On Wednesday, May 15th, 2013, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court granted a new trial on a lawsuit concerning a trampoline, a pool, and an unfortunate accident. The plaintiff, Cleber Coleta Dos Santos, sued his half-brother and sister-in-law, defendants Jose and Maria Coleta, for negligently placing a 3-foot trampoline next to a wading pool in the backyard of their shared two-family home. The plaintiff became paralyzed from the chest down after jumping from the trampoline into the shallow pool, hitting his head in the process.
Dos Santos stated that he had never used the trampoline before. He had wanted to do a trick for the entertainment of his young son and wife, who was going to record the jump and send the video to family members in Brazil. The accident happened in August of 2005, two days after Jose and Maria Coleta had moved out of the shared two-family home to a new home in South Carolina.
The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants. This verdict was based on the judge’s instruction that it was “open and obvious” that jumping from a trampoline into a pool might be a dangerous activity. The judge had instructed the jury to stop deliberating on the matter once if they concluded that jumping into a pool from a trampoline was an “open and obvious” danger.
On Wednesday, however, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that this instruction was improper, or at the very least, incomplete. The Supreme Court stated that the trial judge should have also instructed the jury that if a homeowner can anticipate the danger, then he or she has a responsibility to correct the danger. In this case, the jury should also have deliberated whether or not the defendants should have anticipated the danger of anyone deciding it might be fun to jump from the trampoline to the pool, even if that risk was an obvious one.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Robert Cordy, went on to state “[a] landowner has a duty to remedy an open and obvious danger, where he has created and maintained that danger with the knowledge that lawful entrants would (and did) choose to encounter it despite the obvious risk.”
It certainly seems hard not to blame the plaintiff here. Conversely, finding fault on behalf of the defendant seems very difficult. This holds especially true since the pool was a vinyl inflatable pool not intended for any kind of diving, jumping, or other sometimes reckless activities associated with larger pools. Nevertheless, Justice Cordy went on to write in his opinion that defendants knew setting up the trampoline next to the pool could be dangerous.
Attorney Timothy Kelleher, of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, agreed with the Supreme Court ruling and wrote an amicus brief supporting Dos Santos and his position. He stated that the Supreme Court made the correct decision. Further, the stance will benefit public safety in the future. Kelleher supported the notion that the court should enforce the law that landowners have a duty to eliminate unsafe conditions in anticipation that guests or other invitees might come into contact with those dangerous or risky conditions and sustain serious injuries.
This case makes you wonder what exactly Dos Santos expected the results of jumping into a wading pool from a trampoline would be. Perhaps that information will come to light during this new trial. For now, it seems the law is on Dos Santos’s side unless the jury in the new trial concludes that the risk of danger was so obvious that the defendants had no duty to correct it.
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Written by Manish M. Mathur, 3L New England Law | Boston