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Johnson v. Sears Robuck And Co

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

June 1, 2018




         This is a premises liability case removed here from the Circuit Court of Etowah County on the basis of diversity. (Doc. 1). Presently pending is the motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant Sears, Roebuck and Co. (Doc. 20). The motion is fully briefed and ripe for adjudication. (Docs. 31, 34). For the reasons explained below, the motion is due to be granted.

         I. FACTS[2]

         On August 29, 2013, Plaintiff Connie Johnson gave non-party Martha Vickery a ride to the Sears Auto Center in Gadsden, Alabama. (Doc. 21 at 3). The purpose of the trip was to allow Ms. Vickery to purchase a new battery for her vehicle. (Id.). On arrival at Sears, Plaintiff asked a salesperson, Steven, to come outside to her vehicle to discuss battery options with Ms. Vickery. (Id.). After deciding on a battery, Ms. Vickery and Plaintiff followed Steven back inside the store. (Id. at 4).

         The entrance to Sears is enclosed by two sets of doors. (Doc. 21 at 4). As they entered Sears, Steven-who was carrying the car battery-led the way, followed by Ms. Vickery and Plaintiff, in that order. (Id.). The trio passed through the exterior doors without incident; Steven and Ms. Vickery successfully navigated through the interior doors as well. (Id.). However, as Plaintiff passed through the interior doors, she tripped over a wooden doorstop, falling to one knee before her body twisted to the floor. (Id.; see Doc. 31 at 1). Plaintiff was wearing shoes with slender, two-inch heels, one of which caught on the doorstop and caused the fall. (Doc. 21 at 6).

         Prior to Plaintiff's fall, the interior door was being held open by at least one, but possibly two, wooden door stops. (Doc. 21 at 4). Ms. Vickery observed-but Plaintiff did not-Steven place the doorstop under the interior door. (Doc. 31 at 4). The parties agree that the doorstop was brown and approximately three to five inches in length; the cement floor of the entrance area was "blackish" in color. (Doc. 21 at 6). Plaintiff's brief describes the offending doorstop as "frayed, " which the undersigned interprets as describing the doorstop as worn from use. Ms. Vickery noted the worn condition of the doorstop when she saw Steven place it under the interior door.[3] (Doc. 31 at 3).

         It is undisputed that the doorstop was not in the walkway when Steven passed through the interior door. (Doc. 21 at 6). Steven had already entered the store and did not look back toward the Plaintiff prior to her fall. (Id.; Doc. 31 at 2). Plaintiff does not know how the doorstop came to be in her path but opined that Ms. Vickery may have pushed the door open further, causing the doorstop to dislodge from the door. (Doc. 21 at 5; see Doc. 31 at 2). Plaintiff did not know whether Steven touched the door as he passed through the interior entrance; Ms. Vickery contends Steven did not touch the door. (Doc. 21 at 4-5; see Doc. 31 at 2). Ms. Vickery opined the doorstop may have dislodged when she and Plaintiff "exchanged hands on the door." (Doc. 31 at 2). The record is devoid of evidence of prior complaints regarding, or accidents caused by, wooden doorstops at Sears. (Doc. 21 at 7).


         Under Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party asking for summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the pleadings or filings which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56(e) requires the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and by his own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial. See 324.

         The substantive law identifies which facts are material and which are irrelevant. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the non-movant. See Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. See id. at 249.


         Plaintiff's complaint asserts claims for negligence and wantonness. (Doc. 1-1). In response to the motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff has conceded her claim for wantonness. (Doc. 31 at 9). Additionally, the facts do not support a claim that Sears acted "with a reckless or conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others." Ala. Code § 6-11-20(b)(3). Accordingly, Sears is entitled to judgment as a matter of law regarding wantonness. The claim for negligence is addressed below.

         Under Alabama law, the elements of negligence in a premises liability case “are the same as those in any tort litigation: duty, breach of duty, cause in fact, proximate or legal cause, and damages.” Ex parte Harold L. Martin Distrib. Co., 769 So.2d 313, 314 (Ala. 2000). A defendant owes a business invitee the duty to “exercise reasonable care in maintaining [its] premises in a reasonably safe condition.” Bishop v. South, 642 So.2d 442, 445 (Ala. 1994). A slip-and-fall plaintiff must show: (1) the injury was caused by a defective condition on the defendant's premises; and (2) the defendant knew or should have known of the defect. Miller v. Liberty Park Joint Venture, LLC, 84 So.3d 88, 92 (Ala. Civ. App. 2011).

         The Alabama Supreme Court has held an owner's actual or constructive notice of a defect is presumed when the defect is part of the premises, when the owner has created the defective condition, or where the owner has unreasonably failed to perform inspections to discover the defect. Burlington Coat Factory of Alabama, LLC v. Butler, 156 So.3d 963, 969 (Ala. Civ. App. 2014) (citing Mims v. Jack's Rest.,565 So.2d 609, 610 (Ala. 1990); Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. McClinton,631 So.2d 232, 234 (Ala. 1993); Norris v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.,628 So.2d 475, 478 (Ala. 1993)). Examples of defective conditions of which defendants' notice has been presumed include an unattached door threshold, Mims, 565 So.2d at 611, merchandise protruding from a barbeque grill display, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Rolin, 813 So.2d 861, 864 (Ala. 2001), a water-damaged seating booth, Isbell v. Aztecas Mexican Grill, 78 So.3d 420, 425 (Ala. Civ. App. 2011), and a gun cabinet which protruded into an aisle, McClinton, 631 So.2d at ...

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