A federal court for the Middle District of Louisiana recently ruled that a 1½ inch elevation change in a Walmart parking lot did not present an unreasonable risk of harm to the plaintiff patron in Lacaze v. Walmart Stores, Inc. The case involved a slip and fall/trip and fall accident in the parking lot of Walmart’s Burbank Drive store in Baton Rouge. The defendant moved to dismiss the suit where the plaintiff claimed she tripped and fell as she crossed the area where the black asphalt parking lot adjoined the concrete crosswalk as pictured below.
In the area where the asphalt meets the crosswalk, the surface presented a ¼ inch to 1½ inch change in elevation. Plaintiff admitted the black pavement was distinct in appearance and color from the concrete crosswalk. Surveillance showed that plaintiff looked down at her cell phone at the time she tripped and fell. Though in a high pedestrian traffic area, Wal-Mart maintained this was the first reported incident.
The Court found the condition was open and obvious and did not present an unreasonable risk of harm. To reach this decision, the Court made the following observations:
Parking lots have clear and apparent utility. Crosswalks do as well. Crosswalks give patrons a designated area to traverse the lot safely.
The likelihood and magnitude of the risk posed by the condition was low. The Court noted it is common for surfaces of parking lots and sidewalks to be irregular, and no other patrons reported problems or accidents.
The cost of preventing the harm was high. The Court would not consider only the cost of fixing the specific injury-causing defect. Rather, it considered the cost of eliminating all defects in the Walmart parking lot.
Plaintiff conducted an ordinary commercial activity that was not dangerous in nature.
The Court concluded that all but factor four pointed to a single conclusion: the 1½ inch elevation difference did not pose an unreasonable risk of harm. The Court reached this conclusion even though the plaintiff retained an expert who gave opinions regarding possible violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and OSHA regulations. The expert’s opinions were insufficient to defeat summary judgment when the condition was open and obvious. In reaching its ultimate conclusion, the Court joined with several other courts, including the following:
Chambers v. Vill. of Moreauville, where a one-and-one half inch deviation did not present an unreasonable risk of harm;
Reed v. Wal-Mart Stores, where a height variance of one-fourth to one-half inch between concrete blocks in parking lot did not present an unreasonable risk of harm; and
Boyle v. Board of Sup’rs, Louisiana State University, where a depression of up to one inch in a sidewalk did not pose unreasonable risk of harm.
Lacaze v. Walmart Stores, Inc., No. CV 20-696-JWD-EWD, 2022 WL 4227240 (M.D. La. Sept. 13, 2022); Chambers v. Vill. of Moreauville, 2011-0898 (La. 01/24/12), 85 So.3d 593; Reed v. Wal-Mart Stores, 97-1174 (La. 03/04/98), 708 So.2d 362; and Boyle v. Board of Sup’rs, Louisiana State University, 96-1158 (La. 01/14/97), 685 So.2d 1080.
In Cooper v. Albertsons Companies, LLC, 20-124 (La. App. 3 Cir. 10/21/20), 2020 WL 6163099, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary dismissal of plaintiff’s claims against a merchant and premises owner. The plaintiff, a vendor, made deliveries to a pharmacy on a regular basis. He slipped on a clear substance believed to be vinegar. The trial judge granted a defense summary judgment, and plaintiff appealed.
Because there was no evidence of Albertsons’ actual knowledge of the condition, the plaintiff had to demonstrate under Louisiana’s “slip and fall” statute, La. R.S. 9:2800.6, that it either created the condition or possessed “constructive knowledge” to defeat the motion for summary judgment.
No Creation of the Condition– In response to the motion for summary judgment, Cooper argued that the size and dispersal of the liquid provided circumstantial evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the merchant created the condition. The court noted that circumstantial evidence “must exclude every other reasonable hypothesis with a fair amount of certainty.” The plaintiff did not possess evidence to show that Albertsons’ employees stocked shelves that morning or even that any employee worked in the area before the fall. Simply, no facts supported an inference that Albertsons caused the spill.
No Constructive Knowledge– Cooper also failed to show how long the liquid was on the floor before he slipped. The liquid was clear, and no evidence established the spill was visible to anyone. No footprints, tracks, grocery-cart wheels, or the like were identified to suggest the length of time the liquid had been on the floor either.
Under the evidence presented, the Third circuit affirmed and found for the merchant. Handled by Keogh Cox attorneys, the Cooper case is a recent example that summary relief should be considered when plaintiff’s proof of a mandatory prerequisite to recovery in a “slip and fall” claim is lacking.
Louisiana law does not recognize “strict liability” for slip and falls and a merchant is not automatically liable for someone’s injuries simply because he or she fell on the merchant’s premises. Before plaintiffs can recover damages for a slip and fall that occurs in a merchant’s store, La. R.S. 9:2800.6 requires plaintiffs to prove three separate elements in addition to causation and damages: 1) that the condition that caused the accident presented an unreasonable risk of harm that was reasonably foreseeable; 2) that the merchant either created the condition or had actual or constructive notice of the condition (the “notice element”); and 3) that the merchant failed to exercise reasonable care. A recent decision from the Louisiana Fifth Circuit highlights that evidence used to establish one element is not always good enough to establish another. Instead, all three of these elements are required for liability to attach.
In Batiste v. United Fire and Casualty Company, 17-482 (La. App. 5 Cir. 3/14/18), the plaintiff claimed she slipped and fell on water in a grocery store aisle. Batiste admitted that she did not know where the water came from, how long the water had been on the ground, or whether any employees knew the water was present. As such, the plaintiff conceded that she could not show that the grocery store created the condition or had actual knowledge of the puddle before she fell.
However, Batiste claimed the store had constructive notice of the condition. To support this argument, the plaintiff pointed to evidence that a grocery store employee failed to confirm she completed a walk-around inspection of the store before the accident, in violation of company policy. Batiste argued that the puddle of water would have been discovered had the inspection been performed and that the failure to perform the inspection was proof that the grocery store possessed “constructive notice.”
The court disagreed. To establish constructive notice, plaintiffs “must come forward with ‘positive evidence’ showing the damage-causing condition existed for some period of time” sufficient to place the merchant on notice of the defect. Without this “temporal element,” constructive notice cannot be inferred. An employee’s failure to perform a pre-incident inspection could not establish this temporal element. Therefore, the court found that plaintiff’s claims were properly dismissed. In closing, the court observed:
While the evidence regarding the adequacy and timing of the floor inspection may be relevant for proving a failure to exercise reasonable care to discovery a hazardous condition, a delay in the performance of such procedures offers no proof of how long any such condition may have been on the floor, a separate and equally essential requirement of the Batistes’ burden of proof under Section 9:2800.6.
The plaintiff’s claims were dismissed because she could not establish each element of her claim. Evidence of one element was not evidence of another.
Reynolds LeBlanc is a partner at Keogh Cox. His practice areas include commercial litigation, personal injury claims, appeals, and other matters. Reynolds is a former teacher, who in his free time plays music and perpetually talks himself into training for his next marathon.
In Thompson v. Winn-Dixie Montogomery, Inc., et al., 2015-C-0477, – So.3d —, the Louisiana Supreme Court recently held that a merchant is not solidarily liable for “slip and fall” damages caused by the actions of an independent contractor, a janitorial services company. Additionally, the Thompson Court addressed the best practices for an appeals court to raise an issue “sua sponte,” i.e, on its own.
The “open and obvious” defense remains alive and well in Louisiana according to an article penned recently by Professor John M. Church of the LSU Law Center for the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel. In April 2013, the Louisiana Supreme Court announced Broussard v. State of Louisiana, 2012-1238 (La. 4/5/13), 113 So.3d 175, which muddied the waters regarding use of the “open and obvious” defense. Some read Broussard as a pronouncement that the “open and obvious” defense was essentially dead in Louisiana. However, as reflected in Professor Church’s article, subsequent Louisiana Supreme Court decisions have given new life to the defense.
Louisiana premises liability law continues to evolve in the wake of the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision in Broussard v. State, 113 So.3d 175 (La. 2013). The Broussard decision was believed to limit the application of the open and obvious defense in the context of a Motion for Summary Judgment on liability.