at the stadium, the floats had stopped and the players were taking pictures and signing autographs. The family got players' autographs and took pictures of Ray Lewis for "more than five minutes." As they did, the crowd grew "[a] little bit" but "[n]ot tremendously." At some point, Ms. Sutton-Witherspoon heard someone say "[t]his gate is open, "[2] referring to the gate near the floats where she and her family stood. Nicholas testified that he could see that the gate was open from where he stood.

         Ms. Sutton-Witherspoon and her family began walking toward the gate-which she remembered was either Gate C or D. She recalled that other people were heading toward the gate as well, but it "wasn't a tremendous amount of people." She held Nicholas' hand as they walked at a "very leisurely" pace. The gate they planned to enter was open and there were "no turnstiles" or anything, "[i]t was just an opening." Then, when they got under the awning in front of the gate, she "felt Nicholas get snatched out of [her] hand." She "turned around to look, to see where he went," scanning the crowd, observing that there "was a lot of people . . . all of a sudden." "[A] herd of people [] came out of nowhere," she said.

         When she looked down, she saw Nicholas on the ground with "people walking over top of him." Nicholas said that he was "pushed forward and knocked down" by the crowd around him as people in the crowd began to run. He explained that, after getting knocked down, "everything went black. Everything was black, and it was a very small space. And the very second after that, I started yelling for my mom. I was very scared."

         The crowd knocked down Ms. Sutton-Witherspoon as well. She described what happened next:

I tried to get up and it was just - people were just walking on top of me. It was just a lot of people. And I just - I couldn't get up. And then people started falling on top of me. And then people were walking on top of the people that were on top of me. I just felt feet and I was screaming and I could just hear Nicholas screaming and it was just a lot of people.

         She related that she "was grabbing at people's ankles, hoping someone would look down[, ]" but she "eventually ran out of air and couldn't breathe." "I think I passed out[, ]" she said, "I just don't remember."

         The police dispersed the crowd with pepper spray. Ms. Sutton-Witherspoon's husband found her and helped her up. When she got to her feet she could not put weight on her ankle; her pants, shoes, and socks had been torn off. Her face burned from the pepper spray but she did not see any police officers in the area. She looked back for Nicholas and saw a stranger helping him to his feet. Ms. Sutton-Witherspoon was given a wheelchair. Nicholas sat on her lap, and the two were wheeled through the still-open gates into the stadium, where they received treatment until an ambulance came and took them to the hospital.

         The Stadium

         MSA owns the stadium and, by a 30-year lease dated August 15, 1997, grants Ravens LP the exclusive right to use the stadium for NFL games and related events. The lease grants Ravens LP control and authority over decisions about "ticketing, admissions, and gate operation," as well as "the process for admitting attendees" to events at the stadium. Despite earlier discussions with Baltimore City officials, who preferred that the Ravens hold the event between City Hall and the War Memorial Plaza as they did after their Super Bowl win in 2001, Ravens LP decided to host the Celebration at the stadium. Mr. Roy Sommerhof, Ravens LP's Senior Vice President of Stadium Operations, testified that he expressed his agreement with the Baltimore City officials to senior officials within the Ravens organization, but they decided to host the Celebration in the stadium contrary to his advice. The dispute, it seems, hinged at least in part on disparate predictions of crowd size. According to Mr. Sommerhof, Ravens LP had "some real deep discussion[s]" about not having the Celebration at the stadium because there might only be 30, 000 attendees and "there wouldn't be enough people to fill" the 70, 000-capacity stadium: "there was a real concern among some leadership at the Ravens organization that we would [not] have more than 30 or 35, 000 people, given that it was a Tuesday in February - and you never know what the weather is going to be - in the middle of a workday." Personally, Mr. Sommerhof believed the 30, 000-35, 000 estimates were off and he expected there to be around 70, 000 guests. And although a few other members of the organization shared his belief, he "was in the minority."

         Ravens LP decided to make the Celebration free of charge and unticketed, but offered concessions and merchandise for sale and made the restrooms available to guests. It issued a press release announcing the Celebration, which would begin at approximately 12:30 p.m. at the stadium. The press release further stated that "fans [we]re encouraged to attend a celebration featuring the team and live entertainment." Fans were permitted entrance to the stadium beginning at 10:00 a.m.

         Crowd Management Preparations

         In his deposition, Mr. Sommerhof testified that his crowd management responsibilities were to "work with Maryland Stadium Authority, [SAFE], and others, including the Baltimore City Police Department, to develop plans for crowd management and the safe operation of M&T Stadium for events and M&T Stadium." He testified that he would develop these plans "[u]sually for just about every event" that Ravens LP has. On the day of a normal event, Ravens LP holds a pregame meeting with all its partners (SAFE, the housekeeping and concessions contractors, MSA, the Baltimore Police Department, and the Baltimore City Fire Department) at the stadium, at which point Ravens LP informs SAFE of the posts of police officers during the event.[3] There was no meeting in advance of the parade and Celebration, however. And, of relevance to this appeal, Mr. Sommerhof testified that Ravens LP had no plan in place for what would happen if the stadium reached maximum capacity on the day of the Celebration.

         Although there was no meeting, there was a call between SAFE and Ravens LP, during which time the two entities agreed that there would be no need for ticket scanners or bag checks. SAFE, Ravens LP's "crowd control and guest services contractor," provides "event management functions and security functions" for M&T Bank Stadium and the Baltimore Ravens on game days. SAFE's tasks, under the general umbrella of "event management," include "usher[ing], ticket taking and scanning, and security at certain locations throughout the building." Because SAFE would not need the employees who scan tickets and check bags for the Celebration, it reduced its staffing, including supervisors, below the normal game-day level.

         On a normal game day, for instance, SAFE would have five supervisors at Gate A, but on the day of the Celebration those five supervisors were not scheduled to work. The supervisors for Gates B, C, and D were not present either and, according to SAFE's Director of Operations, Mr. Joe Parr, any employees who would have been assigned to scan tickets were also absent. Additionally, on normal game days, SAFE erects "bike rack-type installations" at each gate prior to the games to help people form a line while they are entering the stadium. Mr. Sommerhof said it does this "in order to try to keep people in some semblance of order when they're getting to the gate area, so that we can scan their tickets, provide entry to them, we put them in kind of queue lines." The use of the installations, he explained, is derived from "the requirements through best Practices for Stadium Security." But because there were no tickets to scan, "there was no need for [the installations]."

         Mr. Parr testified that SAFE and Ravens LP shared the responsibility for establishing the number of SAFE employees who would work at the various events at the stadium. But, according to Mr. Parr, the responsibility for posting police officers as ...


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