This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).




Sandra J. Bolles, et al.,



Lincoln H. Gill, et al.,


Filed March 16, 1999


Foley, Judge[*]

Olmsted County District Court

File No. C0-97-479

Brandon V. Lawhead, 301 S. Main St., Austin, MN 55912 (for appellants)

Steven J. Hovey, 807 W. Oakland Ave., Austin, MN 55912 (for respondents)

Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge, Shumaker, Judge, and Foley, Judge.


FOLEY, Judge

Appellant Sandra Bowles challenges the district court's order granting summary judgment in favor of respondent landlords. Appellant, an employee of the tenant, was injured when she fell down a stairway to the basement of the leased premises. Because we conclude that appellant has failed to establish the cause of her fall, we affirm.


Respondents Lincoln and Patricia Gill leased property to Jasper and Cynthia Daube on July 18, 1988. After renovations, the Daubes opened and currently operate a bakery on the leased premises.

On November 20, 1989, appellant reported for her first day of work at Daube's Bakery. She hung her coat up in the area that serves as a landing for the stairway to the basement and set her purse down near a safe stored there. A few hours later, appellant returned to the landing to get change from her purse. After bending over to get her purse, she fell down the stairs. Appellant was unable to explain what caused her to fall other than that she was not aware that the stairs were there. She received workers' compensation benefits for her injury.

Appellant brought this action against respondents. Following discovery, respondents moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted. The court, however, stayed entry of judgment to allow appellant time to complete additional discovery and file a motion for reconsideration of the order granting summary judgment if discovery produced evidence that raised a genuine issue of material fact.

Appellant then deposed Cynthia Daube and subsequently filed a motion for reconsideration. The district court concluded that the additional evidence did not create a genuine issue of material fact, finding that Daube had knowledge of the existence and condition of the stairway and that appellant had not demonstrated that her fall was caused by any of the alleged defects in the stairway or the landing. The court thus denied appellant's motion for reconsideration and ordered that its previous order granting summary judgment in favor of respondents be entered.


Summary judgment is appropriate only when the

pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that either party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.

Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03. The evidence is viewed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Fabio v. Bellomo, 504 N.W.2d 758, 761 (Minn. 1993).

The elements of a cause of action in negligence are a duty, the breach of that duty, injury, and a proximate causal connection between the breach of the duty and the injury. Schweich v. Ziegler, Inc., 463 N.W.2d 722, 729 (Minn. 1990). Although the question of negligence is normally a matter for the jury, Oakland v. Stenlund, 420 N.W.2d 248, 250 (Minn. App. 1988), review denied (Minn. April 20, 1988), whether a legal duty exists is a question of law for the court. Larson v. Larson, 373 N.W.2d 287, 289 (Minn. 1985).

We conclude appellant has not established that respondents breached a duty owed to her but even if we were to assume they did, appellant has failed to establish a causal connection between any alleged breach and her fall. Appellant does not know what caused her to fall. Although she alleged several possibilities that could have contributed to her fall, "[w]here the evidence is such that a trier of fact can do no more than guess or conjecture as to which of several acts was in fact the efficient cause, the plaintiff has failed to prove that the defendant's breach caused the injury." Schweich, 463 N.W.2d at 729. Appellant argues that the jury could be given an instruction on res ipsa loquitur. That doctrine, as applied in Minnesota, however, requires the claimant to establish three pre-conditions to its application:

(1) that ordinarily the injury would not occur in the absence of negligence; (2) that the cause of the injury was in the exclusive control of the defendant; and (3) that the injury was not due to plaintiff's conduct.

Hoven v. Rice Memorial Hosp., 396 N.W.2d 569, 572 (Minn. 1986). Here, appellant has not established that the property was in the exclusive control of respondents or that she was not negligent by failing to see a stairway that the district court found was open and obvious.


[*] Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by apointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.