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Wal-Mart Faces Trial in Pair of Georgia “Slip and Fall” Cases

“Slip and fall” cases are among the most common types of personal injury lawsuits brought against retailers. It’s no surprise then that Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, is currently facing at least two such lawsuits in Georgia alone. Recently, separate federal courts denied Wal-Mart’s motions for summary judgment, finding in each case that there was substantial evidence the retailer had direct knowledge of hazards that led to the plaintiff’s accident.

Ali v. Wal-Mart Stores East, LP

The first case involves a 2010 incident at a Wal-Mart in Snellville. The plaintiff was buying groceries in the afternoon and stopped at the dairy aisle to pick up butter. At the same time, according to court records, “a Wal-Mart employee pulled a pallet jack right behind plaintiff’s feet.” When the plaintiff turned to place the butter in his cart, he said he tripped over the pallet jack and suffered serious injuries.

The plaintiff sued Wal-Mart and, because the company is based outside of Georgia, the case is before a federal court. On February 2 of this year, Chief U.S. District Judge Julie E. Carnes of Atlanta denied Wal-Mart’s motion for a summary judgment in its favor. Wal-Mart argued the plaintiff’s evidence could not support a finding of “premises liability” under Georgia law. Judge Carnes disagreed.

In any premises liability case, the key issue is whether the retailer knew–or should have known–about a potentially hazardous condition on its property. Here, the plaintiff alleged a Wal-Mart employee moved a piece of equipment that directly led to the accident. If true, that means Wal-Mart, by its own employee’s action, knew about the hazard. As Judge Carnes explained, “a jury considering those facts would be authorized, although not required, to find that the placement of the pallet jack created a hazardous condition that ultimately caused plaintiff to fall and injure himself.”

Massey v. Wal-Mart Stores East, LP

But what about a case in which an employee acknowledges a hazard, but did not necessarily create it? This arose from another 2010 incident, this time at a Wal-Mart in Warner Robins. Like the plaintiff in the first case, this plaintiff was grocery shopping in the afternoon. As she moved into a new aisle, she slipped in a pool of water and fell.
According to the plaintiff, an employee helped her up and went to call a manager. The manager then told the woman “that they were aware of the spill but they just have not gotten around to it.” Based on this admission, the woman sued.

Here, Wal-Mart claimed the manager’s statement was “hearsay” that could not be admitted as evidence at trial. And without the manager’s testimony, Wal-Mart said the plaintiff could not show the store had knowledge of the hazard. Furthermore, Wal-Mart presented additional testimony that denied the manager’s admission.

Like Judge Carnes in the Atlanta case, U.S. District Judge Marc T. Treadwell of Macon rejected Wal-Mart’s motion for summary judgment. Judge Treadwell said the manager’s alleged admission could be presented to a jury. It is not hearsay to use the statements of a company employee–acting within the scope of employment–against an employer. And while there is evidence to rebut the alleged admission, it is ultimately for a jury to weigh the credibility of the evidence.