Cox v. Wal-Mart – Dangerous Condition Forms Basis for Premises Liability Claim

Cox v. Wal-Mart – Dangerous Condition Forms Basis for Premises Liability Claim 

miami litigationThere is much dispute about the facts in the case of Cox, et al. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., reviewed recently by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Central to this case is whether the door located at the store’s entrance was inherently dangerous, and if so, to what extent managers were aware or should have been aware of it.

In Florida, injured parties seeking to file premises liability claims must show:

The legal status of the injured party (invitee, trespasser, etc.);
A relevant duty of care;
Deviation from that duty resulting in injury.
Similar legal standards are applicable in Mississippi, where this case occurred. Here, a husband and wife entered the store through a front door in April 2001. As she entered the sliding door, she fell and was hurt.

A man who had been sitting nearby on a bench would later come forward to testify that he had been seated on that bench for about a half hour before she fell. As he watched people come and go, he noticed the door threshold was “rocking” or ascending up by about a half-inch whenever customers walked through or carts crossed. He said it seemed as if the plate was not secured tightly to the ground, and perhaps there were screws loose.

He indicated that when the plaintiff stepped on one side of the metal plate, it caused the other side to go up, catching her shoe and causing her to fall.

However, the assistant store manager denied the threshold moved at all.

The couple filed a lawsuit alleging personal injury and loss of consortium. The case was originally filed in state court, but later moved to federal at the store’s request. The store then requested a summary judgment.

The district court sided with the store in finding that the defect in the floor that caused the plaintiff to fall wasn’t inherently dangerous.

Plaintiff’s appealed, and the appellate court reversed.

Both parties agree the plaintiff was a business invitee, meaning the defendant had a duty of reasonable care to ensure its grounds were in reasonably safe condition, as well as a duty to warn of any potential dangers.

For the purposes of the summary judgment, the court took as fact testimony from the patron that the door was defective. However, the district court had reasoned a defect in the threshold was not inherently dangerous as a matter of law. Citing the findings in Tate v. S. Jitney Jungle Co., the court pointed to language indicating “threshold defects” are among those that are “usual,” and that customers might typically expect to find them at entrances, steps and curbs.

However, there is no federal adoption of this conclusion. Many of this national chain’s premises liability defenses are premised on the idea of a categorical exclusion, based on the fact that the danger was “expected” or “usual.”

The court set aside the issue of determining whether this exclusion is the law in Mississippi (Tate is the case that appears to have established it). However, it was uncertain whether the presence of a usual or normally-expected hazards could also be unreasonably dangerous.

Even if that was the case, the lawsuits that relied on this reasoning involved “fixed” dangers – i.e., a curb that juts up from the walkway or a mirror that was loose on the wall of a hotel and fell on patrons. For example, customers who tripped on raised curbs were denied compensation because the condition was permanent, in place, obvious and known.

That’s not the case here.

The court determined the “surprise” nature of the threshold here meant that it could be removed from “normally-encountered” hazards.

Plaintiffs indicated there was an internal policy within the company ordering daily inspection of entry-way doors, but there was evidence the assistant manager had no knowledge of this policy, and didn’t ensure it was carried out.

All of this collectively, the court found, was reason upon which to reverse the summary judgment and allow the case to move forward to the trial phase.

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