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Fields v. Target Corp.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

October 6, 2017




         Derrick Fields brings this case against Target Corporation following an incident where he fell and injured his knee while shopping at a Target located in the Promenade Shopping Center in McCalla, Alabama. Fields claims a spilled liquid caused his fall, and that Target's failure to remove or otherwise warn him about the spill constituted negligence. Target has filed a motion for summary judgment, doc. 30, arguing that Fields has presented no evidence suggesting it was on notice, as Alabama law requires, of the spill's presence. That motion is now fully briefed, docs. 34; 36, and ripe for review. After careful consideration of the record evidence and the briefs, this court has determined that Target lacked both actual and constructive notice of the spill, and accordingly its motion is due to be granted.


         Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         “The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor.” Id. at 255. It is expressly not the role of the court “to weigh conflicting evidence or to make credibility determinations.” Mize v. Jefferson City Bd. of Educ., 93 F.3d 739, 742 (11th Cir. 1996); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (explaining “[c]redibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge”).

         However, “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). “[A] . . . ‘scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party will not suffice to overcome a motion for summary judgment.'” Melton v. Abston, 841 F.3d 1207, 1219 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Young v. City of Palm Bay, 358 F.3d 859, 860 (11th Cir. 2004)). Instead, if “the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial, '” and summary judgment is appropriate. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citation omitted).

         III. FACTS

         The facts in this slip-and-fall negligence case are straightforward. On October 2, 2015, Fields, along with his sister, Latoya Ferguson, visited a Target Pharmacy located in McCalla, Alabama, to pick up a prescription. Doc. 34 at 2. After retrieving the prescription, they attempted to exit the store through an aisle directly in front of the pharmacy. Id. at 2-3. Security footage reveals that a Target employee, Debbie Hamilton, exited that aisle seconds before Fields entered. Doc. 30-4 at 10, 13. Hamilton testified that she did not notice anything on the ground while she was in the aisle. Id. at 14. The security footage shows that Hamilton was concentrated on the shelves and never walked through the area where Fields would eventually fall. Doc. 34-5 at 0:00-0:04.[1] The parties have presented no evidence to suggest any other Target employee was present in the aisle around the time of Fields' accident.

         As Fields reached the approximate mid-point of the aisle, he suddenly fell forward striking his knees on the ground. Docs. 34 at 4; 30-1 at 4. Fields alleges he slipped and fell because of a wet substance on the floor. Doc. 34 at 4. However, he testified that he did not notice anything on the ground before falling. Doc. 30-3 at 46. He also indicated that he had no recollection of the size of the spill, and that he never looked back to see what had caused his fall. Id. at 47-49. A Target employee, Zuhair Alqaza, quickly arrived to assist Fields and noticed that his pants were wet to the knee. Doc. 34 at 5. Alqaza provided a statement to Target shortly after the incident indicating that while helping Fields he had noticed a “small wet spot” about 8 inches in diameter on the floor of the aisle. Doc. 34-8 at 1. After about twenty seconds, Fields got to his feet, and he eventually left the store without further assistance. Docs. 34 at 4; 34-5 at 3:30-4:00.

         Hamilton also returned to the aisle to assist Fields after his accident. Doc. 30-1 at 6. She testified that she noticed “three or four” small drops of water “about the size of . . . a nickel” on the floor by Fields and assumed that they had caused his fall. Doc. 30-4 at 16, 20. Upon noticing the liquid on the floor, Hamilton returned to the pharmacy and gathered a small handful of paper towels. Id. at 16. She wiped the floor around where the fall occurred for about fifty seconds before again returning to the pharmacy. Doc. 34-5 at 1:10-2:08. Target never determined either the source of the liquid on the floor or when the spill had initially occurred. Doc. 30-5 at 66.[2]


         An Alabama premises owner owes her invitees “a duty to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition and to warn them of any ‘defects and dangers that are known to the landowner but are unknown or hidden to the invitee[s].'” Edwards v. Intergraph Servs. Co., 4 So.3d 495, 503 (Ala. Civ. App. 2008) (quoting Prentiss v. Evergreen Presbyterian Church, 644 So.2d 475, 477 (Ala. 1994)). Liability in this context is based on the shopkeeper's presumably superior knowledge regarding potential dangers on the premises and “‘if that superior knowledge is lacking . . . the [shopkeeper] cannot be held liable.'” Jones Food Co. v. Shipman, 981 So.2d 355, 363 (Ala. 2006) (quoting Quillen v. Quillen, 388 So.2d 985, 989 (Ala. 1980)). Alabama courts have repeatedly noted that “‘[t]he owner of a premises . . . is not an insurer of the safety of his invitees . . . and the principle of res ipsa loquitor is not applicable.'” Ex parte Harold L. Martin Distrib. Co., 769 So.2d 313, 314 (Ala. 2000) (quoting Tice v. Tice, 361 So.2d 1051, 1052 (Ala. 1978)). Put another way, “‘no presumption of negligence . . . arises from the mere fact of an injury to an invitee.'” Id. (quoting Tice, 361 So.2d at 1052).

         Accordingly, to prove negligence on the part of a shopkeeper, the plaintiff typically must show that the shopkeeper had actual or constructive notice of the hazard by proving: (1) “the foreign substance slipped upon was on the floor a sufficient length of time to impute constructive notice to the [shopkeeper], ” (2) “that the [shopkeeper] had actual notice of the substance's presence on the floor, ” or (3) “that the [shopkeeper] was delinquent in not discovering and removing the foreign substance.” Hale v. Kroger Ltd. P'ship I, 28 So.3d 772, 779 (Ala. Civ. App. 2009) (quoting Winn-Dixie Store No. 1501 v. Brown, 394 So.2d 49, 50 (Ala. Civ. App. 1981)). Alternatively, in situations “where the plaintiff alleges that the business negligently created on the premises a hazardous condition that proximately caused injury to the plaintiff, ” the law will presume notice on the part of the shopkeeper. Nelson v. Delchamps, Inc., 699 So.2d 1259, 1261 (Ala. Civ. App. 1997) (citing Dunklin v. Winn-Dixie of Montgomery, Inc., 595 So.2d 463, 465 (Ala. 1992)).

         Fields does not contend that Target affirmatively created the hazard that caused his fall or that Target had actual notice of that hazard. Instead, Fields focuses on constructive notice arguing that the substance causing his fall was on the floor for a sufficient time to impute constructive notice to Target or, in the alternative, that Target was delinquent in failing ...

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