Federal Court Denies Summary Judgment in Premises Liability Case Involving Atlanta Metro Area Wal-Mart

Although the jury is a fixture in popular notions of the law, there is a considerable amount of work that must be undertaken before a jury ever hears or decides the issues of any particular case. Of particular importance in the progression of tasks before trial is the summary judgment stage. After discovery, a party usually moves for summary judgment, and the court must determine whether a dispute of material fact exists for a jury to decide, and, if not, whether one side is thus entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Although premises liability cases are incredibly fact-sensitive, a defendant will invariably move for summary judgment, leaving a plaintiff to prove there is a material dispute of facts such that a reasonable jury could find in his or her favor. In a recent case, Ali v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., a plaintiff successfully overcame the summary judgment hurdle and assured that his case would be heard by the jury.
Ali arose from a fall at a Wal-Mart in Snellville, Georgia. While grocery shopping, the hapless plaintiff fell over a pallet jack that had been positioned behind him by an employee. The plaintiff alleged that he had been selecting butter when the pallet jack was placed behind him and that he had no knowledge of the instrument’s position before falling and suffering serious injury. The plaintiff brought an action against Wal-Mart solely asserting premises liability. Wal-Mart moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff had failed to proffer sufficient evidence to support a premises liability claim under Georgia law.
The court first outlined the standard for awarding summary judgment, including the important element that all factual inferences are to be drawn in favor of the party against whom summary judgment is being sought. Pursuant to Georgia law, business owners owe a duty of reasonable care to shoppers and can be held liable for failure to keep their premises safe. See O.C.G.A. § 51-3-1. In order to establish liability in a “slip and fall” case, a plaintiff must prove both of the following elements. First, the defendant must have had actual or constructive knowledge of a defect or hazard on the premises. Second, despite exercising ordinary care for his or her personal safety, the victim must have lacked knowledge of the hazard due to the defendant’s actions or to conditions under the defendant’s control. See Am. Multi-Cinema, Inc. v. Brown, 285 Ga. 442, 444 (2009). The court specifically noted that questions regarding the reasonableness of a business’ duty to inspect or a plaintiff’s exercise of care in avoiding hazards are appropriately left for a jury and that, in accordance with Georgia law, summary judgment should only be granted when the evidence is obvious and indisputable. See Robinson v. Kroger Co., 268 Ga. 735, 748 (1997).

In this case, the court found that the placement of the pallet jack behind the plaintiff was a fact from which a reasonable jury could determine that there existed a “defect” or “hazard” on the premises. Furthermore, since the pallet jack had allegedly been placed behind the plaintiff by the employee, a jury could reasonably determine that the business had actual knowledge of the defective condition. Next, with respect to the plaintiff’s exercise of reasonable care to avoid hazards, Wal-Mart argued that the plain view doctrine or fixture rule entitled it to summary judgment. Put simply, the fixture rule precludes recovery when a plaintiff falls over a fixture or other object that is a common obstruction in full sight at a particular place of business. Alternatively, the plain view doctrine precludes recovery when a plaintiff falls over a large object that is in plain view. In addition, Wal-Mart further asserted that the plaintiff should have heard when the pallet jack was being positioned behind him. The court, however, found these arguments unavailing for purposes of granting summary judgment. First, the court noted that the obstruction was not in an obvious position or otherwise in plain view of the plaintiff, who had his back turned away from the aisle. Second, there was insufficient evidence regarding whether the pallet jack is so loud that any person would be aware that it was being positioned behind him without needing warning. In light of the adduced facts, the court found sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could determine the plaintiff had exercised reasonable care under the circumstances. Accordingly, summary judgment was not warranted, and a jury should resolve these factual disputes and make necessary determinations of reasonableness.
Although the plaintiff has made it past this crucial stage, he may still need to convince a jury. That being said, the risk of substantial liability at trial induces many defendants to settle once a plaintiff has overcome summary judgment and significantly improves the possibility of recovery for one’s injuries. Accordingly, traversing the steps in the litigation process prior to formal trial is incredibly important, and anyone considering filing a lawsuit for his or her injuries should consult counsel with experience in all stages of litigation. The Atlanta personal injury attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have considerable experience with every stage of the litigation process and are prepared to offer the guidance you need in your Atlanta premises liability action or other personal injury claim. For a free case evaluation, click here or call 1-800-487-8669.
Related Posts:
Georgia Supreme Court Rules on Premises Liability Case
Slip and Fall in a Georgia Store
Suing for Negligent Security and Vicarious Liability in Georgia

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