Everyone understands that you need to be careful when walking in the rain. But just because it is raining outside, that does not automatically absolve store owners of their legal duty to keep their premises in reasonably safe condition for patrons and other invited guests. Put another way, while a store is not necessarily liable for injuries sustained by a customer who slips in a puddle of rainwater near the entrance, if there is evidence the entrance’s design is defective or hazardous, then the customer may have a claim for damages.
Hart v. Wal-Mart Stores East LP
Here is an illustration of this principle from an ongoing personal injury lawsuit from Columbus, Georgia. The plaintiff went to the local superstore to shop in its garden center. it was raining at the time. When the plaintiff stepped inside the store, he slipped and fell and sustained serious injuries.
The plaintiff subsequently sued the store for damages in federal court. The defendant moved for summary judgment, essentially arguing that it “took various precautions to remove rainwater and to warn customers that the floor might be wet.” In any event, the plaintiff clearly had equal knowledge of the hazard, i.e. the fact that it was raining and water could be tracked inside the store entrance.
The judge presiding over the case ruled summary judgment was inappropriate. There was a legitimate “factual dispute” for a jury to resolve regarding the design and construction of the store entrance itself. Specifically, the plaintiff offered expert testimony from an architect who said the defendant’s entrance “does not comply with minimum building code standards.” The expert said the entrance contains “uneven” floors and “non-uniform slip resistance in an area where wet conditions are expected.” In effect, this created what the plaintiff described as a “downhill slick floor” that caused him to slip and fall.
Under Georgia premises liability law, a defendant is responsible when it has “superior knowledge of a condition that may expose the invitee to an unreasonable risk of harm.” If the store’s entrance suffered from a design defect that made it more prone to slip-and-fall accidents during rainy conditions, the mere fact the plaintiff knew it was raining and he had to exercise general caution would not necessarily give him “equal” knowledge of the hazard. To the contrary, the judge noted it would constitute “evidence of negligent construction” for which the defendant had the superior knowledge.“
However, the judge did grant summary judgment to the defendant on one issue. The plaintiff’s lawsuit initially sought attorney’s fees and litigation expenses. As a general rule, Georgia law only allows a prevailing party to recover such costs if “the defendant has acted in bad faith, has been stubbornly litigious, or has caused the plaintiff unnecessary trouble and expense.” That was not the case here, the judge said, as even the plaintiff conceded in court “there is no evidence of bad faith” on the part of the defense.