The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed a summary judgment favoring the defendant in a slip-and-fall case at a large box chain store a few years ago.
The trial court had granted the favorable ruling to the store, but on appeal, plaintiff argued genuine issues of material fact existed that precluded such an early finding, and the appellate court agreed.
Although trial court judges can grant a favorable ruling to one side or another prior to trial, it almost always must be that the claims are defeated or proven as a matter of law. Where central issues of fact are still in dispute, those are matters that must be parsed during trial.
That was the case in Olatoye v. Burlington Coat Factory, a slip-and-fall premises liability lawsuit.
According to court records, the retail store opened at 7 a.m., at which time an employee at the store discovered on a tile walkway a brownish, sticky substance on the floor. About an hour-and-a-half later, plaintiff entered the store with her friend. The two walked around for a time shopping when plaintiff’s friend turned her attention to something in a nearby department.
As plaintiff took a step toward her friend, she stepped on a plastic hanger that was located in the walkway. As a result she lost her balance, and as she tried to regain her footing, she stepped in the same brownish, sticky substance the employee had earlier observed, but apparently not addressed.
As a result, plaintiff fell to the floor and suffered injury.
In the subsequent lawsuit plaintiff filed against the store, she alleged the store had notice of (or in the exercise of reasonable care should have had notice of) both the hanger and the sticky brown substance on the tile walkway. Further, she asserted defendants had a duty to remove those items from the walkway, as they presented an unsafe condition for patrons, and the defendants failed in this duty, which proximately caused her fall. Plaintiff sought $10,000 in compensatory damages for her injuries.
Defendants responded with the assertion of contributory negligence, which is when plaintiff is at least partially at-fault. Although many states use contributory negligence as a gauge by which to reduce a plaintiff’s ultimate damage award, in North Carolina, a successful assertion of contributory negligence will soundly defeat a plaintiff’s claim, which is what happened here.
Plaintiff appealed, with a sole argument that trial court erred in granting summary judgment. Appellate court reversed – but only in part.
With regard to the hanger on the floor, the appellate court found plaintiff had presented no evidence defendant had constructive or actual notice of the hanger that precipitated the fall. However, there was no dispute as to the fact that the store had actual notice of the dangerous sticky substance on the floor and did nothing to fix it. Further, the assertion that plaintiff was distracted and failed to see the sticky substance and therefore was contributorily negligent was in dispute. The issue of whether her own distraction caused the fall, as opposed to the sticky substance, is a trier of fact that should go before a jury.
Contact our North Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.
Olatoye v. Burlington Coat Factory, Feb. 3, 2015, North Carolina Court of Appeals
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Bitgood v. Gordon Greene Post of Am. Legion – Premises Liability for Third-Party Attack, Feb. 17, 2015, Greensboro Injury Lawyer Blog