United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division
WILLIAM H. STEELE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
Nature of the Case.
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. 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.
Factual Background. 
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.)
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.) According to Highfield, he
could not reach the window without stepping up from the
landing onto the raised platform. (Highfield Dep., at 116.)
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
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
Summary Judgment Standard.
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).
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.
Plaintiff's Evidence of Causation.
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., ...