Premises liability claim against Autism Speaks dismissed by judge

By Jon Campisi | Dec 18, 2012

A federal judge in Philadelphia has dismissed a slip-and-fall action that had been filed by

a couple against the advocacy group Autism Speaks, ruling that the organization cannot be held liable for the wife’s injuries sustained during an event held on city-owned land because the group did not have legal possession over the outdoor space.

The underlying case was initiated by Ronald and Paulette Billie this past spring following injuries Paulette Billie allegedly sustained in mid April 2011 during the Walk Now for Autism event held at Lehigh Parkway in Allentown, Pa.

Paulette Billie claimed she sustained a fractured right ankle after stepping in a groundhog hole on a grassy hill in the area where she parked her vehicle upon arriving at the event.

Lehigh Parkway is owned by the City of Allentown, which granted Autism Speaks a permit by which it could use the park on the day of the walk.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged claims of both negligence and consortium negligence.

The defendant soon moved for summary judgment.

Autism Speaks argued that it should be entitled to summary judgment because it did not possess the property in question and thus owed no duty of care to the plaintiffs, and even if it did possess the property, it would qualify for immunity under the Pennsylvania Recreational Use and Land and Water Act, which grants immunity from ordinary premises liability claims if the land is open to the public, used for recreational purposes and free of charge to users.

In their brief opposing the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiffs did not argue that the defendant possessed the property, instead focusing on the group’s alternative theory that the RULWA provides immunity if the court finds possession.

The plaintiffs previously didn’t raise that argument, the record shows, with the couple, in their amended complaint, alleging negligence on the grounds that the defendant was an “occupier” of the park who was required to use reasonable care in the maintenance and use of the land, and to protect invitees from foreseeable harm.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson, sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, wrote that “there is no evidence from which a reasonable fact-finder could infer that Defendant possessed the city park.”

The judge determined that the evidence in the case does not support the plaintiffs’ theory that Autism Speaks assumed a duty of care to protect participants at its event from hazards on the premises.

“The evidence is clear that Defendant did not have ‘authority to manage the land and regulate its use,’ and thus did not possess the park,” Baylson wrote, citing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case of Stanton v. Lackawanna Energy Ltd., in which the high court had defined land possession.

The judge rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the issue of “possession” should be left to a jury, writing that the court carefully reviewed the legal authority cited by the plaintiffs and finds no legal basis to support their contention.

The federal jurist further wrote that according to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, “if there was no reason that the defendant should have foreseen that his actions were necessary for the protection of the plaintiff, no cause of action will lie under,” Section 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts.

Baylson cited the state high court’s case of Cantwell v. Allegheny Cnty. in his assessment.

“Here, there is no evidence that Defendant ‘should have foreseen’ that failing to inspect the entire premises, let alone the specific area where Mrs. Billie was injured, was necessary for protecting event participants,” the ruling states. “Since there is no evidence the City warned Defendant about the holes or asked Defendant to look for them, there is no genuine factual dispute that the risk was foreseeable.”

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