The Alabama Court of Appeals has reversed a trial court verdict in favor of a shopper who brought a premises liability claim against a retailer after suffering injuries when struck in the face by a mounted metal bracket.
Tuscaloosa premises liability lawyers understand the court determined the only way the plaintiff in Burlington Coat Factory of Alabama LLC v. Butler might have proven her case would have been based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which was not asserted and was likely not applicable. The phrase is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.” In legal cases, it is the theory that one can be negligent if he had exclusive control over whatever caused the injury, even when there is no specific act of negligence alleged.
Instead, the plaintiff in this case had asserted theories of negligence or wantonness. While the trial court dismissed the wantonness claim at the conclusion of the trial as a matter of law, she was awarded $26,000 in damages for her negligence claim. The appellate court reversed, agreeing with the defendant that there was not enough evidence to show that the product was dangerous or defective or that employees on site had been negligent in their installations or inspections of the device.
The case began in May 2011, when the plaintiff went to a retail store to return some shoes. While there, she began shopping for memory foam pillows. The pillows were placed on moveable metal brackets that were affixed to a slate wall in one of the aisles. In attempting to remove one of the pillows from the display shelf just above her head, one of the brackets came loose from the wall and fell onto her head.
Initially, the result was a lump just above her eyebrow, and she did not seek immediate medical treatment. However, the following day, after suffering significant breathing problems, she went to the emergency room. There, doctors diagnosed her as having suffered a nasal fracture and deviated septum. As a result, she required surgery to correct the condition.
She later sued for damages.
At trial, testimony from one supervisor and several workers indicated it was procedure for workers to inspect the brackets daily, and this was done on the morning of the incident. The workers explained the brackets were “either in or out.” It was impossible for them to be partially in, unless the metal had bowed, which no testimony indicated it had. Taking the brackets out required lifting the brackets up out of the slats in the wall.
One worker testified they had seen the customer pushing up on the bracket to reach the pillow just prior to the incident. However, the plaintiff countered she never touched the brackets while attempting to reach the pillow.
The defendant moved for summary judgment on the grounds there was insufficient evidence of liability on the grounds of a defective product creating a dangerous condition on the premises, or that workers had been negligent in ensuring the property was safe. The trial court rejected this argument, but the appellate court reversed.
The appellate court noted that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur was not applicable because there is no presumption of negligence by a business simply because an invitee suffers injury.
Citing the 2011 decision in Miller v. Liberty Park Joint Venture, the court noted the plaintiff in a premises liability claim in Alabama must show there was a dangerous or defective condition on the property and also that the owner knew or should have known about it and failed to act.
In this case, the court found, that threshold was not met.
Burlington Coat Factory of Alabama LLC v. Butler , June 13, 2014, Alabama Court of Appeals
Graf v. Hospitality Mutual – Alternative Ways to Secure Premises Liability Judgment, July 2, 2014, Tuscaloosa Personal Injury Lawyer Blog