The Supreme Court “Cleans Up” the Liability of Merchants for Slip-and-Falls Caused by Independent Contractors

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 facts of the case are straightforward. The plaintiff slipped on a puddle of water in front of a meat case in a grocery store. The merchant, Winn-Dixie, kept a floor mat in front of the meat case to address any condensation. At the time of the fall, the mat was rolled up to permit the area to be mopped. Winn-Dixie had contracted with Southern Cleaning Services, Inc. (“SCSI”) to provide janitorial services. SCSI then subcontracted with KAP Cleaning Services, Inc. (“KAP”) to perform this work. KAP’s employee was the one who rolled up the mat and was preparing to mop the meat case area when plaintiff fell.

Plaintiff settled with SCI and KAP prior to trial. However, KAP’s “third party fault” was still an issue at trial. The trial court found KAP 70% at fault and Winn-Dixie 30% at fault.

Hoping to impact the fault allocation on appeal, the plaintiff argued that Winn-Dixie possessed an exclusive duty over floor safety and was liable under La. R.S. 9:2800.6 (the “Merchant Liability Statute”) because its manager did not conduct inspections every thirty minutes as required by Winn-Dixie policies, and because the floor mat was undersized. Additionally, plaintiff argued that Winn-Dixie should have been aware of the water in front of the meat case because of a history of alleged “leaks.”

In response to plaintiff’s arguments, Winn-Dixie offered the testimony of its refrigeration maintenance technician, who explained that the meat case does not circulate water and, therefore, cannot leak. However, the technician conceded that condensation could develop depending on the temperature and humidity levels in the store.

The appeals court accepted the plaintiff’s arguments and reversed. In assessing 100% fault to Winn-Dixie, the appellate court held that: (1) Winn-Dixie could not delegate the statutorily-imposed duties of the Merchant Liability Statute; and (2) Winn-Dixie possessed “operational control” of KAP’s employee. The appeals court decision suggested that the independent contractor could never be assessed fault in connection with floor safety because Winn-Dixie possessed the duty under the law.

The Louisiana Supreme Court in Thompson reversed the appeals court. While the act of contracting with an independent contractor does not eliminate the merchant’s statutory duties, the independent contractor may also be liable if there is evidence of negligence on its part. Accordingly, the Court held that all fault must be assessed because a merchant is not solidarily liable for the actions of an independent contractor.

The Thompson Court also addressed whether Winn-Dixie controlled and supervised KAP’s employee to the extent that it had “operational control.” On this subject, the Court noted that the issue of “operational control” was not pled, briefed or argued by any party and was instead raised sua sponte by the appeals court. In this context, the Court instructed that, if an issue is raised sua sponte, the best “practice [for the appeals court] is to invite additional briefing from the parties prior to rendering judgment.”

The Thompson Court felt that it was erroneous for the appellate court to raise an issue without briefing or input from the parties on that issue. Nevertheless, it also found that the evidence in the record was insufficient to establish that Winn-Dixie exercised operational control over KAP. After determining the Winn-Dixie was not responsible for the actions of KAP’s employee, the Court applied the “Watson factors” and determined that the trial court had reasonably apportioned fault based upon the record created at trial.