The Georgia Court of Appeals recently upheld an award of over $2.6 million to a Fayetteville woman who suffered personal injuries while shopping at a local grocery store. By a 6-1 vote, the appeals judges rejected the store’s claim it lacked “actual or constructive knowledge” of the hazard that caused the woman’s injuries. The court also upheld a $150,000 award to the woman’s husband for “loss of consortium.”
The Georgia Supreme Court has said that in any “slip and fall” case against a property owner, the plaintiff must prove two things: First, that the owner had actual or constructive knowledge of a hazard; and second, that the plaintiff lacked knowledge of the hazard despite “exercising ordinary care” for her own safety.
The Kroger Company v. Schoenhoff
This accident leading to this case occurred in 2008. The woman, her husband and their daughter were shopping at a Kroger supermarket in Fayetteville. After shopping for about 45 minutes, the husband and daughter proceeded to the checkout lane while the woman went to the produce section to get one more item. While leaving the produce area, the woman walked past a floral display, where she slipped and fell on some water in front of a display case.
The woman did not allege Kroger had “actual” knowledge of the water hazard. Therefore, to prevail in her personal injury lawsuit, she had to prove to a jury that the store had “constructive” knowledge. Under Georgia law, this requires evidence that either (1) a Kroger employee was in the vicinity of the water and had an opportunity to clean up the water prior to the woman’s fall, or (2) the water had been there long enough that management should have exercised “reasonable care” and noticed the hazard.
Kroger asked the trial judge for a directed verdict in its favor, arguing the woman produced no evidence establishing how long the water had been on the floor. Absent such evidence, Kroger said, she could not establish the store had constructive knowledge. The judge denied the motion and sent the case to the jury, which returned a verdict of $2,640,000 in favor of the plaintiff. Kroger appealed, arguing the trial judge erred in letting the case go to the jury in the first place.
The appeals court acknowledged that while the plaintiff’s case was “far from overwhelming,” there was nonetheless some evidence to support constructive knowledge. Notably, witnesses testified that water dripping on the floor was a regular problem in the area of the store where the women slipped. The appeals court said it was not its place to second-guess the jury’s interpretation of this evidence.
One judge disagreed. Presiding Judge Gary Blaylock Andrews said the trial judge should have granted Kroger’s motion for a directed verdict. Judge Blaylock said that since the plaintiff presented no evidence proving how long the water had been on the floor, the jury was left to simply guess, making any finding of constructive knowledge on Kroger’s part pure speculation. The majority of the appeals court, in contrast, said the jury acted within its discretion to “infer” constructive knowledge.