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Culotta v. Doubletree Hotels LLC

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

June 25, 2019

RICHARD CULOTTA, Appellant
v.
DOUBLETREE HOTELS LLC, DOUBLETREE MANAGEMENT LLC, HILTON INNS LLC, HILTON RESORTS CORPORATION, HILTON PROPERTIES, LTD., AND GAL-TEX HOTEL CORPORATION, Appellees

          On Appeal from the 295th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2015-73364

          Panel consists of Justices Lloyd, Landau, and Countiss.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Sarah Beth Landau Justice

         Richard Culotta sued seven entities for damages after he tripped and fell in a DoubleTree hotel restaurant. The defendants successfully moved for summary judgment, which later became final, and Culotta appealed.

         Culotta raises twelve issues in his appeal. Because we conclude that Culotta's premises-liability claim fails as a matter of law, we resolve this appeal against Culotta on that determinative issue and do not reach his other issues.

         Background

         Richard Culotta and a co-worker took a business trip to Houston and stayed at a DoubleTree hotel near the airport. They decided to eat dinner at the hotel restaurant. While the two were being led to their table, Culotta tripped on the edge of a double-fountain water feature in the restaurant, fell into one of the fountains, and was injured. Culotta brought a premises-liability claim against seven entities, all of which were believed to be related to the hotel or to each other. Culotta's wife asserted derivative claims as well.

         Culotta argued that the fountain feature was unreasonably dangerous in two regards: first, the edging had a low profile, and, second, there were no barriers to prevent a person who had tripped from falling into the fountains.

         All seven entities, collectively referred to as DoubleTree, filed a dual-purpose motion for summary judgment. They moved for traditional summary judgment, arguing, among other things, that they had no duty to Culotta. And they moved for no-evidence summary judgment, arguing that, after adequate time for discovery, Culotta had no evidence in support of several, specified elements of his premises-liability claim.

         Culotta responded by arguing that DoubleTree was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law and by attaching evidence in support of his premises-liability claim, including his deposition, a photograph of the fountain feature, [1] and an affidavit and statement from Culotta's co-worker recounting what had happened and what various hotel employees said to her after Culotta fell.

         Culotta stated in his deposition that he and his co-worker were being led to a back dining area. Their path went from the front of the restaurant, directly toward the double-fountain water feature, across a walkway between the two fountains, and to the back of the restaurant where additional dining tables were placed. Culotta walked past the front of the fountains and was on the short walkway between the fountains when the restaurant employee realized he forgot a menu and turned to go back for it. Culotta shuffled over to let the worker past him. His co-worker also moved past him. Then, all agreed the extra menu was not needed. The restaurant worker and Culotta's co-worker both walked past him again, and Culotta shuffled backward to let them pass. Culotta turned to his left to follow the other two. When he did, he "clipped the ledge of the fountain" on his left with his left ankle and fell into the fountain.

         Culotta testified there was nothing obstructing his view of the fountains as he walked toward them. He could not say with certainty whether, at the point he turned to his left to resume walking to his table, he was still on the walkway between the fountains or if he had shuffled back enough to have been outside the fountain feature. But he knew his back was turned to the fountain when he turned left to resume walking to the table.

         The photograph in the summary-judgment record shows a double-fountain water feature rising a few feet higher than the backs of the chairs at the nearby dining tables.[2] Between the fountains is a walkway that leads to a back dining area. Culotta marked an "X" where a chair was placed near the right fountain, a circled "Y" where Culotta says he tripped on the left fountain, and a "Z" where his hands prevented him from hitting his head on the fountain as he fell in.

         The co-worker's affidavit and statement recounted what various hotel employees said to her after Culotta's fall, including that other guests had tripped on the lip of the fountain and ...


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