Store owners and managers have a legal responsibility to maintain safe conditions for their customers. When they fail to do so, they may be held liable for any resulting injuries. This is called premises liability.
The most common condition which causes accidents in stores are slip and falls. Slip and fall accidents in stores and other commercial places are common. The commercial places where these often happen include grocery stores like Publix, Winn Dixie, Milam’s, Whole Foods, drug stores such as Walgreens and CVS, and big box retailers like Walmart, Target, Costco, BJs, Home Depo, Cabela’s, Lowe’s, Sears, Bass Pro Shops, and Big Lots.
The types of serious injuries we see in these slip and falls include traumatic brain injuries, broken (fractured) bones, torn ligaments and tendons requiring surgery, spinal cord injury, vertebrae fractures, and disc herniations in the back.
Slip and falls usually happen where there is some sort of water or other liquid or moisture on the floor. The most common sources for liquid or moisture on the floor are spills from the products on the shelves, condensation in an area close to the door where the moist, hot air outside meets the cold air in the air conditioned store, dripping from refrigerated coolers which are either broken or not monitored, mopping by an employee who does not properly or fully dry the area, rain water spread into the store either by the wind itself from the outside or by customers or employees tracking in the water from outside.
The law says that just because someone slips and falls on the floor inside a store does not mean that they have a valid claim against the store. The injured person has to prove that the store – through its employees – created the hazard or that the store knew about the hazard, or that the store should have known about the hazard because the hazard was on the floor for such a time that they should have seen it and had the opportunity to do something about it.
Florida Statute Section 768.0755 covers liability (fault) in these types of cases. The law says:
- If a person slips and falls on a transitory foreign substance in a business establishment, the injured person must prove that the business establishment had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition and should have taken action to remedy it. Constructive knowledge may be proven by circumstantial evidence showing that:
- The dangerous condition existed for such a length of time that, in the exercise of ordinary care, the business establishment should have known of the condition; or
- The condition occurred with regularity and was therefore foreseeable.
- This section does not affect any common-law duty of care owed by a person or entity in possession or control of a business premises.
How do you prove where the water or moisture came from and how long that the moisture or water or other substance was on the floor? Through circumstantial evidence. What are examples of circumstantial evidence? That would include track marks through the area, cart wheel marks through the area, the water is partly dried or caked, the ice or ice cream is partly melted, and the area is so large that it had to have taken a long time to get there especially in light of the source of the water.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in a recent case helped define what evidence is sufficient to show that the store had notice of the water or moisture or other substance on the floor. In the case of Melissa Stutler Vs. Coca-Cola Beverages Florida, LLC Case number No. 22-14239, the appeals court reversed a summary judgement for the defendants Target and Coca Cola where Target allowed a Coca Cola display in the store where a cooler with ice was placed on the floor of the store. The cooler leaked water from the melting ice and condensation on the outside and inside the cooler. The cooler was placed in the Target store’s self-checkout line. Melissa Stutler, a customer, slipped and fell as a result of that water. She sued both Target and Coca-Cola Beverages Florida, LLC, alleging negligence in maintaining their premises.
The lower, trial court, the Federal District Court, granted summary judgment in which the Court said that Coke Florida had a contractual duty to maintain the cooler with the court reasoning “because Coke Florida had that duty… the company ‘may be held liable to members of the public, such as [Stutler], for its negligence in performing that contract.’ But the lower court ruled that Stutler failed to prove that the liquid causing her fall came from the cooler. Stutler appealed and argued that the court did not consider all the evidence in her favor including the deposition testimony of a Target employee, Liliana Mejia, who stated that the liquid had leaked from the cooler.
The appellate court agreed with Stutler and said:
We think the district court overlooked several pieces of evidence that, when considered in the light most favorable to Stutler, could lead a reasonable jury to find that she slipped on water leaking from Coke Florida’s cooler.
To start, circumstantial evidence in the record supports a reasonable inference that the cooler was leaking. There is video footage of Stutler slipping in front of the beverage cooler on a puddle of water. Target produced a photo of the liquid seemingly emanating from under the cooler, though the district court failed to mention it. Further, a post-incident report prepared by Target states that Stutler “slipped on a water leak next to [the] beverage fridge.” The report also mentions that the floor was “wet” from a “cooler leak.” The district court acknowledged the first quote (Stutler’s characterization of the incident), but not the second (a Target employee’s version of events). Finally, there is no other likely explanation for how the water ended up on the floor beneath and adjacent to the cooler. The court failed to make the obvious inference from this circumstantial evidence—that the liquid leaked from the cooler—in Stutler’s favor, a requirement at the summary judgment stage. See Jones, 683 F.3d at 1291-92.
In addition to this circumstantial evidence, there is also direct evidence in the form of the deposition testimony of Liliana Mejia, a Target employee, which the district court did not address in its summary judgment order. After Coke Florida filed summary judgment, the district court extended the discovery deadline at Target and Coke Florida’s request. With the additional time, Stutler deposed Mejia, a Target employee who arrived at the self-checkout area “a minute” after Stutler slipped. There, Mejia consulted another Target employee about what happened. That employee said Stutler had slipped on liquid that “leaked from the cooler.” Mejia checked things out for herself and took a photo of the liquid on the floor, which was submitted as an exhibit at her deposition. After that inspection, she concluded with “100% certainty” that the liquid leaked from the cooler—there was not “any doubt” in her mind. She was not surprised: she testified that the cooler had leaked before, “sometime in 2020.” To address that leak, Target’s staff wrapped a “snake”—a type of sponge—around the bottom of the cooler. They used a similar “snake” after Stutler’s slip.
Coke Florida contends that, even if “sufficient record evidence exists to create a genuine issue of material fact on whether the Coke Florida beverage cooler in the Target store was the source of the puddle,” the district court was correct to grant summary judgment because there is “no evidence showing that Coke Florida failed to properly maintain or repair the beverage cooler.” We disagree. The district court held that Coke Florida had a duty to maintain the cooler in a reasonably safe condition, a ruling Coke Florida does not dispute on appeal. And Coke Florida did not argue in its summary judgment motion that Stutler failed to present evidence that it had breached this duty. Instead, Coke Florida argued that it had no duty at all and that, even if it did, the cooler was not leaking. So Stutler was never put on notice that she had to provide evidence that the cooler was leaking because of Coke’s negligence and not some other reason. A court may “grant [a summary judgment] motion on grounds not raised by a party” only “[a]fter giving notice and a reasonable time to respond” ….
Our conclusion that a genuine issue of material fact exists on the issue of causation resolves this appeal in Stutler’s favor.
(Emphasis added). Therefore, the appellate court reversed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Coke Florida, allowing Stutler’s negligence claim to proceed to trial to determine whether the cooler’s leakage was the cause of her slip and fall accident.
Hickey Law Firm specializes in slip and fall cases. The Firm’s lead trial attorney regularly lectures other trial lawyers from across the country on handling these cases, on how to understand the injuries from these cases, and on how to try these cases. We are the fighters for you, the honest person who suffers a life changing injury in a slip and fall accident.
Firm founder John H. (Jack) Hickey is recognized by Best Lawyers in America in 3 areas: Personal Injury Litigation – Plaintiffs, Admiralty and Maritime Law, and Medical Malpractice – Plaintiffs. He is also double Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Civil Trial and Admiralty & Maritime Law, and Board Certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy (NBTA) in Civil Trial.
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Attorney John H. (Jack) Hickey and his team handle a wide range of cases, including but not limited to cruise ship accidents, admiralty and maritime accident cases, medical malpractice, wrongful death, premises liability, railroad accidents and car accidents. We represent victims from all over the nation, the world and the state of Florida.