Appeals court affirms ruling for hospital insurance company

A Jefferson County circuit judge was correct when she dismissed a negligence lawsuit filed against the company that insures Jefferson Regional Medical Center, an appeals court has ruled.

Jonnie Locke had filed suit against Continental Casualty Co. after she tripped and fell over four exposed bolts that were protruding approximately an inch above the sidewalk at JRMC on Jan. 20, 1995. The bolts were used to anchor a handicapped parking sign that had been knocked over and removed sometime before Locke’s fall, and at the time of her fall, there were no warning signs or cones indicating the presence of the exposed bolts.

In her order granting summary judgment to the insurance company, Circuit Judge Jodi Raines Dennis said the company was entitled to the judgment on the issue of whether the hospital knew or should have known of the defective condition of the protruding bolts, shifting the burden of proof to Locke.

Dennis found that Locke had presented no evidence to establish the date and time when the bolts in the sidewalk became exposed, and no evidence that anyone noticed the situation or brought it to the attention of the hospital.

An argument that the hospital was negligent in using steel signposts that, once broken, exposed bolts presenting a danger, was also dismissed with Dennis saying that Arkansas law recognized no duty to guard against “possible” harm.

Locke appealed that decision, contending that the hospital had a legal duty to Locke if there was proof that it knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care could have discovered the existence of the protruding bolts.

To support that contention, Locke presented depositions from two hospital employees, John James, a grounds keeper, and Stacie Hipp, a nurse who saw Locke fall. Hipp testified that after she saw Locke fall, she saw the handicapped sign had apparently been knocked over and was leaning against a column near the emergency room.

The testimony of James was ruled inadmissible and determined to be hearsay. While James said he was “told” that security had put the sign against the column, he did not say who told him and the person who put the sign against the column was not identified.

Locke also contended that the hospital replaced the rigid metal signs with a new break-away design three years after her accident, but Dennis said that was no evidence that the particular harm suffered by Locke was foreseeable.

In addition, Locke failed to present any evidence to show that the signs had been knocked down before her fall, and Ronnie Gant, the hospital’s security department coordinator and safety compliance assistant, who had worked at JRMC since 1989, testified that he was aware that the signs had been bent from cars hitting them previously, but he had never heard of an incident in which the sign had been knocked over, exposing the bolts.

“Based on the evidence presented, and viewing this evidence in the light most favorable to Locke, we cannot say that the hospital had a duty to guard against the particular harm that befell Locke,” Appeals Court Judge Rita W. Gruber said in the court’s ruling, which dismissed the case.