Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Unger v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P.

Supreme Court of Alabama

October 19, 2018

Linda Unger, as personal representative of the Estate of Marshall B. Unger, deceased
Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., Naomi Phillips, and Billy Odom

          Appeal from Mobile Circuit Court (CV-15-900099)


         Linda Unger, as personal representative of the estate of Marshall B. Unger ("Unger"), deceased, appeals from a summary judgment entered by the Mobile Circuit Court in favor of Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., and its employees, Naomi Phillips--the store greeter--and Billy Odom--the store manager (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the Wal-Mart defendants"). We affirm.

         On May 20, 2014, Unger, who was 77 years old, and his wife, Linda, visited a Wal-Mart discount store in Mobile. Because of Unger's physical limitations (Unger used a portable oxygen tank and a walking cane to assist with his balance), Linda dropped him off at the entrance of the store while she parked the car. Unger proceeded to the cart corral to retrieve a shopping cart. There were approximately 20 shopping carts available near the rear of the cart corral. However, because Unger had become winded, he chose to retrieve a cart near the front of the corral; the cart he selected was stuck to another cart. Unger placed his oxygen tank and walking cane in one of the shopping carts and proceeded to separate the two carts. When Unger ultimately separated the two shopping carts, he lost his balance and fell to the floor, allegedly suffering two fractured vertebrae in his thoracic spine. Several Wal-Mart employees went to Unger's assistance and offered to call an ambulance, but Unger told the employees that he did not require an ambulance. At the time of the incident, Wal-Mart had a standard operating procedure for greeters concerning the "prepping" or "staging" of shopping carts, which included pulling the carts free from the storage rows of the cart corral; removing trash from the carts; and lining up three or four carts in a row for easy access by customers.

         In January 2015, Unger sued Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., Billy Odom, and fictitiously named defendants alleging that, on the day he was injured, Phillips, the store greeter, had been negligent and/or wanton in failing to "stage a clean [shopping] cart for easy access in violation of Wal-Mart's policies"; that "the Wal-Mart employee collecting carts from outside the store overloaded the machine used for collecting carts creating an unsafe condition that consumers would have no knowledge of"; and that Wal-Mart had been negligent and/or wanton in failing to train and/or supervise its employees.

         Unger died in April 2016, while his action was pending.[1]The trial court thereafter appointed Linda (hereinafter "the plaintiff") as the administrator ad litem of Unger's estate to pursue the claims against the Wal-Mart defendants.[2] The Wal-Mart defendants moved for a summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56, Ala. R. Civ. P. After considering the evidence, the trial court entered a summary judgment in favor of the Wal-Mart defendants. The plaintiff filed a postjudgment motion, which was denied. This appeal followed.

         Standard of Review

"This Court's review of a summary judgment is de novo. Williams v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 886 So.2d 72, 74 (Ala. 2003). We apply the same standard of review as the trial court applied. Specifically, we must determine whether the movant has made a prima facie showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Rule 56(c), Ala. R. Civ. P.; Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Alabama v. Hodurski, 899 So.2d 949, 952-53 (Ala. 2004). In making such a determination, we must review the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Wilson v. Brown, 496 So.2d 756, 758 (Ala. 1986). Once the movant makes a prima facie showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact, the burden then shifts to the nonmovant to produce 'substantial evidence' as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact. Bass v. SouthTrust Bank of Baldwin County, 538 So.2d 794, 797-98 (Ala. 1989); Ala. Code 1975, § 12-21-12. '[S]ubstantial evidence is evidence of such weight and quality that fair-minded persons in the exercise of impartial judgment can reasonably infer the existence of the fact sought to be proved.' West v. Founders Life Assur. Co. of Fla., 547 So.2d 870, 871 (Ala. 1989)."

Dow v. Alabama Democratic Party, 897 So.2d 1035, 1038-39 (Ala. 20004).


         Initially, we note that the duty owed an injured person in a premises-liability case depends on the legal status of the person when the injury occurred, i.e., whether the person injured was a trespasser, a licensee, or an invitee. Galaxy Cable, Inc. v. Davis, 58 So.3d 93 (Ala. 2010). It is undisputed that Unger was a business invitee of Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., on the day he fell on its premises. See Ex parte Mountain Top Indoor Flea Mkt., Inc., 699 So.2d 158, 161 (Ala. 1997) (noting that, "'[i]n order to be considered an invitee, the plaintiff must have been on the premises for some purpose that materially or commercially benefited the owner or occupier of the premises'" (quoting Sisk v. Heil Co., 639 So.2d 1363, 1365 (Ala. 1994))). The scope of the duty owed by an invitor to a business invitee is as follows:

"Alabama law is well-settled regarding the scope of the duty an invitor owes a business invitee. '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.' Armstrong v. Georgia Marble Co., 575 So.2d 1051, 1053 (Ala. 1991) .... We have said that a premises owner's duty to warn extends only to 'hidden defects and dangers that are known to [the premises owner], but that are unknown or hidden to the invitee.' Raspilair v. Bruno's Food Stores, Inc., 514 So.2d 1022, 1024 (Ala. 1987)."

South Alabama Brick Co. v. Carwie, 214 So.3d 1169, 1176 (Ala. 2016)(emphasis omitted). "Under Alabama law, the existence of a duty [in a premises-liability case] is a legal question to be determined by the court." Id. at 1175.

         In support of their motion for a summary judgment, the Wal-Mart defendants argued that the plaintiff could not establish that Wal-Mart had a legal duty to provide Unger with a staged shopping cart on the day of the incident and that she could not establish that two shopping carts stuck together rise to the level of a hazard or a hidden defect of which Wal-Mart had a duty to warn. We agree. The plaintiff has not argued that there is anything inherently dangerous about two shopping carts being stuck together, nor has she argued that the two shopping carts Unger undertook to separate constituted a hidden defect of which Wal-Mart had a duty to warn. Rather, the plaintiff argues that Wal-Mart's scope of duty is defined by its standard operating procedure for staging carts and that Phillips violated that procedure by failing to provide Unger with a single, unattached staged shopping cart on the day of the incident.[3] The plaintiff concedes, however, that she was unable to find any case in which an Alabama appellate court has addressed the issue whether a company's standard operating procedure can be used to define the scope of a duty owed by the company to a business invitee in a premises-liability case. Even assuming for the sake of argument that Wal-Mart's standard operating procedure for staging carts could define its scope of duty in this premises-liability case, there is simply no evidence indicating that Phillips violated such procedure. Phillips's job description as a greeter included ensuring good customer service; acknowledging all customers entering and leaving the store; and following company guidelines for "store cleanliness and safety standards, assisting customers with returns, special need requests, and stocking shopping carts and supplies correctly, efficiently, and safely." Phillips testified in her deposition that her primary job responsibility as a greeter was providing customer service, i.e., "we were to speak to every customer that [came] in. We were to acknowledge every customer that went out. If [a customer] had problems with [a shopping cart], we help." Phillips further testified in her deposition that, when Unger entered the store, she was talking to an elderly customer who needed assistance with an electric shopping cart. In fact, the video surveillance recording on the day of the incident demonstrated that, shortly before Unger arrived at the store, Phillips had removed four shopping carts from the cart corral for easy customer access. When Unger arrived at the store, however, those four carts had already been taken and, as Phillips explained, Phillips was busy talking to and/or assisting another customer at that time. Accordingly, Unger proceeded to the cart corral to retrieve a cart that, by his own admission, was stuck to another cart; Unger never requested assistance in separating the carts. Odom, the store manager on the day of the incident, testified in ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.