There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven…
Today’s a doozy, folks. Mortal peril! Revenge! Forbidden love!
… well, okay. Two out of three. Strap in.
In 2009, real estate agent Pinda Hall showed two prospective buyers around a Lafayette home owned by Aurora Loan Services, LLC and listed by Rockcliff Realty. The home had been inspected by a licensed contractor, Christopher Trent, who wrote up a report of over 50 concerns and associated repair costs. A copy of the report was left on the home’s kitchen counter. On the list, between items like “install shower head” and “touch up paint,” was “stair – remove and replace attic stair.”
The stair in question was a pull-down ladder to the attic, which the previous owner had converted to a bonus room. Hall later said she didn’t like the look of the ladder, but unfurled it and let the clients up, warning them to take care. The stair didn’t budge, and she knew it had been used frequently by other agents and visitors, so she followed. Hall peered over the edge of the attic floor. She fixed on a dutiful smile, sales pitch at the ready. Just a few more steps –
A hinge broke. The ladder lurched. Hall screamed.
The damage: a fractured right leg and two injured knees.
A freak accident, or the inevitable result of wear-and-tear – who knows. More importantly: who’s to blame?
Ms Hall and her husband decided that Aurora and Rockcliff bore the responsibility. The couple sued the companies for negligence, premises liability, and, on Mr Hall’s part, loss of consortium. Both companies successfully filed separate motions for summary judgment, on the basis of ignorance of the ladder’s defects. “Granted” said the trial court; however, the decision was ultimately reversed on appeal, and the Halls get their day in court after all.
So what happened?
The full text of the decision makes for enlightening reading.
There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings…
A precedent dating from the 1950s, based on Merrill v. Buck, established that any danger on a property known to the real estate agent must be communicated to visitors by the agent. The defendants couldn’t say they had no clue about the ladder problem, because Trent’s report was delivered to both of them, hence both might be liable for failing to inform Hall. Remember that the report was left inside the home… but the ladder issue wasn’t differentiated from the myriad cosmetic and minor issues, so Hall couldn’t have known the true risk – so sayeth the appellate court.
Now, this same reasoning was raised by the defendants: the replacement recommendation was “buried in a long list of suggestions,” and they couldn’t have known the stair was especially insidious. This was the basis of the initial summary judgment in their favor. And, on the surface, it makes sense, right? You get some huge list of problems, your eyes glaze over, and you think ‘sure, okay, the place needs work, I get it. Nothing’s on fire. It’s a problem for Future Me to solve.’
Trent, who authored the report, even admitted to not liking pull-down ladders – on an aesthetic level. He said there was a good chance he wrote it up out of personal distaste, not out of any real safety concerns.
Yeah; well, maybe. But hell hath no fury like a (well-lawyered) plaintiff scorned.
The ladder recommendation was under the heading “Health and Safety Repairs-Group 1.” The title alone is enough of a clue to take the contents seriously said the court, what with those long-standing precedents holding the owner and the broker liable for any injuries incurred on the property. One item or a million, keeping visitors safe is literally part of the job description. Doesn’t matter how tedious or opaque the list is.
The plaintiff must prove the duty, breach, causation, and damages (Ortega v. Kmart Corp. (2001)). The Court of Appeals decided that Hall’s claims might be sound, as the duty of care to notify visitors had indeed been breached. The mere mention of the ladder in a health and safety report is enough to suggest that it could be broken. No active warning was issued to Hall or prospective buyers. Hall’s appeal was based on a fragment of a similar case or two from the last 60 years; and that fragment was enough to overcome a Summary Judgment Motion.
Again: is it possible to see the issue from the perspective of Aurora and Rockcliff? Absolutely. But a jury could reasonably infer that Hall should have been warned, and reasonable inferences must default in favor of the plaintiff.
In a case that relied heavily on precedents, Pinda Hall v. Aurora Loan Services LLC et al. has set a new one: listing companies can also be held liable for injuries, joining property owners and agents. This makes it more important than ever to be safe rather than sorry. Is it annoying to read a list of dozens or even hundreds of problems and anticipate which could potentially be dangerous? Yeah. And remember to get those sticky notes out and place them all over the house on each item.
But it’s less annoying than wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and getting a reputation for busting kneecaps.
Leave that to the mob, see?