Colmenares Vivas v. Sun Alliance Insurance Co. Case Brief

Summary of Colmenares Vivas v. Sun Alliance Insurance Co., Citation: 807 F.2d 1102 (1986)

Facts: In February 1984, Jose Domingo Colmenares Vivas and his wife arrived at the Puerto Rico airport. While on an escalator in the airport, the moving handrail Mrs. Colmenares was holding onto stopped moving causing her to lose her balance. Her husband grabbed her and prevented her from falling, but in doing so, he lost his balance and tumbled down the stairs.

Procedural Posture: The Colmonareses sued the airport’s insurance company, Sun Alliance, who brought a third-party action against Westinghouse. Sun Alliance moved for a directed verdict, but the court decided to let the trial continue. After hearing the parties’ arguments, the court ruled that there was no evidence that the Ports Authority had been negligent, and that the case could not go to the jury based on res ipsa loquitur because at least one of the requirements for its application—that the injury-causing instrumentality was within the exclusive control of the defendant—was not met.

Issue: Did the Ports Authority effectively have exclusive control over the escalator because the authority in control of a public area has a nondelegable duty to maintain its facilities in a safe condition?

Holding: Yes

Rule: The authority in control of a public area has a nondelegable duty to maintain its facilities in a safe condition.

Reasoning (Bownes): Under PR law, three requirements must be met for res ipsa loquitur to apply: (1) the accident must be of a kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence; (2) it must be caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant; and (3) it must not be due to any voluntary action on the part of the plaintiff. The first requirement was met because an escalator handrail probably would not stop suddenly while the escalator continues moving unless someone had been negligent. The second requirement is met: the Ports Authority effectively had exclusive control over the escalator because the authority in control of a public area has a nondelegable duty to maintain its facilities in a safe condition. The third requirement is met because there is no evidence that the Colmenareses caused the accident.

Dissenting (Torruella): Solely because the handrail stopped and Mrs. Colmenares fell, without further evidence as to why or how the handrail malfunctioned, does not give rise to an inference of negligence by the Ports Authority. The malfunctioning of an escalator presents a strong argument against the raising of an inference of negligence without additional proof as to the cause of the malfunction. Expert testimony is required to establish the basis for such an inference.




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