Law And The Simpsons, Lesson One: Trampolines=Potential Lawsuits

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

I know trampolines are fun, but everyone should know, thanks to The Simpsons, that they are a recipe for (legal) disaster:

Apparently some people missed this episode, as a recent decision from the Appellate Division, Panico v. Winner, demonstrates. [Note: In the second week of my first-year torts class, our professor told us that we were having a pop quiz. Being first-year law students, we all panicked. But then he shut off the lights and played this clip and we discussed all of the potential legal issues. It was a relief that it was not a quiz, but unfortunately this was the high point of my first-year torts class.]

In Panico, plaintiff was injured while jumping on a trampoline at a graduation party. The party was held at one of his classmate's homes and was attended by approximately twenty teenage guests. His classmate's mother originally planned to attend the party and serve as chaperone, but later learned that she would not be able to attend because of a work obligation. She told her daughter that she would have to cancel the party unless her daughter could convince the daughter's grandparents to attend. The daughter was able to do so. Her grandparents attended the party and, as a reward, became defendants in a lawsuit. 

Plaintiff was injured when he and two other guests were jumping together on a trampoline. They were playing a game where "a user would be 'out' if he fell down without bouncing back to his feet." Plaintiff was not an entirely willing participant in the game. The court noted that he "initially did not want to use the trampoline," but that one of the other guests, who was a "6'5" football player, weigh[ing] approximately 200 pounds," picked him up and carried him outside to the trampoline. The football player put plaintiff down next to the trampoline and plaintiff climber into the trampoline by himself. After about one minute of jumping, the football player's leg collided with plaintiff's leg, plaintiff felt his leg "snap," and he ended up with a fractured leg and related injuries. Plaintiff sued the homeowner and others, but settled his claims against everyone but the grandparents.

The factual issues in the case surrounded (1) the house rules as they related to the trampoline, and (2) the role that the grandparents were supposed to play at the party.

The homeowner claimed that the house rules were that "nobody goes on the trampoline without me being there," and that it was "always a supervised situation." She claims that she imposed these rules because her daughter and her friends "could not be trusted, [because] they're kids," and that her daughter knew the rules. Whether she told her grandparents about the rules before the party was not entirely clear. She claimed that she thought her daughter did, and that she probably mentioned the rules to her grandparents at some point "in the time [they] owned the trampoline." The grandparents claimed to be only vaguely familiar with trampolines in general and the specific trampoline at issue.

As for their role, the grandparents claimed that they were not there as chaperones, but were simply their to help with the food and refreshments. They claimed not to have received instructions about how to keep the guests safe. Both claimed that they were essentially guests at the party just like everyone else.

Defendants moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted their motion. Assuming that the grandparents were "hosts/guests" of the party, the trial court held that they had no duty to supervise the guests and that they had no duty to warn plaintiff of the dangers of the trampoline because they "were not the homeowners, and they were not in any better position than the plaintiff." Plaintiff appealed.

The Appellate Division reversed and remanded, holding that fact issues precluded summary judgment. The Appellate Division's decision was guided by a prior decision, Hanna v. Stone. In that case, defendants hosted a party for their son's fourteenth birthday. At the party, "one boy struck an injured another boy with whom he had a history of mutual dislike." (Only a court could describe teenage beef in such clinical terms.) Plaintiff sued defendants, claiming defendants had a duty to "properly supervise all visitors and invitees on the premises for the birthday party."  The Appellate Division rejected this argument, holding that "parents have no absolute duty to be constantly present among the teenagers at a social function and no duty to check the background and relationships of the invitees." Instead, it held that "the duty of the person conducting an activity on his or her premises, such as parents sponsoring a party for their son, [was] simply to use reasonable care in all the circumstances."

Applying this standard to the pacts of Panico, the Appellate Division held that "plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to raise a jury question whether defendants breached the duty they owed plaintiff." Specifically, the Appellate Division held that there were genuine issues of fact regarding: whether the grandparents were the "de facto 'sponsors' of the party;" what defendants role was at the party, "specifically, whether they were bound to supervise the guests and keep them indoors;" and the scope of defendants' knowledge of the house rules and the trampoline. The Appellate Division found that these issues were material to "whether defendants exercised reasonable care in all the circumstances, and therefore must be decided by a jury at trial."

The lessons from this case are clear: (1) you should not own a trampoline; (2) if you do, you should hide it when teenagers are around; and (3) if you are a grandparent, you should never volunteer to chaperone or sponsor, or perhaps even attend, a party full of teenagers who might jump on trampolines.

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