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Sanderson v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P.

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah

July 13, 2018

RONNIE SANDERSON, PLAINTIFF
v.
WAL-MART STORES EAST, L.P., DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge

         This matter comes before the Court upon Motion by Defendant Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., (“Wal-Mart”), for summary judgment. [DN 13.] Plaintiff Ronnie Sanderson, (“Sanderson”), has responded, [DN 15], and Wal-Mart has replied. [DN 16.] This matter is ripe for adjudication and, for the reasons that follow, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Wal-Mart's Motion, [DN 13], is DENIED.

         A. Background

         This case arises out of events which occurred on November 3, 2016 at a Wal-Mart store located in McCracken County, Kentucky. [DN 1-2, at 2.] Sanderson was a Wal-Mart patron and, on that date, he entered the store in question at approximately 9:56 a.m. [DN 13-1, at 2; see also DN 13-2, (Shannon Larkins Affidavit).] The store's security camera footage, attached to Wal-Mart's instant Motion, confirms this. [See id.] Immediately upon entering the store, and walking out of view of the security camera, Sanderson slipped and fell down, fracturing his right knee cap. [DN 15, at 1.] A couple of minutes before Sanderson entered the store that morning, the security camera footage shows another Wal-Mart patron tip over a cup she had placed in the upper basket of her shopping cart. [DN 13-2, (Security Camera Footage).] The patron quickly turns the cup back upright as she leaves the screen, as if to prevent or limit a spill. [Id.] It is uncontested that some sort of “yellow liquid substance” was present on the floor near the store's entrance in the area where Sanderson fell. [See DN 13-1, at 3.]

         Sanderson originally filed this lawsuit in McCracken County, Kentucky Circuit Court on August 11, 2017. [DN 1-2.] On September 26, 2017, Wal-Mart removed the case to the Western District of Kentucky. [DN 1.] Now, Wal-Mart seeks summary judgment. [DN 13.] The merits of this Motion are discussed below.

         B. Legal Standard

         This case was removed to federal court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. However, as Kentucky remains the forum state, this Court will apply Kentucky substantive law. See Himmel v. Ford Motor Co., 342 F.3d 593, 598 (6th Cir. 2003). Notwithstanding this, “federal procedural law will govern as applicable, including in establishing the appropriate summary judgment standard.” Johnson v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., 169 F.Supp.3d 700, 702-03 (E.D. Ky. 2016) (citing Weaver v. Caldwell Tanks, Inc., 190 Fed.Appx. 404, 408 (6th Cir. 2006)).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 instructs that “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The court should state on the record the reasons for granting or denying the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party.” Nat'l Satellite Sports, Inc. v. Eliadis, Inc., 253 F.3d 900, 907 (6th Cir. 2001) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)). Further, “[t]he judge is not to ‘weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986)).

         “The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating that no genuine issue of material fact exists.” Am. Guarantee and Liability Ins. Co. v. Norfolk S. Rwy. Co., 278 F.Supp.3d 1025, 1037 (E.D. Tenn. 2017) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). The movant “may discharge this burden either by producing evidence that demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact or simply ‘by showing-that is, pointing out to the district court-that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.'” Id. (quoting Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325). If the movant carries his or her burden here, “[t]he non-moving party…may not rest upon its mere allegations or denials of the adverse party's pleadings, but rather must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Moldowan v. City of Warren, 578 F.3d 351, 374 (6th Cir. 2009) (citing Matsushita, 47 U.S. at 586). Finally, “[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the non-moving party's position will be insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the non-moving party.” Id. (internal citations and brackets omitted). This means that “[i]f the [non-moving] party fails to make a sufficient showing on an[y] essential element of its case with respect to which it has the burden of proof, the moving party is entitled to summary judgment.” Am. Guarantee and Liability Ins. Co., 278 F.Supp.3d at 1037 (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. 323).

         C. Discussion

         “This is a negligence case, which requires proof that (1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, (2) the defendant breached the standard by which his or her duty is measured, and (3) consequent injury.” Pathways, Inc. v. Hammons, 113 S.W.3d 85, 88 (Ky. 2003) (citations omitted). “‘Consequent injury' consists of what hornbooks separate into two distinct elements: actual injury or harm to the plaintiff and legal causation between the defendant's breach and the plaintiff's injury.” Id. at 88-89 (citations omitted). “The element of duty is a question of law for the court to decide, breach and injury are questions of fact for the jury to decide, and causation is a mixed question of law and fact.” Johnson, 169 F.Supp.3d at 703 (citing Pathways, 113 S.W.3d at 89). A court is precluded from entering summary judgment in favor of a defendant where there remains “a genuine dispute as to any material fact concerning the elements of duty, breach, or causation, such that a reasonable jury could find that [the defendant] was negligent….” Id. (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)). This is a “slip-and-fall” case involving a commercial business, Wal-Mart, and a patron of one of its stores, Sanderson. Accordingly, this Court looks to firmly established Kentucky law concerning premises liability and the duties and responsibilities placed upon business owners with respect to their customers.

         “Under Kentucky law, a property owner, such as Defendant, must exercise reasonable care to protect invitees, such as Plaintiff, from hazardous conditions that the property owner knew about or should have discovered and the invitee could not be expected to discover.” Denney v. Steak N Shake Operations, Inc., 559 Fed.Appx. 485, 487 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Lanier v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 99 S.W.3d 431, 432-33 (Ky. 2003)). As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, applying Kentucky law, has instructed, “[t]he plaintiff must ultimately prove negligence on the part of the property owner, ” but in order “to survive a motion for summary judgment, a plaintiff need only show” the three following things: “‘(1) he or she had an encounter with a foreign substance or other dangerous condition on the business premises; (2) the encounter was a substantial factor in causing the accident and the customer's injuries; and (3) by reason of the presence of the substance or condition, the business premises were not in a reasonably safe condition for the use of business invitees.'” Id. (quoting Martin v. Mekanhart Corp., 113 S.W.3d 95, 98 (Ky. 2003)). Should the plaintiff succeed in showing these three things, “the burden shifts to the defendant to prove the absence of negligence.” Id. (citing Bartley v. Educ. Training Sys., Inc., 134 S.W.3d 612, 616 (Ky. 2004)). This burden-shifting approach to slip-and-fall cases was announced in 2003 by the Kentucky Supreme Court in Lanier in an effort to find a middle ground in the area of premises liability law, preserving the maxim “that a business is not an insurer of its patrons' safety and is not strictly liable for injuries suffered by a customer on its premises.” Lanier, 99 S.W.3d at 436 (citations omitted).

         In the present case, with respect to the Lanier analysis, Wal-Mart states the following:

[t]here is no genuine issue as to the material fact of what caused Sanderson to slip and fall in the Wal-Mart store…Necessarily this motion must be decided in the light of Lanier v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 99 S.W.3d 431 (Ky. 2003). Sanderson has sustained his burden [of] creating a rebuttable presumption of negligence sufficient to avoid summary judgment on ...

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