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Cooper v. Steak N Shake, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division

October 16, 2019

TRACYE COOPER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
STEAK N SHAKE, INC., DEFENDANT.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Edward B. Atkins United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, pursuant to FED. R. Civ. P. 56. [R. 13, 20]. Plaintiff submitted her response on both motions. [R. 15, 21]. Defendant also submitted a reply brief for both responses. [R. 17, 24]. The issues being fully briefed are now ripe for review. For the following reasons, the Court DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment but GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The following facts are undisputed between the parties. This case arises from a slip and fall incident which occurred on December 24, 2016, at Steak 'n Shake, Inc. ("Steak 'n Shake") in Lexington, Kentucky during regular business hours. On this date, Plaintiff Margaret Tracye Cooper, her boyfriend, and his family dined in Steak 'n Shake. Upon arriving at the restaurant, Cooper and her guests entered Steak 'n Shake through a vestibule area and then into the restaurant, escaping the rain. During their meal, several other patrons entered and exited through the same doors, tracking in water from the rain. After approximately an hour and a half of dining, Cooper's guests exited the restaurant through the same doors they entered without issue, while Cooper ordered a to-go cup of coffee and paid for their meal. As Cooper exited the restaurant, she failed to step on the floor mat in the vestibule, causing her to slip on the wet tile and fall. The tile beside the smaller floor mat in the vestibule was wet from rain residue tracked in by patrons of Steak 'n Shake. No. wet floor sign was set out or visible before Cooper fell. Cooper was taken to the hospital to treat her injuries.

         On December 20, 2017, Cooper filed this lawsuit in Fayette Circuit Court against Steak 'n Shake, alleging negligence. [R. 1 at 1]. The case was timely removed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. [R. 1 at 1-3]. Following the consent of both parties, this case was assigned to this Court by the District Court. [R. 6-7]. Cooper seeks compensatory damages for her personal injury suffered. [R. 1-1]. Steak 'n Shake now asks this Court to grant its motions for summary judgment and partial summary judgment. [R. 13; R. 20].

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is appropriate only where there is no issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The initial burden is on the moving party to demonstrate the basis for summary judgment and identify those parts of the record that establish the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Chao v. Hall Holding Co., Inc., 285 F.3d 415, 424 (6th Cir. 2002). The moving party can satisfy its burden by demonstrating an absence of evidence to support the non-movant's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). To avoid summary judgment, the non-movant must come forward with evidence on which a jury could reasonably find in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). The non-movant must present more than a mere scintilla of evidence to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Street v. J.C Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1479 (6th Cir. 1989). The Court must then determine "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Booker v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., 879 F.2d 1304, 1310 (6th Cir. 1989). The Court views all the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). Summary judgment is inappropriate where there is a genuine conflict "in the evidence, with affirmative support on both sides, and where the question is which witness to believe." Logan v. Denny's, Inc., 259 F.3d 558, 566 (6th Cir. 2001).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Cooper maintains a single claim of negligence against Steak 'n Shake under a premises liability theory. [R. 1-1]. To prevail on a negligence claim under Kentucky law, the plaintiff must establish that (1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, (2) the defendant breached the standard of care, (3) the defendant's negligence was both the actual and proximate cause of (4) the plaintiffs damages suffered. Pathways, Inc. v. Hammons, 113 S.W.3d 85, 88-89 (Ky. 2003). With premises liability, the type of duty owed depends in part on the status of the person coming onto the premises. In this case, as a customer, Cooper clearly entered the premises as an invitee and Steak 'n Shake owned the property, meaning it owed a duty to all invitees to exercise ordinary care to maintain its store in a reasonably safe condition or to warn about foreseeable dangerous conditions that are latent, unknown or not obvious. Lucas v. Gateway Community Service Organization, Inc., 343 S.W.3d 341, 343 (Ky. Ct. App. 2011). However, the landowner does not owe the injured party a duty as it relates to conditions that are open and obvious. Kentucky River Medical Center v. McIntosh, 319 S.W.3d 385, 388 (Ky. 2010). Moreover, an invitee must exercise ordinary care to avoid dangers that are known or could be reasonably anticipated. Id.

         "Duty presents a question of law, whereas breach and injury are questions of fact for the jury to decide . . . [and] [c]ausation presents a mixed question of law and fact." Patton v. Bickford, 529 S.W.3d 717, 729 (Ky. 2016). 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." Johnson v. Wal-Mart Stores East, LP, 169 F.Supp.3d 700, 703 (E.D. Ky. 2016). As the party moving for summary judgment, Steak 'n Shake must shoulder the burden of showing the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact as to at least one essential element of Cooper's claim. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see also Laster v. City of Kalamazoo, 746 F.3d 714, 726 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324). Assuming Steak 'n Shake satisfies its burden of production, Cooper "must-by deposition, answers to interrogatories, affidavits, and admission on file-show facts that reveal a genuine issue for trial." Laster, 746 F.3d at 726. This is a slip and fall case involving a commercial business, Steak 'n Shake, and a patron of one of its restaurants, Cooper. Accordingly, this Court looks to Kentucky law concerning premises liability and the duties and responsibilities placed upon business owners with respect to its customers.

         A. Steak 'n Shake's Motion for Summary Judgment

         Steak 'n Shake's arguments concerning summary judgment focus on the duty, breach, and causation elements. [R. 13, 17]. Steak 'n Shake contends that it is entitled to summary judgment on the grounds that: (1) it did not breach its duty of care because there was no unreasonably dangerous condition which it had to eliminate or warn against; (2) there was no duty owed to Cooper because the wet floor was an open and obvious danger; and (3) Cooper failed to exercise reasonable care to prevent her injury. [R. 13 at 87-88].

         1. Dangerous Condition Concerning the Wet Vestibule Flooring

         "While general negligence law requires the existence of a duty, premises liability law supplies the nature and scope of that duty when dealing with tort injuries on realty." Lewis v. B&R Corp.,56 S.W.3d 432, 437-38 (Ky. Ct. App. 2001). Under premises liability, "the owner of a premises to which the public is invited has a general duty to exercise ordinary care to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition and warn invitees of dangers that are latent, unknown or not obvious." Id. at 438. A business is liable to its patrons for negligence if it "fails to use reasonable care under the circumstances to discover the foreseeable dangerous condition and to correct it or to warn customers of its existence." Lanier v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.,99 S.W.3d 431, 437 (Ky. 2003). In other words, "a property owner, such as [Steak 'n Shake], must exercise reasonable care to protect invitees, such as [Cooper], from hazardous conditions that the property owner knew or should have discovered and that the invitee could not be expected to discover." Denny v. Steakn Shake Operations, Inc.,559 Fed.Appx. 485, 487 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Lanier, 99 ...


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