The lawsuit of a woman in a “slip and fall” case against a Prince George’s County organic supermarket will move forward after Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals reversed an award of summary judgement for the market. The appeals court said the case should have been sent to the jury.
A slip and fall
The plaintiff along with her husband and daughter were shopping in September 2016 at a grocery store owned by Yes Organic Market in Hyattsville. While in the store, the plaintiff slipped and fell on a portion of the floor that had recently been mopped by a market employee. After the accident, the plaintiff had to get a partial knee replacement.
The plaintiff sued the store for negligence. The market filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming contributory negligence and assumption of the risk.
To win on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
The trial judge granted the market’s motion on both grounds. The judge noted that, while the plaintiff said she didn’t notice a yellow mop bucket, video showed her walking past it. “I think this is the quintessential example of both assumption of the risk and contributory negligence,” the trial judge said.
The plaintiff appealed. The Court of Special Appeals reversed the decision for the market.
A mop bucket
The appeals court noted that the market hadn’t pointed to any direct conduct by the plaintiff that constituted contributory negligence or assumption of the risk.
Rather, the market pointed out that two objects – a wet floor sign and a yellow mop bucket — were “within the range of vision of the plaintiff before she fell,” the court said. The market argued that both objects meant the plaintiff had been put on notice to be more careful and that she negligently failed to exercise heightened caution.
The appeals court noted that an important element of contributory negligence is the foreseeability of harm. Relying on a case decided in 1976, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals said that before contributory negligence can be successfully invoked, it must be demonstrated that the injured party acted or failed to act with knowledge and appreciation of either the actual or imputed danger of the injury which their conduct involves.
In this instance, the appeals court explained that the meaning of the “Wet Floor” sign was unambiguous. However, the court said, the sign was placed in a common area where cashiers and check-out counters were located. No other signs were deployed and the plaintiff’s fall did not occur in the area of the market where the check-out counters were located, the court pointed out. The actual fall happened down one of the aisles.
“Significantly,” the appeals court said, “there was no ‘Wet Floor’ sign present in that aisle, although the market acknowledged that it had more than one such ‘Wet Floor’ sign.”
“We agree with the plaintiff that a single “Wet Floor” sign in the check-out area did not adequately warn all customers that the entire Market was a ‘danger zone’ from wet floors,” the court said. As a result, the market’s argument that the plaintiff had been put on notice that the aisle in which she fell was wet and dangerous because of the single warning in the check-out area will not prevail, the court said.
Something more would be required calling for heightened caution on the part of the plaintiff, the court observed, turning its attention to the yellow mop bucket. The yellow mop bucket was sitting, about hip high, on the right side of the aisle in which the plaintiff fell. The plaintiff testified that she hadn’t seen the bucket although video showed that she walked right by it.
The court noted that “there is a respectable line of cases that absolve the customer in certain retail stores from the obligation of looking down at the floor” because storekeepers display goods in such a fashion as to cause their customers to look at the goods on the shelves, not the floors. This court has recognized the phenomena of the distracting charms of attractive merchandise displays as a “contraindication of contributory negligence,” the appeals court said.
More than one inference
Even having seen the bucket establishes nothing, the court declared. The judicial tribunal noted that a necessary “link in the inferential chain” requires the inquiry: What did seeing the mop bucket tell you? And why would you think that?
The “abandoned mop bucket could send conflicting messages, the court said. The court observed that one of the messages that could be inferred by the bucket was that because the market hadn’t also posted a “Wet Floor” sign near the bucket, the market hadn’t considered it necessary to post such a warning in the aisle where the accident occurred because the floor wasn’t wet and slippery.
As the court noted, “the yellow mop bucket did not speak in this case with an undisputed and dispositive voice but with spinxlike inscrutability. Summary judgment was foreclosed,” the court observed.
The case is Cador v. Yes Organic Market Hyttsville, Inc.
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