Georgia Store Faces “Slip and Fall” Trial Over Clothing Rack Placement

If you are injured on someone else’s property, the owner may be liable for negligence. This is known in Georgia as “premises liability.” A common type of premises liability occurs when a customer slips and falls in a store due to a hazardous condition. If the store had “superior knowledge” of the hazard and the customer exercised “ordinary care” for his or her own safety, then a jury may find the store liable under premises liability.

Stephens v. Kmart Corporation

Premises liability cases tend to be highly fact-specific. Here is a recent example from here in Georgia. In this case, the plaintiff was shopping with her husband at a store in Tifton, Georgia. She was browsing through a series of clothing racks set up on the sidewalk in front of the store’s entrance. While attempting to move between the racks, the plaintiff’s “foot stepped off the curb, causing her to fall on the asphalt.” She sustained a serious injury to her back as a result.

The plaintiff sued the store for negligence. She alleged the store had set up the outside clothing racks so that they were “right up against the curb,” leaving her unable to locate the drop-off from the sidewalk to the curb. During a pretrial deposition, a store manager “he did not see a problem with the way the racks were set up on the sidewalk” on the day in question.

The trial court granted the store’s motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed, and the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed the trial judge prematurely dismissed her complaint. The appeals court said there were still disputed “material issues of fact as to whether the curb was obstructed by the racks and clothing on the sidewalk.”

In premises liability cases, a store is not responsible when the customer fails to exercise ordinary care for her own safety. For example, if the customer sees a puddle of water on the floor, proceeds to walk over the puddle, and slips and falls, the store is not liable. In that scenario, the customer has equal or superior knowledge of the hazardous condition.

In this case, the plaintiff argued that while she had “general knowledge that there was a drop off from the sidewalk to the curb,” she lacked specific knowledge of where that drop off was because of the store’s negligence in how it set up its outside clothing display. In response, the store presented evidence of its corporate policies regarding how to set up such displays, but that did not prove or disprove whether this particular store was in compliance at the time of the plaintiff’s accident. And as the Court of Appeals observed, a customer’s duty to exercise ordinary care does not require her to “continuously survey” the area for safety hazards; she may assume the store has fulfilled its own duty “to assume that the owner/occupier has exercised reasonable care to make the premises safe.”

Accordingly, the appeals court returned the plaintiff’s case to the trial court for further proceedings. The appeals court did not rule on the merits of the case. The plaintiff will still have to prove her negligence claim to a jury.

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