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Houck v. University of Washington

as corrected: January 14, 1991.


Baker, J. Webster, A.c.j., and Britt, J. Pro Tem., concur.

Author: Baker

This case raises the questions of whether a university has a duty to control drinking of alcoholic beverages in student dormitory rooms, and whether actual knowledge of a student's intoxication in an automated dormitory elevator is required to apply the common carrier standard of care. We reverse judgment entered on a verdict in favor of the defendant University of Washington.

Chad Houck was an 18-year-old first term freshman at the University of Washington. He attended a drinking party at his University of Washington dormitory, Haggett Hall, in December 1985. The party was held in a student room. It is disputed whether there was drinking in the hallway. Houck consumed alcohol and became intoxicated. He knew that under state law it was illegal for persons under the age of 21 to drink.

Houck and his companions left the party and entered an elevator to go down to a dance in the dormitory's lower level. One of the students stopped the elevator between floors by prying open the elevator doors as a prank. Each of the students jumped from the stalled elevator to the next lower floor level. After he jumped, Houck lost his balance and fell into the elevator shaft, falling over 50 feet. He was seriously injured.

Students in the University of Washington residence halls are provided with written informational materials. The 1985-86 publication, "The Residence Halls", stated in the basic rules section:

City, State and Other Laws : You are expected to observe all city and state laws.

Alcohol : In Washington State it is against the law for anyone under 21 to drink alcohol. It is also illegal to buy or sell alcohol in the halls. If you are 21 years or older, you can drink in resident rooms or clusters with the door closed, but in no other parts of the building. The intent of this policy is to allow individuals to drink, but to discourage large parties. Kegs, keggers or cocktail parties are not permitted.

Houck acknowledged receiving information to that effect. The dormitory staff understood that basic privacy rights prevented them from making uninvited entry into student rooms to look for illegal drinking. However, if alcohol was seen in a public area, the staff would write up the offender in an incident report. The staff could not search closed bags for alcohol. Several students testified they understood that drinking alcohol in their rooms was permitted, even if they were under 21. One handwritten policy statement by dormitory staff noted, "[w]hether or not you drink is your own business[;] however you should be aware that consumption of alcohol in public places . . . is prohibited by Washington State law."

Regarding the safety of the elevator, Houck's elevator expert conceded that there was no mechanical defect that caused the elevator to stop the night of the accident. There was an adequate alarm bell and no reason for the students to evacuate the elevator. The expert stated that if the students had remained in the elevator, the doors which had been pried open probably would have closed, allowing the car to descend safely.

The expert witness also testified concerning two safety features that could have prevented the accident -- a door restrictor and a toe guard. Although not required on this elevator, which was installed in 1963, door restrictors have been required on all United States elevators installed since 1981, according to the witness. A door restrictor prevents persons in an elevator stuck between floors from opening the doors more than 4 inches and leaving the car. Opposed by many fire fighters, the door restrictors continue to be controversial in the industry, the witness acknowledged.

The toe guard, a plate located under the elevator car and in the same plane as the car's front doors, is used to prevent a person in the hall from putting a foot under the car when the hallway doors have opened prematurely and the car is still descending. If the car is above the floor and the hall doors are open, such a toe guard would create a partial barrier to anyone getting under the elevator car and falling into the shaft, as occurred here. The evidence was conflicting whether there was a toe guard on the elevator the night of this accident.

A University elevator staff member indicated he was aware that the students were preopening the elevators and stopping them between floors. The staff denied awareness of the students jumping out.

The jury rendered a verdict for the University. After a motion for a new trial was denied, Houck filed a timely appeal.


Houck contends that the court erred in instructing the jury that a common carrier who is not otherwise negligent has no duty to protect intoxicated passengers from damages caused by their intoxication unless the common carrier has actual knowledge of their intoxication and their danger.*fn1

[1] We review the sufficiency of instructions to test if they permit each party to argue his theory of the case, are

not misleading, and as a whole properly inform the jury of the applicable law. Farm Crop Energy v. Old Nat'l Bank, 109 Wash. 2d 923, 933, 750 P.2d 231 (1988).

[2] It is not disputed that the University was a common carrier in regard to the operation of the elevator in question. A common carrier owes the highest degree of care toward its passengers commensurate with the practical operation of its conveyance at the time and place in question. See, e.g., Benjamin v. Seattle, 74 Wash. 2d 832, 447 P.2d 172 (1968).

In Brown v. The Crescent Stores, Inc., 54 Wash. App. 861, 869, 776 P.2d 705 (1989),*fn2 the court dealt with the common carrier duty owed to infirm passengers and found that the "facts raise a question whether The Crescent should have reasonably anticipated an accident might occur and was therefore obligated to take precautionary measures." Brown, a 90-year-old woman, was attending a regularly scheduled Widows of World War I luncheon. She was injured when a door in an automatic elevator allegedly shot out with great force and struck her. Brown presented evidence of prior automatic elevator accidents involving elderly passengers, and the store had manually operated elevators ...

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