Court of Appeals Recent Interpretation of Contributory Negligence
Recently, the North Carolina Court of Appeals weighed in on the issue of contributory negligence. Contributory negligence is a legal defense that allows a defendant to argue that a plaintiff was also negligent, thereby barring the plaintiff’s negligence action against the defendant. Since North Carolina is one of only a few states that still uses contributory negligence, each case that interprets it is important due to the lack of guiding law in other regions of the country and the fact-specific analysis that it requires.
In Cullen v. Logan Developers, Inc., No. COA 22-223 (2023), the Court of Appeals reviewed a trial court’s grant of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, holding that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Plaintiff was contributorily negligent.
The facts in Cullen are between that of a slip and fall case and a negligent construction case. Defendant Logan Developers was contracted to build a home in Southport, NC for Plaintiff Debra Cullen. During the final walkthrough of the house, Plaintiff noticed that Defendant cut a scuttle hole between the existing attic walk space and the master bathroom ceiling in order to access the attic. Plaintiff did not want the scuttle hole to remain. The local building code required the placement of the scuttle hole, but, as a compromise, Defendant covered the scuttle hole with drywall, concealing its presence.
During her first week in the home, Plaintiff walked into the attic, and while in the attic, stepped backwards onto the area of the walk space that was cut for the scuttle hole. Plaintiff fell through the ceiling of the master bathroom, suffering serious injuries including a broken ankle and thumb. According to Plaintiff, Defendant never spoke with her about what covering the scuttle hole would entail and claimed that she was told “by closing, you’ll never know the scuttle hole was there.” Because of this, Plaintiff did not think there was reason to watch her step or avoid the area.
Plaintiff filed a Complaint alleging that Defendant failed to comply with applicable building codes, failed to construct the home in a fit and habitable condition, and failed to adequately warn Plaintiff of the unsafe condition. Defendant argued that Plaintiff was negligent in stepping backwards in an attic while unreasonably choosing to not watch where she was stepping. Defendant’s Answer included defenses of contributory negligence, assumption of risk, and completion and acceptance.
The Court of Appeals concluded that the forecast of evidence showed a genuine issue of fact existed as to whether Plaintiff knew or should have known there was an unsafe condition in the attic where she was walking.
In its holding, the Court cited Draughon v. Evening Star Holiness Church of Dunn, 374 N.C. 479, 483 (2020), which held that the doctrine of contributory negligence provides that “a plaintiff cannot recover for injuries resulting from a defendant’s negligence if the plaintiff’s own negligence contributed to [her] injury.” Further, the Court cited contributory negligence is “conduct which fails to conform to an objective standard of behavior – the care an ordinarily prudent person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances to avoid injury.” Proffitt v. Gosnell, 257 N.C. App. 148, 152 (2017).
The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court did not view the evidence in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, which it is required to do when considering whether summary judgment is appropriate. The merits of Defendant’s affirmative defenses and any evidence that Plaintiff knew the danger existed presented disputed questions of fact for the jury. Duval v. OM Hospitality, LLC, 186 N.C. App. 390, 395 (2007). For instance, the Court of Appeals reasoned that Plaintiff’s forecast of evidence showed that the only time she walked in the attic prior to the accident was before Defendant installed the scuttle hole. Further, the area where Defendant cut the scuttle hole was within what used to be a walkway.
Ultimately, the Court reversed the trial court’s grant of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.
Why This Decision Matters
This case is a reminder as to why motions seeking summary judgment on the issue of contributory negligence can be very difficult to win. North Carolina trial and appellate courts have all consistently held that whether summary judgment is appropriate in a case is driven by the facts of a case. Draughon v. Evening Star Holiness Church of Dunn, 374 N.C. 479, 483 (2020). Specifically, the question of whether a plaintiff has been contributorily negligent is rarely appropriate for summary judgment, except in instances where the evidence establishes the negligence of a plaintiff so clearly that no other conclusion can be drawn. Cone v. Watson, 224 N.C. App. 24, 736 S.E.2d 210 (2012). Otherwise, questions of fact, or the existence of a possible disputed fact, will result in a denial of summary judgment and submission of the issue of the jury, especially where the evidence is to be viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiff.