Louisiana’s “slip and fall” statute La. R.S. 9:2800.6 was enacted in response to an elevated burden of proof imposed upon retailers. To recover, a patron must prove both the existence of an unreasonably dangerous condition and that the merchant created or possessed actual or constructive knowledge of the condition. Two recent Louisiana decisions demonstrate that the plaintiff’s burden to show knowledge is often difficult to meet.
In Fountain v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 19-669 (La. App. 3 Cir. 3/18/20), 2020 WL 1307417, Fountain entered the store while it was raining. After shopping for 30 to 40 minutes, he visited the Garden Center and fell in a puddle of water he estimated as 8 inches by a foot and a half. There was no direct evidence Wal-Mart was aware of the alleged defect. Without actual knowledge, Fountain possessed the burden to demonstrate “constructive notice.” To prove constructive notice, the plaintiff must come forward with “positive evidence showing that the damage-causing condition existed for some period to time, and that such time was sufficient to place the merchant defendant on notice of its existence.” Under case facts, the trial court determined that Fountain had not demonstrated this “temporal” element and dismissed the case on motion practice. The dismissal was upheld by the Louisiana Third Circuit.
In Opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment, Fountain made a three-fold argument. First, he alleged that a Wal-Mart employee told him that the water on the floor came from a lady who shook a broken umbrella in the area. The court held that Fountain’s self-serving testimony and reliance upon a hearsay statement was insufficient to establish notice.
Next, Fountain alleged that a manager’s testimony that a large amount of water was found in the general area showed that Wal-Mart “knew or should have known.” Nevertheless, there was no evidence as to how long the water had existed on the floor.
Finally, Fountain cited to video surveillance showing that numerous persons could have tracked water into the area. Distinguishing cases where employees had worked in the precise area of the hazard, the Fountain court stated “our de novo review of the record reveals Mr. Fountain failed to present evidence as to length of time the puddle was on the floor prior to the accident. Therefore, he did not carry his burden of proving that Wal-Mart had constructive knowledge of the condition.”
Similarly, in Bryant v. Ray Brandt Dodge, Inc., 19-464 (La. App. 5 Cir. 3/17/20), 2020 WL 1270963, summary judgment was upheld where the plaintiff lacked positive evidence of how long the condition (a few spots of water) existed prior to the accident. The plaintiff argued that an employee who used the restroom approximately five minutes before was the most likely cause of the alleged hazard. However, this argument was rejected as “mere speculation.”
In these cases, whether an unreasonably dangerous condition is present is a critical issue. However, as seen in Bryant and Fountain, how long the condition existed is sometimes just important. In many cases, time is not on the plaintiff’s side.
Tori works toward efficient, cost-effective resolution strategies, whether in or out of the courtroom. When she is not in the office or in a courtroom, she can be found with her husband and two kids at ballfields, ballet recitals or her local church.