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McGrellis v. Bromwell

Superior Court of Delaware

March 29, 2019


          Submitted: March 14, 2019

         Upon Defendants James Bromwell and Jennifer Bromwell's Renewed Motion for Directed Verdict, GRANTED.

          Plaintiff, Cynthia E. McGrellis, Pro se.

          Melissa L. Rhoads, Esquire, Tighe & Cottrell, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Defendants.


          Paul R. Wallace, Judge.

         I. Introduction

         This is a personal injury case that has been tried before a jury.[1] At the close of Plaintiff Cynthia E. McGrellis's case in chief, Defendants James and Jennifer Bromwell moved for a directed verdict on Ms. McGrellis's sole negligence claim.[2]The Court denied the Bromwells' motion without prejudice with leave to renew.[3]The jury could not reach a unanimous decision and the Court declared a mistrial.[4]The Bromwells have now filed a Renewed Motion for Directed Verdict under Superior Court Civil Rule 50(b).[5]

         II. Factual and Procedural Background

         A. The Parties, Their Dogs, and This Suit.

         The Bromwells live on Balmore Lane in the neighborhood of Highland West.[6] On December 31, 2016, Ms. McGrellis, an around-the-corner neighbor, was injured while walking her leashed dog, Riley, along the center of Balmore Lane.[7] That afternoon, as Ms. McGrellis and Riley passed the Bromwells' home, Tara, a dog the Bromwells had been fostering for a few weeks, exited the house through the front storm door.[8] Moments later, Ms. McGrellis fell to the street and sustained a serious shoulder injury.[9] Neither Ms. McGrellis nor Riley entered upon the Bromwells' property at any point.[10] And no evidence suggests Tara traveled beyond the bounds of the Bromwells' property.[11]

         In January, 2017, Ms. McGrellis, through counsel, brought suit against both Mr. Bromwell and Mrs. Bromwell to recover damages for her personal injuries, alleging causes of action sounding in strict liability under 16 Del. C. § 3053F, and negligence.[12] By the time trial commenced, Ms. McGrellis was proceeding pro se and had withdrawn her § 3053F claim.[13]

         In her complaint, Ms. McGrellis alleged that the Bromwells' negligent failure to secure Tara within their residence was the proximate cause of her fall and the resulting injuries.[14] The Complaint states that Tara exited the Bromwells' house and ran in the direction of Ms. McGrellis and Riley as they were walking by on Balmore Lane.[15] Ms. McGrellis continued to hold onto Riley's leash when she was "pulled by [Riley], who was startled and trying to flee."[16] It was this, the Complaint says, that caused Ms. McGrellis to lose her balance and fall in the street.[17]

         The Complaint alleges that the Bromwells negligently: (i) failed to secure Tara within their residence; (ii) failed to secure Tara when they heard her bark and cause a commotion as Ms. McGrellis and Riley walked near the residence; (iii) failed to secure the main door to their residence to prevent Tara from exiting; and (iv) failed to secure their storm door to prevent Tara from exiting the home.[18]In their Answer, the Bromwells denied the Complaint's allegations and asserted a number of defenses including, inter alia: Ms. McGrellis failed to state a claim for relief, and Ms. McGrellis's comparative negligence barred recovery for her claims.[19]

         B. The Trial Testimony of the Only Two Eyewitnesses as to How Ms. McGrellis Was Hurt.

         At trial, Ms. McGrellis testified that as she and Riley walked in the middle of the street past the Bromwells' home, Tara "bolt[ed] out of the door like a missile and came at [her] and [her] dog."[20] Ms. McGrellis testified that she fell down onto the street as soon as she saw "black fur coming at [her]."[21] On cross-examination, Ms. McGrellis testified that she was still holding on to Riley's leash when she went down, but she is unsure of whether Riley pulled her to the ground.[22]

         Mr. Bromwell was also a trial witness. Mr. Bromwell testified that he was inside his house with his two dogs (one of which was Tara) when they began to bark.[23] Mr. Bromwell said that when he checked at the front door to see what prompted the barking, Tara "nosed her way outside."[24] Mr. Bromwell testified that when he came outside to retrieve Tara, he saw Ms. McGrellis walking Riley in the street; Riley, he observed, "was bucking."[25] Mr. Bromwell testified that Tara never made it any further than "the edge of [his front] step" before he "bent down, grabbed her, turned around, went back, put her inside the door, secured the door, and then came back for Ms. McGrellis."[26] When he returned to check on Ms. McGrellis, Mr. Bromwell saw her lying on the ground.[27]

         C. The Parties' Questions Posed to the Jury.

At the close of the case, the Court instructed the jury that Ms. McGrellis must prove all the elements of her negligence claim against the Bromwells by a preponderance of the evidence.[28] These elements were explained to the jury as follows:[29]
(1) That the Bromwells were negligent in securing or controlling their dog, Tara; and
(2) That Ms. McGrellis sustained damages that were proximately caused by the Bromwells' negligence.

         The jury was also instructed that the Bromwells, having pleaded comparative negligence, must prove the following elements of that defense by a preponderance of the evidence:[30]

(1) That Ms. McGrellis was negligent in her failure to maintain a proper lookout, to maintain control of her person, or to maintain control her own dog; and
(2) That Ms. McGrellis's negligence was a cause of her own injury and, therefore, she was contributorily negligent.

         The verdict form required the jury answer the following questions, in relevant part:[31]

(1) Were the Bromwells negligent in a manner that proximately caused Cynthia McGrellis's alleged injuries?
(2) Was Cynthia McGrellis comparatively negligent in a manner that proximately caused her alleged injuries?

         The jury was unable to reach an agreement and, as a result, the Court declared a mistrial.[32]

          III. Standard of Review

         A. Deciding a Renewed Motion for Directed Verdict.

         Motions for directed verdict are controlled by this Court's Civil Rule 50(a), which reads:

If during a trial by jury a party has been fully heard on an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue, the Court may determine the issue against the party and may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law. . . .[33]

         Where, as here, the Court denies a mid-trial motion, Rule 50(b) allows the motion to be renewed post-trial.[34] Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the Court must then determine "whether the evidence and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom could justify a jury verdict in favor of the Plaintiff."[35] But the Court must be always mindful that it is ever the Plaintiff's burden to establish a prima facie basis for recovery as to all elements of her claim.[36]

         "To be held liable in negligence, a defendant must have been under a legal obligation-a duty-to protect the plaintiff from the risk of harm which caused h[er] injuries."[37] Whether a legally cognizable duty exists "is entirely a question of law, to be determined by reference to the body of statutes, rules, principles and precedents which make up the law; and it must be determined by the court."[38] If no duty exists, this Court "is authorized to grant judgment as a matter of law."[39]

         B. Prima Facie Negligence Claim - Plaintiff's Burden.

         Negligent behavior is ordinarily defined as the failure to meet the standard of care that the law requires.[40] Where a plaintiff fails to establish a prima facie case of negligence, a defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[41] A prima facie claim for negligence requires a plaintiff to establish that: (1) the defendant owed plaintiff a duty of care; (2) the defendant breached that duty; (3) the defendant's breach was the proximate cause of plaintiff's injury; and (4) the plaintiff incurred damages as a result of the defendant's breach.[42]

         IV. Discussion

Allowing a Dog Into One's Own Yard to Run and Bark Violates No Recognizable Duty to Guard Those Passing on an Adjoining Public ...

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