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Hammock plaintiff hangs tight

A woman who occasionally rented out her Blue Ridge Mountain cabin must defend a negligence suit filed by a guest who said he was injured when he fell through a rotted hammock on the rental property.

Although the cabin was the defendant Rebecca Ramos’ primary residence, she still qualified as an innkeeper who owed an elevated duty of care to her paying guest, Peter Jarmak. And she should have known to inspect the hammock offered to guests, according to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It vacated summary judgment for the owner in an unpublished opinion on Nov. 16.

“It is common knowledge that rope deteriorates over time when exposed to nature,” wrote Judge Dennis W. Shedd, and the owner’s testimony that she typically tried to put the hammock in a shed during inclement weather demonstrated her awareness of this fact.

Ramos could not specify when she last sat in the hammock before her guest fell, and a jury reasonably could conclude the owner’s “casual observation and occasional use of the hammock did not fulfill her innkeeper’s duty to perform an adequate inspection of her premises,” Shedd wrote.

A “mere visual examination or casual use” of the hammock did not discharge her duty to inspect, the panel majority said.

Judge Andre Davis dissented. He said the real issue was whether a reasonable jury could rationally find by a preponderance of the evidence that inspection of the hammock would have disclosed that the ropes were so weak they would not likely support a person such as Jarmak, who weighed more than 230 pounds.

Unlike the hammock, the evidence was in equipoise, and any jury verdict for the plaintiff would “amount to little more than a flip of a coin” for the lucky man, according to Davis.
–Deborah Elkins

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