As is often the case in law, how the courts interpret a statute is often the determining factor in the case. For example, California Building Standards Code (CBSC) states that the top of guardrails shall not be less than 42 inches in height, except in front of the first row of fixed balcony seats. In that case, the top of the guardrail may be 26 inches in height.
What happens, though, when you build a shelf or beverage bar? Does the glass now have to extend vertically another 26 inches above the shelf? That was the question the court was asked to answer in Tang v. NBBJ, 2014 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1058, after a two-year-old boy fell to his death from a luxury box at Staples Center.
Henry Tang and Hoai Mi Nguyen were attending a basketball game at Staples Center in Los Angeles with their children, seated in a luxury box on the third level. Apart from a rear portion containing bar stools and a couch, the box has two-tiered rows of fixed seats. Extending up from the carpeted floor at the front of the box to a height of 15 to 16 inches is a solid wall topped by a shelf. Designed to provide an area for patrons to place food and beverages while viewing an event at Staples Center, the shelf projects 11 inches toward the front row of seats and runs the entire length of the box — even in front of stairs. Affixed to the shelf is a tempered glass barrier, which rises from the shelf by 10 inches in front of the seats and 26 inches in front of the stairway that bisects the box.
During the game, Nguyen picked up her two-year-old son Lucas and stood him on the shelf in front of the glass barrier in order to take photos of the child. After taking a photo, Nguyen looked down to check the image on her camera. When she looked up again to take another photograph, Lucas was no longer on the shelf. He had fallen 25 feet to the floor level below and died from injuries sustained in the fall.
The Estate of Lucas Tang filed a lawsuit against Anschutz Entertainment Group Inc. (AEG) as the owner of Staples Center for wrongful death. It also sued NBBJ, the architectural firm that designed Staples Center. AEG was later dismissed from the action and replaced with L.A. Arena because AEG's subsidiaries — L.A. Arena Co. and L.A. Arena Funding (collectively, L.A. Arena) — own and manage Staples Center.
In support of its lawsuit, the Estate of Lucas Tang argued that L.A. Arena was negligent for failing to comply with city and state building codes. In particular, the Estate claimed that the shelf is a "walking surface" and that, therefore, L.A. Arena did not meet the minimum height of 26 inches in a sightline-constrained environment required by CBSC.
In addition, the Estate argued that L.A. Arena's failure to warn of or repair a dangerous condition of its property was negligent. While acknowledging that the building codes require a 26-inch barrier in front of seats, L.A. Arena claimed that the 26-inch measurement starts from the floor rather than the shelf.
FULL COURT PRESS
At trial, L.A. Arena and the architectural firm moved for summary judgment. L.A. Arena argued that it did not owe a duty of care to warn of or repair any dangerous condition at the arena because Lucas was under parental supervision when he fell, and the glass barrier was an open and obvious condition. The architectural firm argued that any claim the Estate of Lucas Tang may have for design defects lapsed eight years before the lawsuit.
In opposing the architectural firm's motion, the Estate of Lucas Tang contended that the wall-and-glass barrier at the front of the luxury box was a latent defect, and therefore the statute of limitations did not start running until it was discovered as a result of Lucas' death. The court granted L.A. Arena and the architectural firm's motion. As a result, the Estate of Lucas Tang took its case to the Court of Appeal of California.
In reviewing the trial court's finding that the lawsuit against the architectural firm was time-barred by the four-year statute of limitations, the Court of Appeal found that the limitations period only applies to injury and wrongful death claims against architects or contractors that arise from patent deficiencies in design or construction, and are apparent by reasonable inspection. The limitations period is measured from the date of substantial completion of construction. As the Court of Appeal noted, however, the main question in the case centered around identifying when the statute of limitations began to run.
In the current case, the court found that the statute states "from the date of substantial completion of construction" for design defects that are "apparent by reasonable inspection." Therefore, the court held the key question was whether the defect was patent or latent. If patent, the statute would begin on the date of substantial completion of construction. If latent, the statute would begin on the date of discovery — when Lucas died. A patent defect, the court ruled, can be discovered by such an inspection as would be made in the exercise of ordinary care and prudence. A latent defect, on the other hand, is one that is hidden and not discovered by a reasonably careful inspection.
In this case, the Estate of Lucas Tang alleged that the glass barrier at Staples Center is a latent defect because it is designed to be as invisible as possible, making it difficult for spectators to perceive, creating an optical illusion that impedes the ability of a person to realize that the high part of the glass does not continue along the entire length of the box.
In rejecting this argument, the court cited The Luckman Partnership, Inc. v. Superior Court, 184 Cal. App. 4th 30 (2010), noting that the danger of stepping beyond a guardrail is a matter of common experience — the barrier keeps the user away from the adjacent space. Thus, a design defect that creates enough space for a person to climb through the guardrails is a patent defect. It is a matter of common experience to the average person, the court held, that climbing over the barrier would result in a fall and injury or death.
Though the glass varies from 10 inches to 26 inches in height, this is not a hidden deficiency. In addition, the court found that the absence of a catch-fall device that the Estate of Lucas Tang maintained was required by law was also reasonably discoverable since the missing safety ledge below the balcony would have been at least 36 inches wide. Finally, the court held that, since the question of whether there is a patent defect is based on the average person's expectations, it was not hidden from the average person and, as such, the four-year period specified in the statute of limitations elapsed well before the Estate of Lucas Tang's lawsuit against the architectural firm.
While the court dismissed the case against the architectural firm, it refused to dismiss the claim against L.A. Arena, sending the case back to trial. The court found that it was reasonably forseeable that patrons such as the Tang family would view the shelf as something to stand on, and that someone falling from the height at Staples Center would be injured or killed, L.A. Arena had a duty to prevent people from misusing the shelf by using a taller glass barrier, or at least by placing warning signs instructing patrons not to sit or stand on the shelf. The court held that as a landowner, L.A. Arena is not entitled to one free fatal plunge before its duty to act in the face of a known danger is triggered. As a result, the case will proceed with the full trial previously denied to the Estate of Lucas Tang by the lower court.
Attorney John T. Wolohan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of sports law in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University. Direct all questions to email@example.com.