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Rockhill v. Danbury Hospital

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

August 29, 2017

ANNA ROCKHILL
v.
DANBURY HOSPITAL

          Argued April 24, 2017

          Michael G. Rigg, for the appellant (defendant).

          James P. Sexton, with whom were Michael S. Taylor and, on the brief, Marina L. Green, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          DiPentima, C. J., and Beach and Sheridan, Js. [*]

         Procedural History

         Action to recover damages for personal injuries sustained as a result of the defendant's negligence, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Danbury and tried to the court, Doherty, J.; thereafter, the court denied the defendant's motion to preclude certain evidence; judgment for the plaintiff, from which the defendant appealed to this court; subsequently, the court, Doherty, J., issued an articulation of its decision. Affirmed.

         Syllabus

         The plaintiff, a business invitee of the defendant hospital, sought to recover damages for negligence in connection with personal injuries she sustained when she struck her toe against an obstacle while walking in a crosswalk to the parking lot of the hospital, which caused her to fall and break one of her toes and to sustain other injuries. The case was tried to the court, which rendered judgment for the plaintiff, from which the defendant appealed to this court.

         Held:

         1. The defendant could not prevail on its claim that the trial court erroneously found that the defect in the walkway that caused the plaintiff's injuries was a reasonably foreseeable hazard; that court, which reviewed reports prepared by members of the defendant's security and medical staff, and photographs depicting the alleged defect and the surrounding area, and which heard the testimony of the plaintiff and her daughter describing the fall and the defect, had before it adequate evidence of a broken slab of pavement that contained a chip in a well traveled walkway that had existed for a sufficient period of time, and, thus, its findings relating to this claim were not clearly erroneous and its conclusions were not unreasonable.

         2. The trial court reasonably found, on the basis of the evidence presented, that the defect in the crosswalk was the actual cause of the plaintiff's fall; that court's finding that the plaintiff struck her toe on some obstacle while walking in or next to the crosswalk was reasonably supported by the evidence and the inferences drawn therefrom, namely, that there was broken pavement at the corner where the plaintiff's foot had hit, that when a security officer examined the area of the fall, he identified only the defect in question, that the sensation the plaintiff felt when striking her foot was the inside of the broken pavement, and that the defect caused the fall based on the proximity of the plaintiff's location after the fall to the location of the defect.

         3. The trial court's finding that all of the plaintiff's medical costs were substantially caused by the fall was supported by the record and was not clearly erroneous; that court's findings that the plaintiff's fall was a substantial factor in bringing about her injuries and exacerbating her preexisting spinal stenosis were supported by the record, there having been expert testimony that the plaintiff's fall was a significant factor in her accelerated need for surgery, the relevant medical records admitted into evidence having indicated that the plaintiff began significantly complaining to her physician of chronic back pain shortly after the incident and prior to seeking surgical treatment, and the testimony and medical records having demonstrated that, prior to the fall, despite the radiological presence of the plaintiff's preexisting condition, the plaintiff led an active and independent lifestyle.

         4. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the defendant's motion to preclude the expert testimony of K, one of the plaintiff's treating physicians: K's reliance on the plaintiff's statements to him pertaining to her medical history did not render his opinion factually baseless, and the plaintiff's recitation of her medical history to K was reinforced by other medical records admitted into evidence, on which K relied, describing her complaints regarding back pain shortly after the fall and the extensive treatment she received thereafter; moreover, although K testified that his apportionment between the plaintiff's preexisting condition and the fall was admittedly arbitrary, he nonetheless opined that the plaintiff's fall was a significant factor in causing her accelerated need for surgery, his opinion was supported by the plaintiff's medical history and had a reasonable foundation in the evidence, and it was within the province of the court, as the trier of fact, to credit some, all or none of K's testimony regarding his conclusion that the plaintiff's fall exacerbated her preexisting condition.

          OPINION

          BEACH, J.

         The defendant, Danbury Hospital, appeals from the judgment of the trial court rendered in favor of the plaintiff, Anna Rockhill, following a trial to the court. On appeal, the defendant claims that the court erroneously found that (1) a defect on the defendant's property that allegedly caused the plaintiff to fall was a reasonably foreseeable defect; (2) the defect caused the plaintiff to fall; and (3) all of the plaintiff's medical expenses were caused by the fall rather than by her preexisting spinal stenosis. The defendant also claims that the court abused its discretion in admitting the testimony of the plaintiff's expert witness pertaining to the causation element of her negligence claim. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The trial court's memorandum of decision sets forth the following relevant facts. On June 16, 2010, the plaintiff and her daughter, Cynthia Fusco, were visiting the plaintiff's husband, who was receiving medical care at Danbury Hospital. After their visit, the plaintiff and Fusco exited the hospital's main building and walked onto a walkway leading toward the parking lot. The plaintiff and Fusco were familiar with this walkway, as they had made this same trip several times in the past.

         While the plaintiff and Fusco were walking along the pathway, the plaintiff hit something with her foot and fell to the ground. As a result of the fall, she sustained injuries to her right foot and ankle. It later was determined that she had broken her big toe and damaged the fifth metatarsal of her right foot. Within minutes of the fall, the plaintiff was taken to the defendant's emergency department by hospital staff where she was examined and treated for her injuries. As a result of her fall, the plaintiff experienced chronic lower back pain from a protruded disk that required several epidural steroid injections and, eventually, a surgical decompression procedure.

         A trial to the court was held on August 26, 2014. On February 2, 2015, the court issued a memorandum of decision and rendered judgment in favor of the plaintiff. The court made detailed findings pertaining to both liability and damages. With respect to liability, the court noted that ‘‘the evidence [presented at trial] permits the court to find that the plaintiff struck her right toe against some obstacle while walking in or next to the crosswalk, which caused the fracture for which she was treated minutes later in the emergency department.'' The court further noted that the ‘‘area where the defect exists is contiguous with the crosswalk, a heavily traveled area used daily by patients and other invitees of the hospital.'' As to damages, the court found that the plaintiff's total damages were $181, 076.45. The court further found that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent in each way alleged in the defendant's special defenses.[1] The court found the plaintiff 40 percent at fault for the injuries she sustained. As a result, the court awarded judgment to the plaintiff in the amount of $108, 645.87, plus taxable costs. This appeal followed.[2]Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.

         I

         The defendant sets forth three claims challenging the factual findings of the trial court. Specifically, the defendant argues that the court erroneously found that (1) the divot[3] that caused the plaintiff's injuries was a reasonably foreseeable hazard; (2) the divot actually caused the plaintiff to fall; and (3) the plaintiff's fall caused all of her medical expenses. We disagree.

         Before we address the defendant's individual claims, we set forth the guiding legal principles and our standard of review. ‘‘The essential elements of a cause of action in negligence are well established: duty; breach of that duty; causation; and actual injury. . . . If a plaintiff cannot prove all of those elements, the cause of action fails. . . . [I]n a negligence action . . . [a] causal relation between the defendant's wrongful conduct and the plaintiff's injuries is a fundamental element without which a plaintiff has no case . . . .'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Right v. Breen, 88 Conn.App. 583, 586-87, 870 A.2d 1131 (2005), rev'd on other grounds, 277 Conn. 364, 890 A.2d 1287 (2006).

         Notably, the present case was tried to the court. When the court is the finder of fact, ‘‘inferenc[es] of fact [are] not reversible unless the inferenc[es] [were] arrived at unreasonably. . . . We note as well that [t]riers of fact must often rely on circumstantial evidence and draw inferences from it. . . . Proof of a material fact by inference need not be so conclusive as to exclude every other hypothesis. It is sufficient if the evidence produces in the mind of the trier a reasonable belief in the probability of the existence of the material fact. . . . Moreover, it is the exclusive province of the trier of fact to weigh the conflicting evidence, determine the credibility of witnesses and determine whether to accept some, all or none of a witness' testimony. . . . Thus, if the court's dispositive finding . . . was not clearly erroneous, then the judgment must be affirmed.'' (Emphasis omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Palkimas v. Fernandez, 159 Conn.App. 129, 133-34, 122 A.3d 704 (2015).

         A

         The defendant first claims that the court erroneously found that the divot causing the plaintiff's injuries was a reasonably foreseeable trip hazard. In support of this claim, the defendant raises two arguments. First, the defendant argues that this finding was improper as a matter of law because the divot is insufficient in size to constitute a reasonably foreseeable hazard; that is, the divot is ‘‘trivial'' as a matter of law. Second, it argues that the court's finding was speculative and unsupported by the record because the plaintiff failed to satisfy her burden of establishing that the divot was a reasonably foreseeable hazard. In response, the plaintiff argues that the size of the divot is presumptively a question for the finder of fact and that the trial court's finding that the divot was a reasonably foreseeable trip hazard is sufficiently supported by evidence in the record. We agree with the plaintiff.

         In its memorandum of decision, the court concluded that ‘‘[t]he evidence elicited at trial permits the court to find that in or near the crosswalk where the plaintiff alleges to have fallen, there did exist a portion of uneven surface where the blocks of cement or other materials meet to form the crosswalk and the adjacent walkway. In addition, a small edge of raised surface appeared to have been chipped or otherwise broken off.'' The court further noted that the area in question was ‘‘well worn'' and that the defect ‘‘is a specific condition which existed for a sufficient length of time as to give the defendant constructive notice of its existence.'' The court also ...


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