Baumbach v. Lafayette College

Baumbach v. Lafayette College

Aubrey Brumbach was a member of Lafayette College’s club crew team, which practiced out of a Boathouse, located on Lehigh Drive, a poorly lit 45 MPH roadway with no sidewalks. Team members were responsible for their own transportation to and from team practices. Team members regularly parked their private vehicles in a parking lot adjacent to Boathouse. Team members also had access to a remote parking lot located hundreds of yards from the Boathouse on Lehigh Drive.

Lafayette employed team coaches, who often required team members to run (2 miles) from Lafayette’s main campus along Lehigh Drive to the Boathouse before practice. For the first several team practices a coach ran with them and instructed them to run in a single file line, be careful, and watch for cars. The coaches were aware of a recent accident that took place on Lehigh Drive whereby a vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian walking along the road.

One day, Aubrey’s teammate transported her to the Boathouse for practice; however, because the team truck obstructed access to the usual lot adjacent to the Boathouse, Aubrey’s teammate parked her vehicle in the remote lot on Lehigh Drive. By the time practice ended it was dark, and Aubrey and her teammates had to walk back down the dark, narrow, shoulder-less stretch of Lehigh Drive to reach the remote parking lot. Aubrey and her teammates walked single-file along Lehigh Drive, as far away from the roadway as conditions permitted. Nevertheless, Aubrey was hit by a drunk driver, William Kneebone, and sustained serious and lifelong injuries, including brain injuries, requiring multiple and ongoing surgeries and therapies.

Aubrey and her parents (“Plaintiffs”) filed a Complaint raising claims of negligence and intentional misrepresentation against the Lafayette Defendants. Baumbach v. Lafayette College, 2022 Pa. Super. 40 (Pa. Super. March 4, 2022). Plaintiffs alleged the Lafayette Defendants had breached the duty of care owed to Aubrey, and intentionally misrepresented that it was safe: (1) for team members to park in the remote lot not adjacent to the Boathouse; and (2) to walk or run along Lehigh Drive when it knew that there was no sidewalk and that the absence of a sidewalk posed an imminent threat to the team members’ safety. Plaintiffs also sued Mr. Kneebone, and other individuals and establishments they alleged were also responsible for Aubrey’s injuries (collectively, the “Dramshop Defendants”).

The trial court granted the Lafayette Defendants’ Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and dismissed Plaintiffs’ Complaint. The trial court concluded that Plaintiffs failed to establish that the Lafayette Defendants owed a duty of care to Aubrey. It further concluded that Aubrey did not justifiably rely on the Lafayette Defendants’ representations pertaining to the safety of walking or running along Lehigh Drive. After Plaintiffs’ settled their claims against Mr. Kneebone and the Dramshop Defendants, Plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s decision, which disposed of their claims against the Lafayette Defendants.

Plaintiffs claim that the trial court erred as a matter of law in dismissing their negligence claim after finding that the Lafayette Defendants did not owe Aubrey a duty of care. Plaintiffs argued that they sufficiently pleaded in their Complaint that the Lafayette Defendants assumed a duty to Aubrey by undertaking to act for her protection and safety, which gave rise to a corresponding duty of care.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 323 provides as follows:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other’s person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking, if (a) his failure to exercise such care increases the risk of such harm, or (b) the harm is suffered because of the other’s reliance upon the undertaking.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 323. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has adopted Section 323. See Feld v. Merriam, 485 A.2d 742, 746 (Pa. 1984).

The Superior Court determined that the Plaintiffs’ Complaint alleged sufficient facts to establish a prima facie case that the Lafayette Defendants undertook the following affirmative actions for Aubrey’s safety and protection as a member of the Team: (1) entering into a management agreement for the Boathouse that required College to follow safety practices at the facility; (2) providing a “usual” parking lot next to the Boathouse for Team members to park their personal vehicles; and (3) hiring Coaches who taught the sport of crew, provided physical training, supervised the team’s equipment and logistics, and instructed the students with respect to their conduct along Lehigh Drive. The Court concluded that these affirmative actions imposed upon the Lafayette Defendants a duty of care to protect team members, including Aubrey, against an unreasonable risk of harm arising from that affirmative conduct.

Plaintiffs also argued that the trial court erred in dismissing its intentional misrepresentation claim against the Lafayette Defendants. To prevail on a cause of action for intentional misrepresentation, a plaintiff must prove the following elements: (1) a representation; (2) which is material to the transaction at hand; (3) made falsely, with knowledge of its falsity or recklessness as to whether it is true or false; (4) with the intent of misleading another into relying on it; (5) justifiable reliance on the misrepresentation; and (6) reliance proximately caused the resulting injury. Gibbs v. Ernst, 647 A.2d 882, 889 (Pa. 1994). Whether a party justifiably relied on the representations of another is a question of fact. See, e.g., Toy v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 928 A.2d 186, 208 (Pa. 2007).

The Court concluded that the Plaintiffs allegations that: (1) the coaches misrepresented that Lehigh Drive was safe for the team members’ use as pedestrians, while also periodically cautioning team members to run single file and watch for cars; (2) the coaches made representations to team members about the safety of parking in the remote parking lot and walking down Lehigh Drive to reach the boathouse, and that the coaches made these representations either knowing that the statements were false or without adequate knowledge about the safety conditions of Lehigh Drive but professing to have such knowledge; (3) the coaches knew that there had been a recent prior fatal pedestrian-involved accident on Lehigh Drive in the vicinity of the boathouse; (4) the coaches’ conduct  in leading team members on runs along Lehigh Drive and subsequently sending the members on unsupervised runs falsely represented that running or walking along Lehigh Drive was safe; and (5) the Lafayette Defendants misrepresented Lehigh Drive’s safety when it encouraged team members to park in the remote parking lot when the lot adjacent to the Boathouse was not available to and walk along Lehigh Drive to reach the Boathouse.

The Court concluded that these allegations were sufficient to establish a prima facie claim that Aubrey justifiably relied on the Lafayette Defendants’ representations regarding the safety of Lehigh Drive. Moreover, the Court determined that the trial court erroneously usurped the role of the fact-finder to determine that Aubrey’s reliance on the Lafayette Defendants’ representations was not justifiable. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the trial court erred granting judgment on the pleadings in favor of the Lafayette Defendants on Appellants’ intentional misrepresentation claim.

 

Pennsylvania Superior Court finds college can be held liable for injuries that a student sustained as a result of a drunk driver. Ty Smith explains.