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Johnson v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 6, 2020

REGINA JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
WAL-MART STORES, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TIMOTHY J. SULLIVAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.'s (“Wal-Mart”) Motion for Summary Judgment (“Motion”).[1] (ECF No. 24.) The matter has been fully briefed (see ECF Nos. 24, 28 & 30) and no hearing is necessary.[2] See Loc. R. 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         A. Factual Background

         The following facts are presented and considered by the Court in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff Regina Johnson (“Ms. Johnson”) because she is the non-moving party. On February 20, 2016, Ms. Johnson went shopping at the Wal-Mart store located in Clinton, Maryland to purchase a baby stroller as a baby shower gift. (ECF No. 24-2 at 4.) In the store's infant department, Ms. Johnson first looked at the strollers on display in one aisle and inspected them by touching the tires and feeling the material. (Id. at 5.) Ms. Johnson then walked to a second aisle where additional strollers were displayed. (Id.) Eventually, Ms. Johnson saw a Jeep stroller that was of interest to her. (Id.) Ms. Johnson touched the armrest, the seat, the back, the net that holds a bottle, and the wheel of the Jeep stroller. (Id. at 6-7.) Ms. Johnson decided to purchase the Jeep stroller. (Id.) Ms. Johnson was aware that the strollers in both aisles were displayed on metal shelving units and affixed by zip-ties to keep them from moving off the shelf. (Id. at 7.) Ms. Johnson did not remove any zip-ties or attempt to take the Jeep stroller down from the display. (Id. at 8.) Ms. Johnson did not realize that the Jeep stroller was not zip-tied to the shelf. (Id.)

         Under the shelf containing the display strollers, Wal-Mart kept a stock of strollers in stacked boxes for customers to purchase. (Id.) Ms. Johnson squatted down to grab a box containing a Jeep stroller and did not touch the stroller display. (Id. at 9-10.) As Ms. Johnson pulled the box towards her, the Jeep stroller on display “rolled” and struck Ms. Johnson on her head, neck, back and arm, causing her injuries. (Id.) An unidentified male shopper yelled “watch out” while Ms. Johnson was attempting to pull the box out. (Id. at 10.) An unidentified female shopper notified an unidentified female Wal-Mart employee, who came to Ms. Johnson's assistance. (Id. at 11.) Ms. Johnson saw no Wal-Mart personnel in the infant department before the incident. (Id.) Ms. Johnson's mother and sister were in the store with her at the time but did not observe the incident. (Id. at 4.) Plaintiff's mother testified that there were no Wal-Mart employees in the stroller section at the time of the incident. (ECF No. 24-4 at 5.) Plaintiff's sister provided similar testimony, stating that she saw Wal-Mart personnel “[c]oming in and out, ” that they may have been stocking merchandise in other aisles, and that no employees were “specifically right there” in the area where the incident occurred. (ECF No. 24-5 at 4.) The unidentified female Wal-Mart employee said to Ms. Johnson after the incident: “Dammit. They were supposed to be tied down.” (ECF No. 24-2 at 11.) The employee called for the assistant store manager, Jason Witherspoon. Mr. Witherspoon told Ms. Johnson that the strollers were “all supposed to be toggled down.” (Id. at 13.) Ms. Johnson testified that she believed neither the unidentified female Wal-Mart employee nor Mr. Witherspoon were aware that the Jeep stroller was not zip-tied to the metal display shelf before it fell on her. (Id. at 13.) Ms. Johnson declined an ambulance, completed her purchase, and left the Wal-Mart store. (Id.)

         B. Procedural History

         Ms. Johnson filed her Complaint in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, Maryland on January 25, 2019. (ECF No. 2.) Wal-Mart removed the case to this Court on March 21, 2019. (ECF No. 1.) Subject matter jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391, venue is proper in this Court as a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred in this district. Since this Court's jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship, the principles outlined in Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938) require the application of state law to questions of substantive law. Maryland adheres to the lex loci delicti rule to determine the applicable law in tort actions. Philip Morris Inc. v. Angeletti, 358 Md. 689, 744 (2000). Under this rule, the “substantive tort law of the state where the wrong occurs governs.” Hauch v. Connor, 295 Md. 120, 123 (1983). Because the alleged tort took place in Maryland, Maryland law governs Ms. Johnson's negligence claim. In her Complaint, Ms. Johnson alleges that Wal-Mart was negligent by failing to “keep and maintain the premises, and any items contained therein, in a safe condition.” (ECF No. 2 ¶ 7.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         “The 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate the absence of any genuine dispute of material fact. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). If sufficient evidence exists for a reasonable jury to render a verdict in favor of the party opposing the motion, then a genuine dispute of material fact is presented and summary judgment should be denied. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). However, the “mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [opposing party's] position” is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 252.

         The facts themselves, and the inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts, must be viewed in the light most favorable to the opposing party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Iko v. Shreve, 535 F.3d 225, 230 (4th Cir. 2008). A party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of its pleading but instead must, by affidavit or other evidentiary showing, set out specific facts showing a genuine dispute for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). Supporting and opposing affidavits are to be made on personal knowledge, contain such facts as would be admissible in evidence, and show affirmatively the competence of the affiant to testify to the matters stated in the affidavit. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(4).

         III. DISCUSSION

         In Maryland, the elements of a negligence claim are “(1) that the defendant was under a duty to protect the plaintiff from injury, (2) that the defendant breached that duty, (3) that the plaintiff suffered actual injury or loss, and (4) that the loss or injury proximately resulted from the defendant's breach of the duty.” Chicago Title Ins. Co. v. Allfirst Bank, 394 Md. 270, 290 (2006). In a claim involving premises liability, the status of the person injured on the property at the time of the incident is critical to determining the defendant's duty to that person. A person invited or permitted to be on another's property for purposes related to the owner's business is an invitee. See, e.g., Wagner v. Doehring, 315 Md. 97, 102 (1989). In this case, there is no dispute that Ms. Johnson was an invitee on the premises. The duty of the proprietor of a store to an invitee was summarized by the Court of Appeals of Maryland in Mondawmin Corp. v. Kres, 258 Md. 307, 313 (1970):

The Restatement of the Law of Torts, Second, sec. 343, sets forth the standards governing the relationship of landowner and business invitee with respect to a hazardous condition. The landowner is subject to liability for harm caused by a natural or artificial condition on his land if (a) he knows or by the exercise of reasonable care could discover the condition, (b) he should expect that invitees will not discover the danger, or will fail to protect ...

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