STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Commercial Roofing, Inc.,
Ray Riihiluoma, Inc.,
Blesener Dahlberg Architects,
City of Cloquet,
Filed 28, 1998
Toussaint, Chief Judge
Carlton County District Court
File No. C396906
Steven Schneider, 700 Providence Building, 332 West Superior Street, Duluth, MN 55802 (for respondent Commercial Roofing, Inc.)
Gerald J. Brown, 300 Alworth Building, Duluth, MN 55802 (for respondent Blesener Dahlberg Architects)
John D. Kelly, 1000 First Bank Place, Duluth, MN 55802 (for respondent Ray Riihiluoma, Inc.)
John E. Hennen, 145 University Avenue West, St. Paul, MN 55103-2044 (for respondent City of Cloquet)
Wilbur W. Fluegel, Suite 1200, 701 Fourth Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55415-1815 (for amicus Minnesota Trial Lawyers' Association).
Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge, Short, Judge, and Norton, Judge.*
*Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.
TOUSSAINT, Chief Judge
Colleen Madden slipped and fell on a mound of ice that had formed on the sidewalk adjacent to the steps leading to the Carlton County Human Services building in Cloquet. Madden entered into a Pierringer settlement with Carlton County (county). Madden then sued Ray Riihiluoma, Commercial Roofing, Blesener Dahlberg Architects, and City of Cloquet (city), alleging negligence in the design and construction of the Human Services building and the rain gutter system that caused the ice buildup.
The district court granted defendants summary judgment upon a finding that (1) the county's negligent failure to maintain and inspect the rain gutter and to inform them of a problem superseded their alleged negligence; and (2) the City of Cloquet was immune under the "snow and ice" immunity exception established in Minn. Stat. § 466.03, subd. 4 (1996). On appeal, Madden argues that the district court (1) erred in relying on Goar v. Village of Stephan, 157 Minn. 228, 196 N.W. 171 (1923) in holding that the county's negligence superseded defendants' alleged negligence; and (2) misconstrued Minn. Stat. § 466.03, subd. 4. We affirm.
In reviewing the district court's grant of summary judgment, this court determines whether there are genuine issues of material fact and whether the district court correctly applied the law. Offerdahl v. University of Minn. Hosps. & Clinics, 426 N.W.2d 425, 427 (Minn.1988). The interpretation of a statute involves a question of law, which this court reviews de novo. Hibbing Educ. Ass'n v. Public Employment Relations Bd., 369 N.W.2d 527, 529 (Minn.1985). Whether an intervening act is a superseding cause, on the other hand, is generally a question of fact, which this court can decide as a matter of law when reasonable minds can arrive at only one conclusion. Vanderweyst v. Langford, 303 Minn. 575, 576, 228 N.W.2d 271, 272 (1975).
Generally, negligent actors are responsible for the consequences of their actions. Warnick v. Moss & Barnett, 490 N.W.2d 108, 113 (Minn. 1992). On occasion, however, an independent act limits a defendant's liability by breaking the causal connection between the defendant's negligence and the plaintiff's injury. Id. An independent act is considered a superseding cause, excusing any prior negligence, if (1) its harmful effects occurred after the original negligence; (2) it was not brought about by the original negligence; (3) it actively worked to bring about a result that would not otherwise have followed; and (4) it was not foreseeable by the original wrongdoer. Kroeger v. Lee, 270 Minn. 75, 78, 132 N.W.2d 727, 729-30 (1965). A superseding cause, however, will not relieve an original wrongdoer of liability if that party has a continuing duty to the plaintiff. Sandhofer v. Abbot-Northwestern Hosp., 283 N.W.2d 362, 368 n.2 (Minn. 1979).
Madden argues that the district court erred in concluding that the county's failure to inspect and maintain the rain gutter excused defendants' negligence. It is undisputed that the county (1) had exclusive possession and control over the Human Services building for over four years; (2) neglected to inspect and maintain its property despite adequate notice from injured employees of ice build-up on the landing at the bottom of the west entrance steps; and (3) failed to give defendants notice of the problem or the opportunity to cure it. Given these undisputed facts, the district court correctly held that the county's negligence superseded defendants' alleged negligence because it deprived them of the opportunity to protect themselves from resulting liability. See Goar v. Village of Stephen, 157 Minn. 228, 196 N.W. 171 (1923) (holding that a municipal corporation's negligent failure to inspect an electric distributing plant for 17 months, and thereby identify a defect that could have been prevented by inspection, superseded the original negligence of the company that built the plant, where the municipal corporation was in exclusive control of the plant and deprived the company of the opportunity and means of protecting the property).
Madden argues that Goar is inapplicable or of questionable utility because its precedential value has been weakened by Minnesota's adoption of comparative fault and criticism expressed in subsequent cases. See, e.g., Gilbert v. Billman Construction, Inc., 371 N.W.2d 542 (Minn. 1985) (comparative negligence case upholding the jury's finding of negligence and apportionment of fault); Foster v. Herbison Construction Co., 263 Minn. 63, 115 N.W.2d 915 (1962) (contributory negligence case holding contract provisions requiring contractor to perform specific acts admissible on issue of contractor's negligence); Murphy v. Barlow Realty Co., 206 Minn. 527, 289 N.W.2d 563 (1939) (expressly distinguishing Goar on the facts). Goar, however, has not been overruled expressly or impliedly and is consistent with recent superseding cause decisions. See, e.g., Hedlund v. Hedlund, 371 N.W.2d 232, 237 (Minn. App. 1985) (holding that buyer's negligent failure to notify seller of continuing problems with tractor and habit of jump-starting the tractor for almost one year instead of bringing it in for repairs superseded seller's alleged negligence in selling the tractor.) In addition, Goar is distinguishable from cases defendants claim have weakened its authority or implicitly overruled it. Cf., e.g., Murphy, 206 Minn. 527, 289 N.W. 539 (involving an independent contractor who, through willful negligence, rebuilt portions of damaged building so that it was intrinsically dangerous and was held liable for injuries notwithstanding that the building had been accepted by the owners with knowledge of the dangerous condition).
Moreover, the undisputed facts in this case satisfy the requirements of the Kroeger superseding cause test. First, the county's conduct in failing to maintain, inspect, and inform defendants of the existence of a problem occurred after any alleged negligence in designing and constructing the building and gutter system. Second, defendants' alleged negligence did not cause the county's failure to inspect and notify defendants. Third, the county's negligent failure to inspect the rain gutter and notify defendants actively worked to cause plaintiff's injuries. Fourth, defendants could not have foreseen the county's neglect of its duties. Thus, the district court did not err in holding that the county's negligence superseded defendants' alleged negligence.
Because we affirm the district court's finding that the county's negligence superseded defendants' alleged negligence, we do not reach the issue of the city's immunity under Minn. Stat. § 466.03, subd. 4.