Berman v. Sitrin (2014): RI Supreme Court Upholds Verdict for State in Premises Liability Case

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has denied the appeal of a man rendered a quadriplegic after falling near the Newport Cliff Walk, following a jury verdict in favor of the State of Rhode Island on premises liability. Berman v. Sitrin, __ A.3d __ (R.I. Nov. 10, 2014).

In August 2000, on their honeymoon, Simcha Berman and his now ex-wife visited the Cliff Walk, a tourist attraction in Newport, RI overlooking the ocean. Berman descended a beaten path near the Cliff Walk and fell 29 feet to the rocks below, suffering catastrophic spinal cord personal injuries and permanent disability.

In a 2011 trial against the State of Rhode Island and City of Newport, Berman alleged that the defendants failed to properly inspect, maintain, and repair the Cliff Walk, after knowing of its defects and failing to warn the public. The City settled and agreed to pay Berman its insurance policy limits of $2 million. The City had indisputably assumed authority and control over the Cliff Walk. However, the State’s authority and control over the Walk remained disputed. Berman’s premises liability case against the State continued, and at trial the jury found the State not negligent.

Berman appealed a host of evidentiary issues and post-trial motions, for which the Supreme Court found no error. Notably, the Court took no issue with the trial judge’s jury instruction that the State owed Berman a duty of reasonable care [and thus could be held negligent for premises liability if the evidence supported it]. The State believed it had immunity from such a duty under the Recreational Use Statute, R.I.G.L. sec. 32-6-3, or the public duty doctrine. Since the State prevailed on appeal, the Supreme Court declined to address the State’s immunity under those doctrines and left those issues “for another day in another case.”