Along Came a Spider and Sat Down Beside Her – Court Rules Mission Inn Owed Duty to Plaintiff for Black Widow Bite

In Coyle v. Historic Mission Inn Corp., (Cal. Ct. App., June 15, 2018, No. E066265), Michele Coyle brought a premises liability action against the Historic Mission Inn Corporation (“Mission Inn”) for injuries she sustained as a result of a bite from a black widow spider.

Ms. Coyle was a patron at the Mission Inn restaurant where she ate lunch with a friend on the restaurant’s patio. She took off an over-blouse she was wearing and placed it on an empty chair or low concrete wall. Later, she put the over-blouse back on and felt a sharp pain in her shoulder blade. She said that she felt as though she had just been bitten. The next morning she was unable to move her arms or legs, and had to use her nose to dial for help. She was admitted to the hospital and doctors determined that spider venom had reached Ms. Coyle’s spinal fluid, which caused permanent damage. She ultimately lost function in her left hand and leg.

Ms. Coyle brought a premises liability action against the Mission Inn alleging that the owners owed a duty of reasonable care to its patrons in maintaining the property. This included warning patrons of the presence of black widow spiders, and taking remedial action in the form of pest control.

Mission Inn brought a Motion for Summary Judgment asserting that it did not owe Ms. Coyle a duty because it was not foreseeable that its patrons could be bitten by black widow spiders. Although Ms. Coyle presented evidence of previous sightings of spiders, including black widows, at the Mission Inn, no patrons had ever been bitten by a black widow on the patio where Ms. Coyle ate lunch. The trial court held that Mission Inn did not have a duty to protect Ms. Coyle from potential insect or spider bites because they were not foreseeable.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision. It held that Mission Inn did, in fact, have a duty to its patrons to warn or otherwise use reasonable care to protect its patrons from spider bites. Relying on Kesner v. Superior (2016) 1 Cal.5th 1132, the court determined that, for the purposes of the duty analysis, foreseeability is not to be measured by what is more probable than not, but includes whatever is likely enough in the setting of modern life that a reasonably thoughtful person would take account of in guiding practical conduct. What is required to be foreseeable is the general character of the event or harm, not its precise nature or manner of occurrence.

The spider bite was foreseeable because it was a matter of common experience and knowledge in the geographical area that black widow spiders are found inside and outside of buildings and that one must be careful to avoid being bitten by a black widow. Therefore, a reasonably thoughtful restaurant owner would take into account the possibility that black widow spiders may inhabit the restaurant’s premises and that those spiders could bite a patron causing injury. A restaurant owner would reasonably foresee that there would be a risk of a patron being bitten if a restaurant owner did nothing concerning spiders other than record their presence—not providing warnings, not hiring an exterminator, etc.

Ultimately, the appellate court determined that, when opening a restaurant, a reasonably thoughtful restaurant owner would take into account the possibility that a black widow spider could bite a patron.

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June 20, 2018