Thompson v. Winn-Dixie – Slip-and-Fall Liability Apportionment Weighed

Negligence lawsuits wherein more than one party is potentially liable, proceedings can get tricky. wetfloor.jpg

In many cases, defendants will attempt to shift blame onto the plaintiff (a form of comparative fault), and this can be especially damaging in North Carolina, one of just four states that bars legal action when plaintiff shares any degree of fault. In most other states, though, it’s a means to limit the damage award. Defendants may also try to push responsibility onto other defendants or, in some cases, third parties that are not named as defendants.

In the slip-and-fall case of Thompson v. Winn-Dixie Montgomery, Inc., questions arose regarding the liability apportionment between a grocery store chain and a cleaning crew.

A woman slipped and fell in a puddle of water while night shopping at a grocery store with her 8-year-old son. She had recently undergone back surgery, and the fall exacerbated her condition.

Plaintiff sued the grocery store chain. In turn, the store filed a third-party demand against the company it contracted to provide floor care and janitorial services. That cleaning company in turn filed another third-party claim against its subcontractor for cleaning services.

Prior to trial, plaintiff settled out-of-court with both cleaning service companies. However, the issue of the second contractor’s fault remained an issue in the trial against the grocery store chain, as lawyers for the store were arguing affirmative defense of third-party fault. That is, defense acknowledges the injury occurred and that it would otherwise be liable, but it was not responsible because the third-party was actually at-fault for the slip-and-fall.

According to court records, the accident happened one summer night around 10 p.m. when plaintiff was pushing a shopping cart and briefly stopped at one of the meat cases to take an item. She put the item in her cart and started to stop forward when she slipped on a puddle of water in front of the case. She spoke with the store manager, filled out an incident report, checked out and left.

In the incident report, manager noted the cleaning crew had picked up the rug from in front of the meat case, and it was wet underneath. He noted plaintiff slipped and fell in the stop where the rug was rolled up.

Other details were later to emerge. The store usually put rubber-backed mats on the floor in front of meat cases in order to catch any drippings while the products were loaded and unloaded. No one disputes the rug was not there at the time of the fall. Rather, the mat was rolled up and placed near the case, presumably in preparation for mopping.

The subcontractor cleaner testified it personally trained its employees – and policy dictated – that workers who discovered spills or other hazardous conditions had to remain in the area until it was cleared, and also put up “wet floor” signs. There were no signs here, and no cleaning crew members were in the area.

Store manager stated he didn’t see the puddle, but conceded he didn’t do is twice-hourly store checks to make sure the premises was clear, as required by store policy.

Plaintiff presented evidence the store was aware the meat case was leaking by producing a service ticket from several weeks prior that indicated a problem. There was no documentation indicating the problem was fixed prior to the accident. A service technician for the store indicated there wasn’t a “leak,” but rather an issue with condensation build-up.

Jurors decided the case in plaintiff’s favor, and assigned grocery store 30 percent fault and cleaners 70 percent fault. Because plaintiff had already settled with the cleaners, she was only entitled to collect that 30 percent.

She appealed, and the appellate court reversed and apportioned 100 percent liability onto the store. The appeals court ruled defendant owed a duty of care to keep the floors in reasonably safe condition, and failed to do that. The court also found that the store had the right to control and supervisors the cleaning subcontractor’s work, and didn’t do that.

However, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed that ruling and reinstated the liability apportionment of the lower court. The high court was critical of appellate court’s interpretation, saying that simply because the store chain owed a statutory duty to the customer didn’t clock any third party liability for harm.

Contact our Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Thompson v. Winn-Dixie Montgomery, Inc., Oct. 14, 2015, Louisiana Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Hayes v. City of Plummer – Recreational Use Statute in Premises Liability, Oct. 15, 2015, Asheville Injury Lawyer Blog

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