SE Texas Record

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

1-year old burns hand while crawling on the floor, justices find in favor of parents

By David Yates | Jul 23, 2019

HOUSTON – The University of St. Thomas will have to pay full damages to the parents of a 1-year old who burned her hand while crawling on a narthex floor.

John Ruff and Catherine Loth filed suit over the child’s injury and, following a jury trial, were awarded $5,900 in damages – less than what the university offered to settle the case for, court records show.

The trial court presiding over the case halved the award, leading the couple to appeal. And on July 11, the First Court Appeals reversed the lower court’s judgment.  

Ruff and Loth attend religious services at a chapel on the university’s premises. During one service, their child made some noise and they were asked not to bring her into the chapel during services.

Because of the request, Ruff and Loth remained with the 1 year old in the narthex area just outside the chapel.

While sitting on one of the benches in the narthex, Loth set the child on the ground. The child began moving along the floor and put her hand on a light fixture embedded in the floor, causing burns and blisters.

Testimony shows that the injury happened when Loth put her on the ground so she could crawl to Loth’s sister, who was sitting nearby.

Right before the case went to trial, Ruff and Loth moved for a ruling in limine prohibiting the university from referencing the parents’ alleged negligence. The University objected.

Court records show the trial court denied the parents’ motion, ruling that “the parental-immunity doctrine does not apply here” and that “nobody needs to approach before going into evidence of parental contributory negligence in this case.”

During the presentation of evidence, the university’s counsel examined Loth about what she was doing when she set the child on the ground, which was met with an objection.

The jury was asked to determine whether the parents or the university was negligent and found each of the two sides liable for 50 percent responsibility, awarding $5,900 to the child for physical pain and mental anguish sustained in the past.

The trial court entered a judgment in the child’s favor on the jury’s verdict, but awarded her only $2,950 and ordered that all costs of court are taxed against the party incurring said cost.

“Well, I think that the record speaks for itself on the outcome of this case,” the trial court stated while explaining the ruling. “And the determination of the award of costs is based on success. And I think in this matter, equity certainly supports splitting the costs. I’m not sure either party was what one would call ‘successful.’

“The award was not at all what the plaintiff sought. It was less than what the plaintiff was offered in settlement. The attorneys’ fees were probably five times at least what the jury awarded in damages. I don’t think it’s just based on the fact that the plaintiff received an award of damages. I think you have to look at the whole picture. Neither side really won this case. And I think that splitting the costs was fair.”

Court records show Ruff and Loth appealed the judgment because it reduced the child’s award by 50 percent and because it did not adjudge costs entirely in their favor.

They argued that the trial court should have disregarded the jury’s 50/50 finding in entering judgment and that parental immunity applies to the facts underlying their alleged negligence.

The First Court found the judgment should not have been entered taking into account the apportionment findings because the apportionment question was immaterial.

The parents are represented by Houston attorney Eric Nielsen.

Houston attorney Kimberly Snagg represents the university.

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