In a decision handed down in mid-October, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed an appeals court decision assigning 100 percent liability to a grocery store in a customer slip and fall case.
Louisiana’s Third Circuit Appeals Court in Thompson v. Winn-Dixie Montgomery, Inc., had previously overruled a trial court finding that the grocer, Winn-Dixie, was only 30 percent responsible for a slip and fall that occurred on the premises of a store in New Iberia, La. The trial court had assigned to a subcontracted cleaning crew 70 percent of the responsibility for the fall blamed on a puddle of water in front of the store’s meat counter.
The Supreme Court described the accident:
“On July 21, 2008, at approximately 10:00 p.m., Patricia Thompson was shopping at the Winn-Dixie store in New Iberia, Louisiana, with her 8 year-old son. Ms. Thompson was pushing a shopping cart and stopped at one of the meat cases to take an item. After she placed the item in her cart, she proceeded to step forward and slipped on a puddle of water in front of the case.”
The store normally keeps a large rubber mat in front of its meat counter in order to prevent falls such as Thompson’s. In this case, however, the subcontractor’s cleaning crew had pushed the mat under the counter in preparation for mopping and failed to either remain at the scene or place a “wet floor” sign in the area, actions which both the cleaning service and the store required its workers to do. In addition, no notice was given to the store manager that there was a puddle of water in front of the meat counter.
At trial, the jury “returned a verdict in favor of Ms. Thompson, finding KAP (the subcontractor) 70% at fault, Winn-Dixie 30% at fault, Ms. Thompson 0% at fault, and awarding Ms. Thompson damages,” according to the Supreme Court’s written opinion.
The court of appeals disagreed, however, and wrote in its decision that the law does not allow “Winn-Dixie to delegate its statutorily imposed duties by contracting with third-parties. Were this not so, every grocery store in the state could seek to avoid their statutory duties to shoppers to provide a safe place to shop by contractually assigning its responsibilities to third-party contractors such as the small, financially impecunious sub-contractor, KAP, in this case.”
The appellate court reasoned that because Winn-Dixie ultimately had control over the duties of the subcontractor’s employees while they were working in the store, the grocery should be held responsible for the accident that occurred as a result of the puddle.
According to the Supreme Court’s written opinion, the appellate court “found Winn-Dixie was not shielded from its statutory liability to Ms. Thompson because Winn-Dixie ‘clearly maintained the right to control and supervise the work of the KAP employee.’ The court explained that while a principal is generally not liable for the acts of its independent contractor, an exception to that rule applies when the principle reserves the right to supervise or control the work of the independent contractor or gives express or implied authorization to an unsafe practice.”
The appeals court also increased the amount awarded to Thompson by the trial court.
The high court justices dismissed the appellate court’s reasoning, however.
“We must … reject the court of appeal’s suggestion that Winn-Dixie is 100% statutorily liable because Winn-Dixie should not be allowed to contractually assign its responsibilities to a small, ‘financially impecunious sub-contractor.’ To the extent the court of appeal finds Winn-Dixie is responsible for KAP’s fault because of the disparity in their sizes and wealth, we note such a consideration is prohibited by La.C.C. art. 2324(B), which mandates that a tortfeasor shall not be solidarily liable for the negligence of a joint tortfeasor, regardless of that person’s insolvency or ability to pay,” the Supreme Court wrote in its opinion.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court stated: “After a review of the law and record, we find the court of appeal committed legal error in amending the trial court’s judgment to assign 100% fault to Winn-Dixie. We find the jury’s allocation of 30% fault to Winn-Dixie and 70% fault to KAP is supported by the record.”
The trial court’s original judgment was reinstated.
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