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.
Case References: 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.
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.