Lena Gregory was shopping at a Brookshire grocery store in Farmerville, Louisiana, when she slipped on a clear substance on the floor. At the time Mrs. Gregory fell, Brookshire employees were working to clean other areas of the store where a child had thrown up minutes before. The child had gotten sick at the front of aisle 13 and in other parts of the store. When employees found out that the child had gotten sick, they began cleaning the dirty areas. One employee stood guard at the front of aisle 13. Mrs. Gregory saw vomit in a few places and was careful to avoid those areas while she shopped. She cautiously walked to the back of aisle 13, where she suddenly slipped and fell on a clear substance spilled on the floor. Nobody knew what the substance was, how it got on the floor, how long it had been there, or whether it was related to the sick child.
Mrs. Gregory sued Brookshire under the Louisiana slip and fall statute (pdf). To succeed with her suit, Gregory v. Brookshire Grocery Company, Mrs. Gregory had to prove that: (1) the clear substance created an unreasonable, foreseeable risk of harm; (2) Brookshire knew or should have known about the clear substance that spilled; and, (3) Brookshire did not demonstrate reasonable care in cleaning up that spill.
Because there was no evidence that Brookshire had actual notice of that particular mess, Mrs. Gregory had to establish that the store had constructive notice of it. To do that, she needed to prove that the clear substance had been there for enough time before she fell that the store should have found the spill if it had exercised reasonable care. The trial court rejected Mrs. Gregory’s claims, holding that she did not prove that the grocery store should have known about the clear substance on which she slipped.
Mrs. Gregory appealed, arguing that Brookshire did not have formal safety procedures in place when she fell. She also argued that the store was not reasonably careful, because it did not have a written or verbal cleanup policy and because store employees may not have checked all the aisles for spills on the day she fell. After reviewing the case, the court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision.
Primarily, she did not prove that the store lacked an effective cleanup plan, especially since the positive evidence established that the employees immediately began cleaning after they heard about the sick child. The appellate court also held that Mrs. Gregory could not prove that the store had notice of the spill or that it acted unreasonably on the day in question. There was no evidence that Brookshire had actual or constructive notice of the clear substance on which she slipped. Although store employees knew about the child getting sick, nothing showed that the clear substance was at all related to that child. Although the store was aware of one hazard on the premises but not about the particular spill on which Mrs. Gregory slipped. More importantly, nobody knew how long the substance had been there, which was crucial for proving constructive notice.
Take-Away: The best defense to a slip and fall claim is adequate policies to address dangerous conditions as they occur or are discovered. Moreover, knowledge of one dangerous condition will not necessarily put a merchant on notice of all possible hazards on the premises.
This article was co-authored by Ali Spindler, a 2010 summer associate, at Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore LLC.