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Padron v. Catholic Diocese of Austin

Court of Appeals of Texas, Sixth District, Texarkana

April 10, 2019

JANINE PADRON, Appellant
v.
CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF AUSTIN A/K/A ROMAN CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF AUSTIN; ITS AGENTS, SERVANTS, AND EMPLOYEES; AND ST. IGNATIUS THE MARTYR MIDDLE SCHOOL, Appellees

          Submitted: March 13, 2019

          On Appeal from the 250th District Court Travis County, Texas Trial Court No. D-1-GN-16-004298

          Before Morriss, C.J., Burgess and Stevens, JJ. Memorandum Opinion by Chief Justice Morriss

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOSH R. MORRISS, III CHIEF JUSTICE.

         Janine Padron fell while descending an unlit stairway following a parent-teacher organization meeting at the St. Ignatius The Martyr Middle School (School).[1] Padron sued the School, the Catholic Diocese of Austin (Diocese), and "its Agents, Servants, and Employees" for (a) premises liability due to lack of adequate illumination on the stairway or warning of the dangerous condition, (b) negligence per se for allegedly failing to follow building codes adopted by the City of Austin, and (c) gross negligence. The Diocese and School filed traditional and no-evidence motions for summary judgment arguing, among other things, that Padron's premises-liability claim failed because she was aware of the darkened stairway, Padron was limited to asserting only a premises-liability claim, and there was no evidence that the Diocese or School committed gross negligence.

         The trial court granted the summary judgment motions and rendered a take-nothing judgment in favor of the Diocese and School. Padron appeals. We affirm the trial court's judgment, because (1) the appellees had no duty regarding an open and obvious risk known to Padron and (2) summary judgment was proper on Padron's claim for negligence per se.[2]

         Padron had attended a parent-teacher organization meeting at the School's family center on the evening of her injury. Padron, who had been to the family center many times, testified that a gym comprised the first floor of the center, that classrooms were located on the second floor, and that there were four stairways leading to the second floor where classrooms were located. While it was still daylight, Padron, a homeroom teacher, and fifteen other parents walked up the stairway "on the church side entrance" (side stairway) to enter the homeroom teacher's classroom where the meeting was held. The acting principal also attended the meeting "as a parent."

         After the meeting, Padron and the other parents used the same side stairway to exit the School. Padron did not mention whether the homeroom teacher left her classroom after the meeting, but testified that the principal remained in the classroom as the parents left. Padron said that the gym was lit and "there was lighting down on the floor." However, the side stairway was enclosed, the lights for the side stairway were off, it was nighttime, and the light from the gym floor would have only peeked in through a small window in the door leading to the gym. Thus, Padron testified that the side stairway was dark. Although there was a light switch on the second floor outside of the homeroom classroom near the side stairway, Padron testified that she did not look to see if there was a light switch for the stairway because she was "talking as [she] immediately came out of the classroom and just started proceeding down the . . . stairway."

         Padron was the first parent to walk down the side stairway. She testified, "[A]s we got a little further down, it got darker and darker . . . . As I realized, you know, it was getting harder and harder to see, and that's when I grabbed the rail and we were walking down; then it got darker as we proceeded further down." Because she was "talking and proceeding," Padron testified that she did not consider turning around and going back up the stairs toward the light or asking anyone to turn on the lights to the side stairway. She also did not consider using another staircase to exit the School because she believed they would be dark. Padron fell towards the bottom of the stairs, hitting her knees on the ground.[3]

         Padron sued the Diocese and School for premises liability. She alleged that the School failed to make the side stairway safe, the darkened stairs caused her "to misstep . . . because she could not see the steps due to the lack of adequate illumination," and there was a lack of warning of the dangerous condition of the side stairway. She also raised a negligence per se claim, alleging that the Diocese and School violated Austin's 2012 International Building Code Ordinances requiring the means of egress to be illuminated by not less than "1 foot candle (11 lux) at the walking surface" at all times that a building is occupied, and a gross negligence claim based on both the "inadequately lighted steep stairway" and the absence of warnings that the building codes were being violated.

         The Diocese filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that it did not own, possess, control, or have responsibility for the School's property. In the alternative, the Diocese also argued that (1) Padron's premises-liability claim failed because she specifically knew of the alleged unreasonably dangerous condition, (2) Padron's negligence per se claim failed as a matter of law because she was limited to asserting only a premises-liability claim, (3) the gross negligence claim failed since there was no liability for premises liability or negligence per se, (4) Padron had no evidence the Diocese knew or reasonably should have known of the alleged unreasonably dangerous condition, and (5) Padron had no evidence that the Diocese committed gross negligence. In a separately filed motion for summary judgment, the School mimicked the Diocese's alternative arguments.

         In her summary judgment response, Padron admitted, "Plaintiff was aware of darkness and the dangers it presented." However, she argued that the building code violations were "some evidence of an unreasonable risk of harm and negligence per se," stated that she was not warned about the condition, and recited, without any support in the summary judgment evidence, that a School employee was able to observe the condition as she left. She also argued that she was required to use the side stairway out of necessity because the other stairwells were unlit. Padron did not adequately address the no-evidence motions for summary judgment on the gross negligence claim, but merely recited that the failure to warn Padron of the dark side stairway constituted gross negligence. The trial court granted both summary judgment motions and rendered take-nothing judgments against Padron.

         The grant of a trial court's summary judgment is subject to de novo review by appellate courts. Provident Life & Accident Ins. Co. v. Knott, 128 S.W.3d 211, 215 (Tex. 2003). In making the required review, we deem as true all evidence which is favorable to the nonmovant, we indulge every reasonable inference to be drawn from the evidence, and we resolve any doubts in the nonmovant's favor. Valence Operating Co. v. Dorsett, 164 S.W.3d 656, 661 (Tex. 2005). When the trial court does not specify the basis for its ruling, we must affirm a summary judgment if any of the grounds on which judgment is sought are meritorious. Merriman v. XTO Energy, Inc., 407 S.W.3d 244, 248 (Tex. 2013).

         "A party moving for traditional summary judgment has the burden to prove that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Cantey Hanger, LLP v. Byrd, 467 S.W.3d 477, 481 (Tex. 2015); see Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c). A movant who conclusively negates at least one of the essential elements of a cause of action is entitled to summary judgment. Frost Nat'l Bank v. Fernandez, 315 S.W.3d 494, 508 (Tex. 2010). Once the movant establishes its right to summary judgment as a matter of law, "the burden shifts to the nonmovant to present evidence raising a fact issue" to defeat the motion for summary judgment. Mott v. ...


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