Court Rejects Lawsuit Against Wal-Mart Over "Slip-and-Fall"

October 18, 2013

In a typical premises liability lawsuit--such as a "slip-and-fall" case--the plaintiff must prove the property owner had "actual or constructive" knowledge of a hazardous condition on the property. But the property owner may attempt to defend itself by showing the plaintiff had "equal knowledge" of the hazard. If the plaintiff failed to exercise "ordinary care," then the property owner won't be held liable.

A recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision illustrates these principles. In Houston v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., the plaintiff was shopping early one morning at a Wal-Mart in Clayton County. The plaintiff pushed a shopping car through the store's meat department. He walked over some flattened cardboard boxes left on the floor by an employee. When he turned the cart around and walked over those same boxes a second time, he slipped on the boxes and fell to the ground.

The plaintiff sued Wal-Mart and two of its employees for damages related to injuries he suffered in the fall. During discovery, Wal-Mart produced security camera footage showing the plaintiff had crossed the cardboard boxes once without incident before falling the second time. The plaintiff conceded this point in his own deposition. Based on this, the trial judge concluded the plaintiff had "equal knowledge" of the hazard posed by the cardboard boxes and granted summary judgment to Wal-Mart and the two employees. The plaintiff appealed.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals, however, found no error in the trial court's decision. Presiding Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes, writing for the appeals court, said that while there was evidence Wal-Mart "had actual or constructive knowledge of the flattened cardboard boxes on the floor," there was also no dispute the plaintiff knew the boxes were there when he walked over them not once, but twice. "In light of this uncontradicted evidence," Barnes wrote, "we conclude that [the plaintiff] had as much knowledge of the hazard that caused his injuries as the defendants, and thus he cannot recover."

Judge Barnes added that, contrary to the plaintiff's argument here, the hazard posed by the cardboard boxes was a matter of common sense: "[T]his is not a case where the specific hazard that caused the plaintiff's injury was hidden or outside the realm of an ordinary person's understanding." In fact, the judge cited a 2002 decision from the Court of Appeals dealing with a similar slip-and-fall claim arising from a customer who chose to step over a cardboard box lying on a store floor. In that case, the appeals court also rejected the plaintiff's argument that "the box posed a hazard of which she was unaware."

What also fatally injured the plaintiff's claim in this case, Judge Barnes noted, was the fact the plaintiff "successfully negotiated" the box without incident once before his fall: "It follows that because the uncontroverted evidence shows that [the plaintiff] safely traversed the flattened cardboard boxes immediately before his fall, he is presumed to have had knowledge of that hazard and cannot recover for his injuries resulting therefrom."