D.C. Circuit Court Refuses Motion for Summary Judgment Against Whole Foods in Slip and Fall Case

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia made a ruling this year in regards to summary judgment motions in slip and fall cases, which may become more relevant as inclement weather becomes more prevalent this fall and winter. In the case, Kindig v. WHOLE FOODS MARKET GROUP, INC., Dist. Court, Dist. of Columbia 2013, the court held that Whole Foods was not entitled to a summary judgment motion, which essentially dismisses the case completely without trial, for a number of reasons. The case has previously been discussed on this blog for other issues.

The lawsuit arose out of an incident where a woman had arrived at her local Whole Foods to shop for groceries. On that particular occasion, the woman said that it had been raining hard for at least the ten minute drive from her prior location to the grocery store. When she arrived, she got her crutches, and began to walk on the sidewalk to the elevator within the parking garage. An employee was unloading produce nearby. According to the woman, it was dimly lit, and she subsequently slipped and fell flat onto her back. The store employee and another man helped her up. She gave her statement to the store, and then went home and called her doctor. She ended up being transported to the hospital by ambulance the next day.

Whole Foods filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that the plaintiff did not establish that they knew of the dangerous hazard. The court dismissed this argument.

In order to be granted, summary judgment motions require a finding by the court that (1) even if all of the facts alleged by the plaintiff are assumed to be true, there is no legal issue of fact remaining to be resolved or open to disagreement; and (2) that the party requesting summary judgment is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In this case, the court found that there were triable issues regarding whether the store was at fault, and further that the type of unreasonable risk to customers is squarely within the expertise of typical juror/consumers to determine.

Regarding whether Whole Foods was on constructive notice, meaning that it should have or could have known of the dangerous conditions, the court held that the presence of the rain for a period of time could have satisfied this requirement. It also held that rain itself, without knowledge of a “specific puddle” can put the store owner on notice, since rainy conditions can lead to slippery areas.

Therefore, inclement weather alone can present a genuine question of material fact in which the jury must decide “(1) whether there was a sufficient period of rain to provide constructive notice of the danger of a slippery [] floor, and (2) if so, whether [the defendant] exercised reasonable care in responding to that danger.”

In addition to establishing that there was a potential issue of material fact regarding whether the water had been on the ground for a certain period of time, and whether the lighting was poor, the court found that plaintiff also sufficiently presented questions of material fact about the proximity of Whole Foods employee to the alleged puddle and questions about his awareness of the hazard. Although an employee’s proximity to the hazard alone is not sufficient to establish constructive notice without more evidence, the employee’s proximity to the injury is a factor to be considered.

This case is a great illustration of premises liability, and ironically it is one of the most well known examples: a slip and fall case. Grocery stores and other business who invite others onto their property for commercial purposes, owe their visitors a duty of care to ensure that the property is safe from hazards, and that if it cannot make these hazards safe (in this case mopping up otherwise removing the water), that it posts a sufficient warning, so that people can attempt to avoid the hazards. In this case, both the water flooding the garage and the poor lighting are potentially blameworthy hazards, both of which contributed to the woman’s injuries, and could potentially result in Whole Foods being held financially responsible for her subsequent injuries. Since the case survived the motion for summary judgment, it would proceed to trial, or perhaps more likely, a settlement discussion.

The premises liability attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen represent the rights of people in the Washington, DC area who were injured due to hazardous or dangerous conditions on others’ property. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online, or call (800) 654-1949.

More Blog Posts:

Johnson & Johnson Reportedly Set to Pay $4 Billion in Hip Replacement Settlement, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, published November 12, 2013
Howard University’s Homecoming Concert Leads to at least 10 Individuals Suffering Injury, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, published November 5, 2013

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