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Uhler v. Outback Steakhouse of Florida, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 12, 2018




         Defendant Outback Steakhouse of Florida, LLC (“Defendant” or “Outback”) filed a motion for summary judgment in this personal injury case on May 2, 2018. (ECF No. 18). The issues have been fully briefed, and the court now rules, no hearing being deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6. For the following reasons, the motion for summary judgment will be denied.

         I. Background[1]

         On February 9, 2017, Plaintiff Stacey Uhler (“Plaintiff”) and her friend, Virginia Wills (“Ms. Wills”), visited Defendant's restaurant in Prince Frederick, Maryland (the “restaurant”). (ECF No. 21-4, at 19-20). Plaintiff arrived at the restaurant sometime between 11:30 am and 11:40 am. (Id. at 33). Plaintiff and Ms. Wills were seated at booth 18 (ECF No. 21-6, at 7, p. 23), which was situated at floor level (ECF No. 21-4, at 34) and set with two sets of silverware rolled in separate cloth napkins (ECF Nos. 21-4, at 21-23; 21-6, at 7, p. 24). Ms. Shannon Mundo (“Ms. Mundo”), a server at Defendant's restaurant, served Plaintiff and Ms. Wills. (ECF Nos. 21-6, at 4, p. 13; 21-7, at 5, p. 14). Shortly after taking her seat, Plaintiff placed her napkin on her lap and arranged her silverware on the table.[2] (ECF No. 21-4, at 22). Outback staff brought no additional napkins to the table during the time that Plaintiff and Ms. Wills dined. (Id. at 23). After Plaintiff paid for lunch (ECF No. 21-5 ¶ 4), Ms. Mundo placed the receipt in a checkbook and delivered it to Plaintiff's table around 12:55 pm. (ECF No. 21-6, at 6, p. 21).

         In an effort to use the restroom while Ms. Wills engaged in a phone call, Plaintiff stood up to exit the booth. (ECF No. 21-4, at 24-25). Immediately after standing up and taking a step toward the restroom, Plaintiff fell in front of booth 18, within Ms. Wills' line of vision. (ECF No. 21-4, at 34). Plaintiff states that she wore rubber-soled boots on the day of the accident (id. at 36), and previously encountered no trouble walking in the boots (id.). Plaintiff alleges that an Outback employee had dropped a cloth napkin next to Plaintiff's booth and “her foot touched down on the napkin[, ] causing her foot to go out from under her . . . resulting in her landing on the floor.”[3] (ECF No. 2 ¶ 5).

         After the fall, an ambulance transported Plaintiff to Calvert Memorial Hospital, where Plaintiff learned that her ankle was fractured and dislocated. (ECF No. 21-4, at 39-46). Physicians at Calvert Memorial Hospital twice attempted to reset Plaintiff's ankle. (Id. at 38-40). Due to the severity of her injuries, Plaintiff was relocated to Washington Hospital Center, where physicians again attempted to reset her ankle. (Id. at 41). The next morning, upon release from Washington Hospital Center, physicians informed Plaintiff that her injuries required surgery. (Id. at 42). After waiting for the swelling in her ankle to subside, Plaintiff underwent initial surgery on February 15, 2017 and additional surgery on February 23, 2017. (Id. at 43-45). Beginning May 9, 2017, Plaintiff sought treatment through a course of physical therapy. (Id. at 53-54). Plaintiff testified that she continues to experience occasional pain and stiffness due to the permanent plates implanted in her ankle. (Id. at 55). Plaintiff also has ongoing pain in her knees, shoulder, and lower back. (Id. at 60).

         On August 23, 2017, Plaintiff and her husband Richard Uhler (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Calvert County, Maryland, against Defendant as a result of injuries suffered by Plaintiff after she slipped and fell at Defendant's restaurant.[4] (ECF No. 2). Defendant removed the case to this court based on diversity jurisdiction on November 21, 2017. (ECF No. 1). Plaintiffs filed a response in opposition on May 21, 2018 (ECF No. 21), and Defendant replied on June 5, 2018 (ECF No. 22).

         II. Standard of Review

          A motion for summary judgment will be granted only if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Emmett v. Johnson, 532 F.3d 291, 297 (4th Cir. 2008). To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the movant generally bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248-50. A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 249. In undertaking this inquiry, a court must view the facts and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom “in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, ” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)); see also EEOC v. Navy Fed. Credit Union, 424 F.3d 397, 405 (4th Cir. 2005), but a “party cannot create a genuine dispute of material fact through mere speculation or compilation of inferences.” Shin v. Shalala, 166 F.Supp.2d 373, 375 (D.Md. 2001) (citation omitted). If a party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case . . . which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial[, ]” there can be no “genuine issue as to any material fact, since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323.

         III. Analysis A. Negligence

         To establish a prima facie case for negligence under Maryland law, a plaintiff must prove: (1) the defendant owed a duty to protect the plaintiff from injury; (2) the defendant breached that duty; (3) the defendant's breach proximately caused plaintiff's injury; and (4) the plaintiff suffered an injury. See Rosenblatt v. Exxon Co., U.S.A., 335 Md. 58, 76 (1994).

         Analysis of any negligence cause of action begins by determining whether a legally cognizable duty existed. The duty Defendant owed to Plaintiff depends on Plaintiff's status while present on Defendant's property. Jackson v. A.M.F. Bowling Centers, Inc., 128 F.Supp.2d 307, 311 (D.Md. 2001) (citing Rowley v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, 305 Md. 456, 464-65 (1986)).

         “A business invitee is ‘one invited or permitted to enter another's property for purposes related to the landowner's business.'” Id. (quoting Tennant v. Shoppers Food Warehouse Md. Corp., 115 Md.App. 381, 388 (1997)). Plaintiff entered Defendant's establishment as a consumer and was thus a business invitee. Here, neither party disputes that Plaintiff was a business invitee on Defendant's property and that Defendant owed Plaintiff a duty of care in maintaining the restaurant. (ECF Nos. 18; 21-1, at 3, 15). Maryland applies the standard articulated in the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343 (1965) when analyzing a private landowner's duty to an invitee:

         A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to his invitees by a condition ...

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