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Draughon v. Evening Star Holiness Church of Dunn

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

May 7, 2019

MILTON DRAUGHON, SR., Plaintiff,
v.
EVENING STAR HOLINESS CHURCH OF DUNN, Defendant/Third-Party Plaintiff,
v.
DAFFORD FUNERAL HOME, INC., Third-Party Defendant.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals February 13, 2019.

          Appeal by Plaintiff from order entered 4 June 2018 by Judge Beecher R. Gray in Harnett County No. 17 CVS 1625 Superior Court.

          Brent Adams & Associates, by Gregory A. Posch and Brenton D. Adams, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Yates, McLamb & Weyher, by Sean T. Partrick and John W. Graebe, for Defendant/Third-Party Plaintiff-Appellee.

          No brief filed by Third-Party Defendant.

          INMAN, Judge.

         Plaintiff Milton Draughon, Sr., ("Plaintiff") appeals from an order granting summary judgment in favor of Defendant/Third-Party Plaintiff Evening Star Holiness Church of Dunn (the "Church") on Plaintiff's negligence claims. Plaintiff argues that summary judgment was improper, asserting a genuine issue of material fact existed as to: (1) the presence of a legal duty owed to him by the Church; and (2) his contributory negligence in falling on a set of stairs leading into the Church while carrying a casket. After careful review, we reverse the ruling of the trial court.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The record below indicates the following:

         Plaintiff attended a funeral at the Church, located at Sampson Avenue in Dunn, North Carolina, on a sunny day in February of 2015. Before the service started, Plaintiff entered the Church sanctuary through an entrance facing Sampson Avenue. As Plaintiff and a church deacon were speaking, the minister who would be conducting the service approached and asked Plaintiff if he would be willing to help carry the deceased's casket into the sanctuary. Plaintiff declined. Some time later, an employee of the funeral home, Third-Party Defendant Dafford Funeral Home, Inc. ("Dafford"), [1] asked Plaintiff to help carry the casket. Plaintiff reconsidered and agreed to help, as he felt physically capable of assisting and Dafford did not have enough employees on hand to carry the casket into the building.

         Plaintiff followed the Dafford employee out of the sanctuary through a door facing U.S. Route 421, different than the door Plaintiff had entered earlier, and descended a set of concrete and brick stairs. Once outside, Plaintiff walked approximately 25 to 30 feet to the hearse containing the casket. Plaintiff joined three other men at the hearse, and the group carried the casket, without any apparent difficulty, to the bottom of the stairs Plaintiff had navigated moments earlier. They then began ascending the stairs, unhindered by the casket. Before reaching the entryway, Plaintiff, who was positioned on the front left side of the casket, tripped on the top step and injured his knees. The top step was approximately two-and-a-half inches taller than the preceding steps.

         Plaintiff filed suit against the Church on 22 August 2017, alleging negligence, negligence per se, and res ipsa loquitur arising out of the stair's defective and dangerous condition, i.e., the difference in height between the top step and the ones below it. In response, the Church filed a combined answer and third-party complaint against Dafford for contribution and indemnification, asserting by affirmative defense that Plaintiff was contributorily negligent in failing to use reasonable care. Plaintiff, with leave of the trial court, filed an amended complaint on 5 March 2018.

         The Church moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff's claims. The Church's motion argued, among other things, that Plaintiff possessed equal or superior knowledge of the alleged defective condition, having descended the stairs without issue moments before tripping. Plaintiff filed an affidavit in opposition; he also filed an affidavit from an engineering expert attesting to the defect in the stairs. Following a hearing, the trial court granted the Church's summary judgment motion on the grounds that Plaintiff had equal or superior knowledge of the open and obvious hazard and failed to exercise due care in navigating the steps. Plaintiff appeals.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff argues that because he introduced sufficient evidence demonstrating genuine issues of material fact, his negligence claim should have survived summary judgment. The Church disagrees, asserting that: (1) Plaintiff had equal or superior knowledge of the alleged defect so the Church did not owe him a duty of care; and (2) Plaintiff's contributory negligence caused him to trip. Reviewing the evidence and applicable law, we agree with Plaintiff and reverse the trial court.

         A. Standard of Review

         "[The] standard of review of an appeal from summary judgment is de novo." In re Will of Jones, 362 N.C. 569, 573, 669 S.E.2d 572, 576 (2008). The party moving for summary judgment holds the burden of showing "there is no genuine issue of fact remaining for determination and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n v. Branch Banking & Trust Co., 282 N.C. 44, 51, 191 S.E.2d 683, 688 (1972) (citation omitted). We must construe the evidence introduced at summary judgment "in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and with the benefit of all reasonable inferences." Jenkins v. Lake Montonia Club, Inc., 125 N.C.App. 102, 104, 479 S.E.2d 259, 261 (1997).

         "Summary judgment is rarely appropriate in negligence cases, even when there is no dispute as to the facts, because the issue of whether a party acted in conformity with the reasonable person standard is ordinarily an issue to be determined by a jury." Surrette v. Duke Power Co., 78 N.C.App. 647, 650, 388 S.E.2d 129, 131 (1986) (citation omitted). "Issues of contributory negligence, like those of ordinary negligence are rarely appropriate for summary judgment. Only where plaintiff's own negligence discloses contributory negligence so clearly that no other reasonable conclusion may be reached is summary judgment to be granted." Jenkins, 125 N.C.App. at 104, 479 S.E.2d at 261 (citations omitted). B. Duty to Warn

         The parties dispute whether Plaintiff's evidence discloses a duty owed to him by the Church. Landowners "have a duty to exercise reasonable care in the maintenance of their premises for the protection of lawful visitors." Bolick v. Bon Worth, Inc., 150 N.C.App. 428, 430, 562 S.E.2d 602, 604 (2002) (citing Barber v. Presbyterian Hosp., 147 N.C.App. 86, 89, 555 S.E.2d 303, 306 (2001)). This "reasonable care" requires landowners to "warn[ a lawful visitor] of hidden conditions and dangers of which the landowner has express or implied notice." Barber, 147 N.C.App. at 89, 555 S.E.2d at 306. That said, "a landowner need not warn of any 'apparent hazards or circumstances of which the invitee has equal or ...


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