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Randel v. City of Kansas City

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District

May 19, 2015

PAMELA RANDEL, Respondent,
v.
CITY OF KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, Appellant

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri. The Honorable Robert M. Schieber, Judge.

Daniel A. Thomas, Jonathan M. Soper and Timothy J. Kingsbury, Independence, MO, for respondent.

Tara M. Kelly, Kansas City, MO, for appellant.

Before: Cynthia L. Martin, Presiding Judge, Gary D. Witt, Judge and Zel M. Fischer, Special Judge. All concur.

OPINION

Cynthia L. Martin, Judge

Page 384

The City of Kansas City (" the City" ) appeals from the trial court's judgment awarding Pamela Randel (" Randel" ) damages following a motorcycle accident on a state highway entrance ramp. Randel alleged that a hydraulic fluid spill from a Missouri Department of Transportation truck created a dangerous condition that the City failed to warn her about, proximately causing her injuries. Because Randel failed to prove that the dangerous condition was located on the City's property in the manner required to waive sovereign immunity, the trial court's judgment is reversed. Pursuant to our authority under Rule 84.14 to " give such judgment as the court ought to give," we enter judgment in favor of the City.

Factual and Procedural Background[1]

On April 9, 2011, a Missouri Department of Transportation (" MoDOT" ) truck began leaking hydraulic fluid on an exit ramp from eastbound Interstate 70 to Paseo Boulevard. The truck continued to leak as it traveled straight across and through two signaled intersections at the base of the ramp for southbound and northbound lanes of Paseo Boulevard and back up the entrance ramp for eastbound Interstate 70 where the truck pulled over to the side of the road.

Nearly three hours later, a motorcycle on which Randel was riding as a passenger crashed on the entrance ramp for eastbound Interstate 70 from Paseo Boulevard. Randel suffered serious injuries. At the time of the accident, no barricades prevented access to the entrance ramp, and Randel's husband, the operator of the motorcycle, saw no police officers or warnings about the spill. Randel's husband described the crash in a manner that suggested he unexpectedly encountered a slick spot on the entrance ramp as he began his acceleration to access the Interstate.

Randel filed suit against the Missouri State Highways and Transportation Commission (" the Commission" ) and the City.[2]

Page 385

The petition theorized premises liability based on the dangerous condition of hydraulic fluid on the roadway and alleged that both public entities waived sovereign immunity pursuant to section 537.600.1(2).[3]

Prior to trial, Randel settled with the Commission. Her case proceeded to trial against the City. The uncontested evidence at trial established that the property where the hydraulic fluid spilled (the exit ramp, the entrance ramp, and the intersections between the two) was part of the state highway system owned by the Commission. Consistent with this fact, Randel never claimed that the City owned all or any part of the property where the hydraulic fluid spilled and instead claimed that the City assumed exclusive control and possession over the property after the spill occurred. On this point, Randel's evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, established that the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department (" KCPD" ) responded to the scene of the spill before the accident and advised MoDOT personnel that they could leave. KCPD personnel thereafter conducted traffic control in the area while the spill was being remediated, but they failed to barricade the entrance ramp to Interstate 70 from Paseo Boulevard or otherwise warn of the spill on that ramp.

At the close of Randel's evidence, the City moved for a directed verdict. The City argued that Randel failed to establish that the City waived its sovereign immunity. The City argued that KCPD officers are not the City's agents and that the acts or omissions of KCPD officers could not establish the City's exercise of exclusive control and possession of the roadway as a matter of law. The City also argued that the accident occurred on a state highway and that, pursuant to the Missouri Constitution and state statutes, the Commission has jurisdiction and control over state highways to the exclusion of any other public entity. The trial court denied the City's motion for directed verdict. The City proceeded with its evidence. At the close of all of the evidence, the City renewed its motion for directed verdict. The trial court again denied the motion.

Randel's case was submitted to the jury with a verdict director that required the jury to find that at the time of Randel's accident, the City exercised " exclusive control and possession" of the roadway where Randel's accident occurred; that the hydraulic fluid in the roadway was not reasonably safe; that the City knew or could have known of the condition but failed to use ordinary care to timely warn about the condition; and that Randel was injured as a result. On the element of " exclusive control and possession," Randel's counsel emphasized in closing that though the property in question was owned by the State, " [t]he police came and sent MoDOT home." Randel argued that in doing so,

Page 386

the City assumed exclusive control and possession of the State's property, and that " it's [not] MoDOT's fault for listening to the City when they came and took control of the scene." The jury returned a verdict in favor of Randel and assessed damages at $499,080. The trial court entered a judgment in accordance with the jury's verdict.

The City filed several post-trial motions, including a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict that, among other things, repeated the arguments made in the City's motions for directed verdict. The trial court denied the City's post-trial motions.

The City appeals.

Analysis

Although the City raises four points on appeal, its first point is dispositive.[4] The City claims that the trial court erred in denying its motion for directed verdict at the close of the evidence because Randel failed to prove that the City owned or had exclusive control and possession over the roadway where Randel's accident occurred and thus failed to prove that the City waived sovereign immunity pursuant to section 537.600.1(2).[5] We agree.

We review the denial of a motion for a directed verdict de novo to determine whether a submissible case was made. Ellison v. Fry, 437 S.W.3d 762, 768 (Mo. banc 2014). " A case may not be submitted unless each and every fact essential to liability is predicated on legal and substantial evidence." Id. In making that determination, " we view the evidence and all reasonable inferences from it in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and disregard all contrary evidence." Kerr v. Vatterott Educ. Ctrs., Inc., 439 S.W.3d 802, 809 (Mo. App. W.D. 2014). If at least one element of the plaintiff's case is not supported by the evidence, then a directed verdict is appropriate, and we will reverse. Ellison, 437 S.W.3d at 768.

Sovereign immunity protects government entities from tort liability. Benson v. Kansas City Bd. of Police Comm'rs, 366 S.W.3d 120, 124 (Mo. App. ...


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