A recent decision from the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal re-affirms the merchant liability rules. In Carolyn R. Miller and Steven Rathjen v. Willis Communications, et. al., 19-787 (La. App. 3 Cir. 6/24/20), the plaintiff was an elderly patron of an AT&T store. Plaintiff and her daughter were assisted at the customer service desk, and plaintiff took a seat in a rolling chair. When she attempted to stand up, the rolling chair moved, and she fell to the floor breaking a hip.
Plaintiff filed suit under the merchant’s liability statute, La. R.S. 9:2800.6. Per the statute, if a negligence claim is brought against a merchant by a person lawfully on the merchant’s premises for injuries sustained because of a fall, then plaintiff must prove: 1) that the condition of the merchant’s premises presented an unreasonable risk of harm that was reasonably foreseeable; 2) that the merchant created the risk or had actual or constructive knowledge of the condition; and 3) that the merchant failed to exercise reasonable care to address the unreasonable risk of harm. Plaintiff argued that an unreasonable risk of harm was created when she was given a chair on rollers on flooring allegedly unsafe for use with a rolling chair.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which was denied by the trial court. The appellate court reversed and entered summary judgment. The appellate court found that the critical element of plaintiff’s burden of proof was missing – any defect in the rolling chair. Plaintiff admitted that the chair was not defective. Instead, she argued that she should not have been given a rolling chair to sit in because of her age, obvious mobility issues, and because the rolling chair was unsafe on the flooring of the store.
Evidence was presented that: 1) plaintiff’s daughter was able to maneuver the rolling chair without incident; 2) the daughter did not believe that plaintiff would have trouble navigating the rolling chair; and 3) no other customer had ever fallen out of one of the rolling chairs. Simply, what occurred at the AT&T store was an accident, for which AT&T and its employees were not responsible. Plaintiff, well aware of her own physical limitations, chose to sit in a rolling chair that she physically was unable to get out of on her own. Based upon this evidence, the court reasoned that plaintiff did not prove that: 1) the rolling chair posed an unreasonable risk of harm; or 2) the merchant possessed actual or constructive knowledge of any defect.
Following decisions which imposed harsh standards upon retailers, the Louisiana Legislature adopted the merchant’s liability statute to limit recovery to cases involving true negligence. The Carolyn R. Miller decision demonstrates that the statute is properly used in motion practice to resolve cases where the merchant lacks advance knowledge of the claimed unreasonable risk. Sometimes, an accident is just an accident.
Virginia “Jenny” McLin is a partner at Keogh Cox who practices in the fields of corporate litigation, insurance defense and workers compensation defense. When she is not practicing law, Jenny can be found volunteering with the Junior League of Baton Rouge; cheering for the LSU Tigers with her husband Ryan; or shuffling her two kids to and from dance practice.