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300 E. Lombard Street, Suite 1440
Baltimore, Maryland 21202

tel: 410.783.1296
fax: 410.783.1316

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Recent Cases
Destefano, et al. v. Colonial Parking, et al.,
Civ. No. 13-CV-679, DC Court of Appeals (July 23, 2015):

Destefano brought her minor children to Children's National Medical Center ("CNMC") and parked in the garage, which was being operated by Colonial Parking, Inc. ("Colonial"). After Destefano returned to the garage, she asked her children to back up in the space between the car and the wall so that she could open the car door. When they did so, one of the children fell backwards through a vent in the wall that opened into a 25-foot air shaft. The metal cover for the hole was leaning against the wall nearby. Despite the fact that a garage attendant told his supervisor at Colonial about the condition of the air vent, the supervisor dismissed the complaint without taking any action. The plaintiffs were awarded a total of $1,586,000 for negligence.

For operators of parking garages and lots, this case is noteworthy because Colonial argued that they had no legal duty to the plaintiffs regarding the safety of the parking garage. After the reviewing the contract between Colonial and CNMC, the Court rejected Colonial's argument. The contract required Colonial to

operate the parking garage; recruit, engage, hire, supervise and discharge all employees and persons needed in order to operate said parking garage; direct courteously and efficiently, all traffic into and out of the parking garage; and take all actions and steps as may be necessary to manage, service and operate the parking garage properly and efficiently. In addition, the contract obligated Colonial to patrol the garage and provide general maintenance, including general cleaning of the parking garage, treatment of oil spills, sweeping and emptying of all trash containers and mechanical sweeping of all parking levels.

By contrast, the agreement obligated CNMC to

maintain major structural items in the garage, defined as the air handling systems, the maintenance of green space, sewer systems, sump pumps, traps and drains, HVAC systems, plumbing, all concrete surfaces and other major structural elements, sprinkler and fire systems, and electrical and lighting fixtures.

The Court determined that the contract showed that even though CNMC was the property owner, Colonial had "primary control over the parking garage" and that courts in the District of Columbia have long recognized that businesses in control of parking areas have a possessory interest in the premises that gives rise to a duty of reasonable care to those who are present. In this case, the plaintiffs were in the parking garage for business purposes; therefore, Colonial owed them a duty of care as a possessor of the premises.

In addition, the Court held that plaintiffs were not required to present expert testimony on the standard of care of garage management companies and their personnel. The Court found that it was "not beyond the ken of the average layperson to determine whether Colonial deviated from the standard of care." In addition, it did not take "special knowledge" to know that a large, uncovered vent in the wall of the parking garage could be a hazard, or that taking reasonable steps, such as posting a warning or replacing the vent cover, could ameliorate the danger.

How does this affect your business?

For garage operators, they cannot simply rely on their contractual agreements to define or delineate their duties vis--vis business invitees. In this case, despite the fact that the dangerous or hazardous condition (i.e., the air vent) would fall under the owner's duties and responsibilities for structural repairs, the garage operator was still held liable because they had an independent duty to customer to keep the premises reasonably safe and/or to provide warnings.

The best way to avoid liability for trips/slips/falls and other hazardous conditions in a garage is to have daily, weekly, monthly, and annual inspections and maintain accurate records. In addition, if your employees report a dangerous condition, do not dismiss it, take action! If the complaint involves a structural issue, report it to the property owner, put up warning signs, and/or rope off dangerous areas so that customers do not enter.

If you have any questions about this topic, please contact:

Schmidt, Dailey & O'Neill, LLC
231 E. Baltimore Street, Suite 1400
Baltimore, Maryland 21202
(410) 783-1296 or email info@sdolaw.com

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