JAMELL WOODS COTTO v. CITY OF NEW HAVEN et al., SC 18339
Judicial District of New Haven
Negligence; Governmental Immunity; Whether Court Properly Found that Defendants had Constructive Notice of Actual Defect that Caused Plaintiff's Injury; Whether Plaintiff was Identifiable Person Subject to Imminent Harm. The plaintiff commenced this action against the city of New Haven, its board of education, the superintendent of schools and the principal of Roberto Clemente School after slipping and falling on a bathroom floor at Roberto Clemente School. At the time of the incident, the plaintiff worked for Latino Youth Development, Inc., which had been granted permission by the New Haven board of education to operate a youth program at the school. The plaintiff alleged that he had entered the bathroom to look for two boys that were missing from his group and that he had immediately slipped and fell on urine, causing injury to his knee. He further alleged that he had complained about the bathroom being dirty on prior occasions and that the defendants were negligent in failing the keep the bathroom in a safe condition. By way of special defense, the defendants argued that the plaintiff's own negligence was the proximate cause of his injuries and that they were entitled to common law and statutory governmental immunity pursuant to General Statutes § 52-557n. That statute, in relevant part, provides: "Except as otherwise provided by a law, a political subdivision of the state shall not be liable for damages to person or property caused by . . . negligent acts or omissions which require the exercise of judgment or discretion as an official function of the authority expressly or impliedly granted by law." The defendants asserted that the alleged failure to mop and inspect the bathroom floor and to warn the plaintiff of its condition all involved the exercise of discretion. The trial court first determined that the plaintiff had proven that the defendants were negligent but that any damages award should be reduced by twenty percent based on the plaintiff's own negligence in failing to protect himself from a danger that should have been apparent to him. It then determined that the defendants were not immune from liability based on the "identifiable person-imminent harm" exception to immunity, which applies when circumstances make it apparent to a public officer that his or her failure to act would likely subject an identifiable person to imminent harm. The court found that there was little question that discretionary activity was involved in this case, and it indicated that the plaintiff had an immediate obligation to look for the missing boys and that the bathroom was an obvious place for him to look. It therefore determined that the wet bathroom floor presented a danger not only to the students but also to the plaintiff. In addition, it found that the inspection of the bathroom would not have placed an unreasonable burden on the defendants. Accordingly, the court rendered a judgment in favor of the plaintiff, which was reduced due to his comparative negligence. In this appeal, the defendants argue that the trial court used an incorrect legal standard in determining that they had constructive notice of the actual defect that allegedly caused the plaintiff's injury. They also argue that the court improperly determined that the plaintiff was an identifiable person subject to imminent harm.