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Gulledge v. Wal-Mart Inc.

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

July 29, 2019

WAL-MART INC., Defendant.



         This case is before the court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. # 14). The parties have fully briefed the Motion (Docs. # 14, 16, 17, 21, 23), and it is under submission. After careful review, and for the reasons explained below, the court concludes that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is due to be granted.

         I. Factual Background[1]

         Plaintiff Patricia K. Gulledge fell and injured herself while at the Hoover, Alabama Wal-Mart. (Doc. # 17 at 2). She was shopping for coffee for a weight loss center where she worked at the time of the incident. (Doc. # 14-3 at 91-92, 97-98).[2] However, before she reached the grocery portion of the store by way of the Garden Center entrance, Plaintiff stopped in the three-aisle Easter section to look at a stuffed animal for her dog. (Id. at 86, 99). Plaintiff did not see an employee cleaning the floor, nor did she slip or slide as she walked across the store. (Id. at 98, 111). While walking to the stuffed animals on the first aisle of the Easter section, despite believing that the floor looked unusually bright and shiny, Plaintiff did not see anything either out of place or on the floor, such as any liquid or merchandise. (Id. at 111, 113-14). She grabbed a stuffed animal from the shelf and put it back. (Id. at 118-19). The last thing Plaintiff remembers is turning away from the stuffed animal and beginning to walk down the aisle. (Id. at 118-19). At least one shopper, Joe Wilson, heard Plaintiff scream, but no one was on the aisle at the time of the incident to witness her fall. (Id. at 119-20).

         Non-time-stamped photos show three stuffed animals and an Easter basket on the floor close to the shelves and a highlighter near the middle of the aisle. (Doc. # 14-7 at 6-10). But, there is no evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could find that these items were on the floor at the time of the incident. Instead, Plaintiff's deposition and the affidavit of Stephanie Turpin, another customer who was shopping at the time of the fall, create an undisputed record that the aisle was clear at the time of, and immediately following, the incident.[3] (Docs. # 14-3 at 119-124; 14-7 at 2-4). Plaintiff candidly does not know what caused her to fall. (Doc. # 14-3 at 123-24, 129-30).

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, 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 seeking 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 dispute of material fact. Id. at 323. Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56 requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and -- by pointing to affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, or admissions on file -- designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine dispute for trial. Id. at 324.

         The substantive law will identify 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 nonmovant. See Allen v. Bd. of Pub. Educ. for Bibb Cty., 495 F.3d 1306, 1314 (11th Cir. 2007); 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.

         When faced with a “properly supported motion for summary judgment, [the non-moving party] must come forward with specific factual evidence, presenting more than mere allegations.” Gargiulo v. G.M. Sales, Inc., 131 F.3d 995, 999 (11th Cir. 1997). As Anderson teaches, under Rule 56(c) a plaintiff may not simply rest on his allegations made in the complaint; instead, as the party bearing the burden of proof at trial, he must come forward with at least some evidence to support each element essential to his case at trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. “[A] party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment ‘may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but…must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 248 (citations omitted). Summary judgment is mandated “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322.

         “[A]t the summary judgment stage the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. “Essentially, the inquiry is ‘whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to the jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.'” Sawyer v. Sw. Airlines Co., 243 F.Supp.2d 1257, 1262 (D. Kan. 2003) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff has conceded her claims for wantonness (Count II) and negligent supervision and training (Count IV), and they are due to be dismissed. (Docs. # 17 at 10; 21 at 10-11). Also, though Plaintiff argues that her negligence and premises liability claims are separate and distinct claims, this argument fails as a matter of law. Plaintiff has a single claim against Defendant based on premises liability principles.

         When deciding which theory of law is proper between general negligence and premises liability under Alabama law, the court considers whether affirmative conduct of the landowner or a condition of the premises caused the injury. Baldwin v. Gartman, 604 So.2d 347, 349 (Ala. 1992) (applying premises liability principles when an employee left a concrete slab unbalanced on the premises because leaving the slab unattended did not cause the injury; rather, leaving the slab created a dangerous condition); Powell v. Piggly Wiggly Ala. Distrib. Co., Inc., 60 So.3d 921, 924 (Ala. Civ. App. 2010) (holding that general negligence principles apply when an employee operating a forklift struck the plaintiff causing injury). If affirmative conduct of the landowner caused the injury, then general negligence principles apply. Powell, 60 So.3d at 924. But, if a condition of the premises caused the injury, then the principles of premises liability apply. Baldwin, 604 So.2d at 348-50.

         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. Logan v. Winn-Dixie Atlanta, Inc., 594 So.2d 83, 84 (Ala. 1992) (utilizing premises liability principles when plaintiff slipped on an allegedly slick entrance ramp from wet paint); Miller v. Archstone Cmty. Tr., 797 So.2d 1099, 1102 (Ala Civ. App. 2001) (applying premises liability principles to a slip-and-fall case in an apartment complex parking lot allegedly occurring from improperly poured sealant). In this ...

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