Tag: premises

Outdoor Living:  Federal Court Rules That Uneven Terrain in Parking Lot Does Not Present an Unreasonable Risk of Harm

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:

  1. Parking lots have clear and apparent utility. Crosswalks do as well. Crosswalks give patrons a designated area to traverse the lot safely.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

What ifs….. Indemnifying Premises Liability Exposure

If you are a property owner, stop and think about the “what ifs” before you enter into a lease with a property manager or lessee. For example, what if an invitee of the property that you own is hurt while on and/or because of a condition on the property? Who is responsible?

A property owner may be able to transfer its potential liability to a property manager or lessee of the property if the lease contains an indemnification provision. However, not all indemnification provisions are enforceable, and these critical provisions are often litigated.

The Eastern District Court of Louisiana recently enforced an indemnification provision, granting  summary judgment to a landowner who sought indemnification from its property lessee in Avila v. Village Mart, LLC, Civ. A. No. 20-1850, 2021 WL 4439579 (E.D. La. 9/28/21). In the case, a shopping center leased retail space to a men’s store. Before the store opened, a painter was injured when he fell from a ladder. The owner of the shopping center argued that the lessee owed a defense. It argued indemnity applied because the plaintiffs’ claims arose out of the lessee’s buildout construction, over which the owner did not have any care, custody, or control.

In response, the lessee argued that the owner was not entitled to indemnification because the plaintiffs’ claims did not “arise out of or were connected with Tenant’s use, occupancy, management or control of the Leased Premises.” The lessee claimed that it was not using, occupying, managing, or controlling the leased space because the only permitted use of the space was to sell menswear, and the space was not being used for this purpose at the time of the accident.

Louisiana courts often apply a “but for” causation test to such “arising out of” language in indemnity provisions.  Avila, 2021 WL 4439579, at *5, citing Kan. City S. Ry. Co. v. Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., No. 06-03, 2010 WL 1293340, at *6 (W.D. La. Mar. 29, 2010), and Perkins v. Rubicon, Inc., 563 So.2d 258, 259-60 (La. 1990). The court observed the lessee’s arguments contradicted language in the lease that allowed the lessee to use and occupy the store before it opened to the public. The lease also explained that the lessee was responsible for certain construction work and identified specific dates to begin work and to open the store. Thus, the lease contemplated use and occupancy before the store was open to the public. The court found that the lessee’s possession of the space and its construction obligations under the lease established its use and occupancy of the space. The court stated:

Given the broad language in the indemnity agreement – ‘arising out of or connected with’ – [the plaintiffs’] injuries, resulting from his work as a subcontractor painting the premises leased by [the retail space lessee,] are connected to [its] use and occupancy of the premises. … Because [the retail space lessee] was in possession of the space, and had assumed responsibility for the buildout and for contractors and subcontractors working on the buildout, the Court finds that the plaintiffs’ liability theories fall within the scope of the indemnity provision in the lease.  Avila, 2021 WL 4439579, at *6.

The enforceability of indemnity provisions such as the one examined in Avila will continue to be litigated. In the meantime, Avila reminds us of the importance of sound indemnity language to anticipate the “what ifs.”