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Highfield v. Grede II, LLC

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

November 16, 2017

KENNETH HIGHFIELD, Plaintiff,
v.
GREDE II, LLC, Defendant.

          ORDER

          WILLIAM H. STEELE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 37). The Motion has been extensively briefed (see docs. 38, 41, 42, 43-1, 46), and is now ripe for disposition.

         I. Nature of the Case.

         This action arises from injuries sustained by plaintiff, Kenneth Highfield, as a business invitee on the premises of defendant, Grede II, LLC. In particular, Highfield fell from a raised platform adjacent to Grede's shipping office, resulting in severe leg injuries and other medical complications. In his First Amended Complaint (doc. 15), Highfield asserted purely state-law claims against Grede on theories of negligence (i.e., that Grede negligently maintained an unsafe area of its premises where Highfield was conducting business and thereby created an unreasonable risk of harm); wantonness; negligent/wanton design of shipping office area; an AEMLD claim (directed at Grede as the designer, builder, or manufacturer of the stairs, platform and landing); negligent/wanton installation or repair of the stairs, platform and landing; and negligent/wanton inspection.[1] Notwithstanding these different permutations of claims asserted, this case is at its core a premises liability action predicated on the notion that Grede negligently or wantonly allowed a dangerous condition to exist at its shipping office, as a result of which Highfield fell and sustained injuries.

         II. Factual Background. [2]

         At all relevant times, Kenneth Highfield was employed as a commercial truck driver. (Doc. 15, ¶ 5.) On January 16, 2015, Highfield arrived in Brewton, Alabama from Franklin, Kentucky to pick up a load of auto parts at a processing facility owned and/or operated by defendant Grede II, LLC. (Id., ¶¶ 5-6; Highfield Dep. (doc. 41, Exh. 8), at 49.) Highfield had never previously been to the Grede plant in Brewton, or to any other Grede facility anywhere else. (Highfield Dep., at 49.) He arrived at Grede's premises at approximately 9:15 a.m. (Id.) Upon doing so, Highfield parked his truck and walked to the receiving window to check in and sign paperwork. (Id. at 50.)

         The configuration and layout of Grede's premises are of critical importance to the pending Rule 56 Motion. Since 2011, Grede's shipping office was located in a converted guard shack placed alongside the docks where drivers made pickups and deliveries. (Carraway Dep. (doc. 41, Exh. 1), at 17-18.) The shipping office (which was clearly marked by signage on the property) featured a window that a shipping clerk would open to exchange paperwork and otherwise interact with drivers. (Id. at 72-73.) There was only one way for drivers to access the shipping office and complete their paperwork at the Grede facility. They had to walk across the yard and climb a set of ten m stairs. (Id. at 108; doc. 41, Exh. 3.) At the top of the steps was a large landing made of steel grate. (Doc. 41, Exh. 4.) To reach the shipping window, drivers would step up from the landing onto a small raised platform (also constructed of steel grate), located directly under the shipping window. (Id.) By standing on that small platform, truck drivers were positioned in such a manner that they could reach through the shipping window, speak with the shipping clerk, and sign paperwork on a small clipboard/shelf provided by Grede. (Carraway Dep., at 71-72, 106.) There was no other means for drivers to interact with the shipping clerk and exchange shipping paperwork with Grede; rather, they were required to stand on the small platform raised from the landing adjacent to the shipping office. (Id. at 101, 106-08; Peters Dep. (doc. 41-7), at 26, 31-34.)[3] According to Highfield, he could not reach the window without stepping up from the landing onto the raised platform. (Highfield Dep., at 116.)

         It is undisputed that the raised platform in front of the shipping window was 62 inches across and 19 inches deep, and that it was 9 inches above the level of the landing. (Doc. 38, at 13; doc. 41, at 6.) The front edge of the raised platform was positioned 33 inches from the top of the staircase, with the landing in between. (Doc. 41-9, at 5.) There was no gate separating the stairs from the landing. (Id. at 2-6.) There was no railing around the raised platform. (Id.) Thus, to reach the shipping office window at the Grede facility in Brewton, a truck driver was required to climb the ten steps, traverse the first 33 inches of the landing, then step up onto the 9-inch high, 19-inch deep platform. The depth of the raised platform is a key fact, given plaintiff's evidence that if a man whose height was 5'11” and whose weight was 238 pounds stood sideways with his elbow touching the shipping office wall, his outside foot would measure approximately 23 inches from the wall (or 4 inches wider than the depth of the platform). (Peters Dep., at 13, 15-16.) On the day in question, Highfield stood 6'0” and weighed 350 pounds. (Highfield Dep., at 53.) These facts support a reasonable inference that Highfield could not turn around on the platform without his feet protruding over the edge to the landing below.

         On the morning of January 16, 2015, Highfield ascended the steps, crossed the landing, and stepped onto the raised platform at the shipping window without incident. Conditions were dry, lighting was good, and there were no environmental factors or medical issues relating to Highfield's attire, footwear, vision or health that impeded his ability to reach the window. (Highfield Dep., at 51, 53, 56-57.) When Highfield reached the Grede shipping window, he checked in with the clerk and reached inside the window to sign some paperwork on a small shelf. (Id. at 50, 116.) The shipping clerk took Highfield's paperwork, gave him some additional paperwork and notified him of his door assignment for the load that Highfield was picking up that morning. (Id. at 50-52.)

         Upon completing his business with the shipping clerk, Highfield turned to his right to go back down to his truck. (Id. at 116.) As he turned around and took one step in the direction of the stairs, Highfield “lost [his] balance and fell backwards on the steps with [his] leg on the top step and [his] head down.” (Id. at 51.) During his deposition, Highfield stated that he “couldn't tell you exactly” what happened, but he believes that on his first (and only) step his foot “[s]tepped on the edge” of the raised platform, causing him to lose his balance and fall. (Id. at 117-118.) Highfield is not certain that his foot landed on the edge of the platform, but he testified, “I believe that's what happened.” (Id. at 117.) He took only one step, and then went down. (Id. at 118.) What Highfield is uncertain about is whether, on that initial step, his foot landed on the edge of the platform or whether it missed the platform altogether and contacted only empty air, before dropping 9” to the landing below. (Id. at 121-22.) Either way, Highfield is clear that he turned to his right on the platform, took just one step and then fell off the platform. (Id. at 117-18, 121-22.) As he started falling, Highfield reached for the railing, but was only able to slap it with his hand because the force of the fall prevented him from getting a grip to steady himself. (Id. at 107-08.)

         Michael Carraway was a shipping clerk on duty for Grede that morning. (Carraway Dep., at 88-89.) Carraway testified that he was looking at his computer when he heard a sound. (Id.) Upon looking out the window, Carraway saw that Highfield had fallen. (Id. at 89-90.) He observed that Highfield was lying on his back on the stairs, with his head pointed downward and his feet at the top of the steps. (Id. at 90-92.) Highfield appeared “shocked, scared.” (Id. at 92.) Prior to Highfield's fall, Carrraway never apprehended any danger associated with Grede's practice of having truck drivers use the raised platform to step up to the shipping window. (Id. at 127.) Similarly, Grede shipping clerk Clint Peters testified that prior to Highfield's fall, he had never known of anyone falling on the stairs and did not perceive any danger in the use of the raised platform to facilitate drivers' access to the shipping window. (Peters Dep., at 36-37.)

         Following Highfield's fall, Peters observed him “limping around to his truck.” (Id. at 41.) Highfield returned to his truck and saw redness and bruising on his calf. (Highfield Dep., at 57.) Over the ensuing weeks, Highfield developed an open wound that actively drained fluid and became infected, ultimately requiring hospitalization and surgery. (Rhinehart Dep. (doc. 41-10), at 17-18, 23-24; Ryan Dep. (doc. 41-11), at 13-19.)

         III. Summary Judgment Standard.

         Summary judgment should be granted only “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.” Rule 56(a), Fed.R.Civ.P. The party seeking summary judgment bears “the initial burden to show the district court, by reference to materials on file, that there are no genuine issues of material fact that should be decided at trial.” Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991). Once the moving party has satisfied its responsibility, the burden shifts to the non-movant to show the existence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. “If the nonmoving party fails to make 'a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof, ' the moving party is entitled to summary judgment.” Id. (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986)) (footnote omitted). “In reviewing whether the nonmoving party has met its burden, the court must stop short of weighing the evidence and making credibility determinations of the truth of the matter. Instead, the evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Tipton v. Bergrohr GMBH-Siegen, 965 F.2d 994, 999 (11th Cir. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted). “Summary judgment is justified only for those cases devoid of any need for factual determinations.” Offshore Aviation v. Transcon Lines, Inc., 831 F.2d 1013, 1016 (11th Cir. 1987) (citation omitted).

         IV. Analysis.

         In its Motion for Summary Judgment, Grede advances two distinct, independent grounds that it contends entitle it to judgment as a matter of law. First, Grede maintains that Highfield's claims fail for lack of proof of causation. Second, Grede contends that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on its affirmative defense that the alleged defect in its premises was open and obvious. Each argument will be examined in turn.

         A. Plaintiff's Evidence of Causation.

         As noted, Highfield's claims against Grede are rooted in a theory of premises liability. Fortunately, the Alabama law of premises liability is well settled in pertinent respects. “The owner of premises owes a duty to business invitees to use reasonable care and diligence to keep the premises in a safe condition, or, if the premises are in a dangerous condition, to give sufficient warning so that, by the use of ordinary care, the danger can be avoided.” South Alabama Brick Co. v. Carwie, 214 So.3d 1169, 1176 (Ala. 2016) (citation and emphasis omitted). In the premises liability context, the elements of a negligence claim under Alabama law “are the same as those in any tort litigation: duty, breach of duty, cause in fact, proximate or legal cause, and damages.” Sessions v. Nonnenmann, 842 So.2d 649, 651 (Ala. 2002) (citations omitted); see also Shanklin v. New Pilgrim Towers, L.P., 58 So.3d 1251, 1255 (Ala.Civ.App. 2010) (“To recover in a premises-liability action based on a fall, a plaintiff must prove (1) that her fall was caused by a defect or instrumentality located on the defendant's premises, (2) that the fall was the result of the defendant's negligence, and (3) that the defendant had or should have had notice of the defect or instrumentality before the accident.”) (citations omitted). Causation is thus an essential element of Highfield's causes of action against Grede. See, e.g., Massey v. Allied Products Co., ...


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