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Williams-Stewart v. Shoppers Food Warehouse Corp.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 5, 2014



JILLYN K. SCHULZE, Magistrate Judge.

Presently pending is Defendant Shoppers Food Warehouse Corp.'s motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 16. The issues have been fully briefed and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion will be denied.

1. Factual Background.[1]

This case arises out of a fall that occurred on September 6, 2011 in the freezer aisle of Defendant's store. As Plaintiff, Lillie Williams-Stewart, was shopping, she turned down the meat aisle and slipped and fell on water leaking from the bottom of several refrigeration units. ECF No. 17 at 5. Defendant knew about the leak prior to Plaintiff's fall and, accordingly, had placed multiple wet floor signs in the aisle in addition to "spill magic absorbent socks" and paper towels. ECF No. 16 at 2; ECF No. 18 at 1. However, Plaintiff did not see the signs or the water before she fell. ECF No. 16 at 2; ECF No. 17, Ex. 1 at 10. According to Plaintiff, the wet floor signs were not placed in an area sufficient to warn customers of the water on the floor. ECF No. 17 at 5. According to Plaintiff's son, Charles Williams, the store manager said that the refrigeration units had "been leaking for a long period of time" and that he "did not know that the water had [come] out that far from [the refrigeration units]." ECF No. 17, Ex. 3 at 15-16.

Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant on August 29, 2013 in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, requesting $100, 000 for the injuries she sustained. ECF No. 2 at 2. The case was removed to this court on diversity grounds, ECF No. 7, and on December 23, 2013, was referred to me for all further proceedings. ECF No. 15.

2. Standard of Review.

Pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 343, 347 (1986). "For purposes of summary judgment, a fact is material if, when applied to the substantive law, it affects the outcome of the litigation." Nero v. Baltimore Cnty., MD, 512 F.Supp.2d 407, 409 (D. Md. 2007) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). "Summary judgment is also appropriate when a party fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.'" Laura Campbell Trust v. John Hancock Life Ins. Co., 411 F.Supp.2d 606, 609 (D. Md. 2006) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)).

A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment bears the burden of establishing the existence of a genuine issue of material fact. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248-49. "When a motion for summary judgment is made and supported as provided in [Rule 56], an adverse party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of the adverse party's pleading, but the adverse party's response, by affidavit or as otherwise provided in [Rule 56] must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Bertrand v. Children's Home, 489 F.Supp.2d 516, 518 (D. Md. 2007) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). "The facts, as well as the justifiable inferences to be drawn therefrom, must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Id. at 518-19 (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986)). "The court, however, cannot rely upon unsupported speculation and it has an affirmative obligation to prevent factually unsupported claims and defenses from proceeding to trial." Id. at 519 (citing Felty v. Graves-Humphreys Co., 818 F.2d 1126, 1128 (4th Cir. 1987)).

3. Discussion.

Maryland has adopted the rule in the Restatement (Second) of Torts ยง 343 (1965) for the general duty a landowner owes to invitees. Deering Woods Condo. Ass'n v. Spoon, 377 Md. 250, 263 (2003). Section 343 provides:

A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to his invitees by a condition on the land if, but only if, he: (a) knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees; (b) should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it; and (c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger.

"An important corollary of these rules is that the owner or occupier of land ordinarily has no duty to warn an invitee of an open, obvious, and present danger.'" Gellerman v. Shawan Rd. Hotel, 5 F.Supp.2d 351, 353 (D. Md. 1998) (quoting Tennant v. Shoppers Food Warehouse, 115 Md.App. 381, 389 (1997)). In the context of retail establishments, "[t]he customer is entitled to assume that the storekeeper will exercise reasonable care to ascertain the condition of the premises, and, if he discovers any unsafe condition, he will either take such action as will correct the condition and make it reasonably safe or give a warning of the unsafe condition." Chamberlain v. Denny's, Inc., 166 F.Supp.2d 1064, 1068 (D. Md. 2001) (citing Rawls v. Hochschild, Kohn & Co., 207 Md. 113, 117-18 (1955)). "The duties of a storekeeper thus include the obligation to warn customers of known hidden dangers, a duty to inspect, and a duty to take reasonable precautions against foreseeable dangers." Id. (citing Tennant 115 Md.App. at 388).

Defendant contends that it satisfied its duty to warn of the water by placing wet floor signs in the aisle next to the leaking refrigeration units, and alternatively, that the condition was open and obvious. ECF 16 at 3-4. Defendant maintains that a reasonable person would have seen the wet floor signs and taken the proper precautions to avoid an accident. ECF No. 18 at 3.

Plaintiff concedes that there was at least one wet floor sign located near the refrigeration units, ECF No. 17 at 26, and indeed, pictures taken by Plaintiff's son immediately after the incident indicate that there were at least three signs near the refrigeration units. Although Defendant placed paper towels adjacent to the refrigeration units to mitigate the leaking, this failed to prevent water from leaking into the aisle. Plaintiff's answers to interrogatories and deposition testimony indicate that she fell on the water as she turned the corner to shop down the freezer aisle. ECF No. 17 at 15, 25. She also states that "there was ...

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