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Two female pre-school teachers took 72 pre-school students to watch a puppet show

Two female pre-school teachers took 72 pre-school students to watch a puppet show at a theatre in Queens. The two teachers, in different areas of the theatre, seated each of their students before the start of the show and before going to their own seats.

As they were walking to their seats, the houselights were suddenly turned off. The entire theatre went dark. As a result of the sudden turning off of the houselights, one teacher missed her step while on the theatre stairs. She fell on her knees and was seriously injured. After she fell, she noticed that there was a strip of light at the edge of each step on the theatre stairs.

The other teacher across the theatre also missed her step on the theatre stairs when the theatre lights were turned off as she was going back to her seat after seating her pupils. She slightly injured her knee.

The teacher (who was more seriously injured) brought a suit in damages for the injury she sustained. She sued the theatre owner as well as the production company. The production company had a lease agreement with the theatre owner. She claimed that the theatre owner and the production company failed to maintain adequate and appropriate lighting in the theatre. She also maintained that the theatre employees were inadequately trained as they turned off the lights in the theatre even before all the patrons in the theatre were seated.

During the deposition, the theatre manager and the artistic director of the production company both testified that they have been staging the puppet show for 20 years and have not had problems with the lighting in the theatre. Both testified that the practice was for a member of the production company to give a welcome speech. After the welcome speech was finished, a member of the production company, the stage manager or the person who gave the speech would speak into a microphone to tell the lighting operator to dim the lights. Both testified that it is never completely dark in the theatre during the performance as there are wall lights, exit lights and strip lights along the floor and on the edge of the steps of the stairs. They both testified that the lights are not turned off but dimmed. They also testified that as the houselights were dimmed, the other lights automatically came on. Both testified that the building’s structure and lighting facilities were all inspected and they all conformed to the requirements of law. Both also testified that they were not altogether sure if they were both inside the theatre at the time of the incident.

The theatre owner and the production company moved for summary judgment on the ground that upon joining of the issues and with the depositions during discovery, there are no issues of fact that still need to be tried. Opposing the motion, the teacher claimed that there was an issue left to be tried: it was not just that the lighting was inadequate or inappropriate but that the operation of the lights in the theatre also constituted the hazard.

The trial court dismissed the complaint on summary judgment which is now appealed. The only questions are: whether or not the trial court erred in allowing the case to proceed to summary judgment; and whether or not the case should have been dismissed.

The Supreme Court upheld the orders of the trial court. One justice dissented.

In finding for the theatre owner and the production company, the Court emphasized that the teacher must prove that there is a pre-existing condition or hazard that the theatre owner and the production company knew about but refused to remedy.

Here, there is no pre-existing condition or hazard proved as the teacher herself testified that when the lights were turned off or dimmed, other smaller lights turned on automatically. It was proved that this practice has been in place for 20 years and no similar accidents have occurred as a result of any inadequacy of the lighting.

The plaintiff stresses that the theatre owner and the production company should have exercised diligence in waiting and making sure that all the patrons were seated before turning off the lights. She also insisted that an announcement should have been made that the lights would be dimmed before dimming the lights.

To this the Court demurred: when a person goes to a theatre, the person reasonably expects that the lights will be dimmed so that the show can be comfortably viewed. There is no requirement in law for the theatre owner or the production company to make an announcement before dimming the lights. To require them to do so and to find them liable in damages for failing to do so would impose on them a requirement that is higher than that required by law.

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