Barlow v. Hospitality Center for Chinese

(Unpublished, No. A15-1358) Minnesota Court of Appeals, May 31, 2016

In Barlow v. Hospitality Center for Chinese, the appellate court holds that the Hospitality Center for Chinese (HCC) did not owe a duty to Mr. Barlow and, therefore, the district court properly granted summary judgment in favor of HCC.

HCC is a nonprofit that sponsors an annual picnic at the University of Minnesota.  Mr. Michael Barlow worked as a volunteer at the HCC and assisted with the picnic each year from 1999 to 2012.  His duties included organizing and preparing food.  Each year, he brought a corn roaster to the picnic and would use it to make food.  He also would train other volunteers to operate the corn roaster under his supervision.  The corn roaster was an extremely hot piece of equipment, getting up to 500 degrees.  The operators would be within inches of the heat when using it.  

For the 2012 picnic, Mr. Barlow volunteered to be a team captain.  He thought that his role did not include operating the corn roaster, as he had done in the past.  HCC assurred Mr. Barlow that there would be sufficient other volunteers to operate the roaster.  Mr. Barlow never informed anyone at HCC of any health issues that might impact his ability to perform his duties at the picnic.  On the day of the 2012 picnic, Mr. Barlow was informed that he would not be able to set up the corn roaster under the shade of a tree, where he had done so in past years.  The volunteers that HCC had assured Mr. Barlow would be there to operate the roaster never showed.  Mr. Barlow decided to operate the roaster himself, thinking that the volunteers would eventually show up, but they never did.  Mr. Barlow continued to operate the roaster himself, without taking any breaks, and without notifying any supervisors, even though he had a cell phone on him at the time.

Mr. Barlow operated the corn roaster continuously from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm.  After he had finished roasting all 1,600 ears of corn, Mr. Barlow was walking towards the main tent area when he fainted and collapsed.  He eventually came to, drank some fluids and ate some food, but then started experiencing dizziness and pain on his way home.  He ended up going to the hospital where he was diagnosed with heat stroke due to severe dehydration.  He also sustained a rotator cuff injury which ultimately required surgery.  Mr. Barlow sued HCC for negligence.  HCC moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted.  Mr. Barlow appealed.

The appellate court considers whether HCC owed Mr. Barlow a duty of care.  The court notes that a defendant owes a duty “when the defendant’s own conduct creates a forseeable risk of injury to a foreseeable plaintiff.”  Doe 169 v. Brandon, 845 N.W.25 174 (Minn. 2014).  When foreseeability is a close case, the issue is for the jury to determine.  However, when there is not a close case of foreseeability, a district court may decide the issue as a matter of law.  For the plaintiff’s injury to be foreseeable, it must be objectively reasonable to expect, not merely conceivably possible.  “If the connection between the danger and the defendant’s own conduct is too remote, there is no duty.”  Id.

The district court determined that the risk of Mr. Barlow’s heat stroke or shoulder injury was not foreseeable to HCC, given that Mr. Barlow fell suddenly with no symptoms warning him of impending collapse.  The district court concluded that if Mr. Barlow himself did not foresee any risk of injury, then HCC could not have expected it either.  The appellate court in this case agrees with the district court.  The appellate court first notes that Mr. Barlow was a volunteer and, as such, HCC owed no duty to him.  Mr. Barlow argues that he did not ‘volunteer’ to be a corn roaster, and was only forced to do so because no other volunteers showed up.  However, the court finds that Mr. Barlow voluntarily extended the scope of his duties by operating the corn roaster, when he could have refused to do so.  By continuing to operate the roaster, he did so ‘at his own risk.’

Mr. Barlow also argues that it was foreseeable to HCC that he would suffer from heat stroke because he was 67 years old, obese, and diabetic.  However, the court notes that HCC was not aware of any health issues that would put Mr. Barlow at any increased risks.  Furthermore, Mr. Barlow was an expert in operating the corn roaster, having done so for years prior.  The appellate court agrees with the district court that HCC owed no duty to Mr. Barlow and, as such, summary judgment was properly granted.

DISCLAIMER:  The case summary provided on this page is not intended to be relied upon and is solely the opinions of the author.


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