Sheneatha Stevens was shopping at Market Basket grocery store in Lake Charles, Louisiana, when she fell on rice on the floor at the end of a refrigerator aisle. Ms. Stevens subsequently sued Market Basket for injuries she allegedly sustained as a result of the fall. In response, Market Basket denied liability and alleged fraud on the part of Ms. Stevens. After a bench trial in the 14th Judicial District Court, the judge rejected Market Basket’s fraud allegations and found in favor of Ms. Stevens, awarding her $5,000 in general damages, as well as medical special damages. Market Basket appealed to the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal in Stevens v. Market Basket Stores, Inc.
On appeal, the Third Circuit framed the issue as whether the trial court erred in failing to find fraud on the part of Ms. Stevens, as well as whether the court erred in allocating 100% of the fault to Market Basket. Because both of these issues stemmed from factual determinations by the trial court, the Third Circuit reviewed the manifest error standard of review, pursuant to which an appellate court cannot reverse a trial court’s finding of fact unless it is “clearly wrong.”
On the first assignment of error, Market Basket argued that a surveillance video of the incident—which was introduced into evidence at the bench trial—showed that Ms. Stevens intentionally fell on the rice after initially slipping on the rice without falling. It also argued that its position on this issue was supported by Ms. Stevens’ trial testimony regarding more than 20 personal injury claims filed by her in the 10 years prior to the Market Basket incident. The Third Circuit analyzed the legal definition of fraud, which, under Louisiana Civil Code article 1953 (pdf), requires a showing that a material misrepresentation has been made by one party designed to deceive another to obtain an unjust advantage or to cause loss or inconvenience by the other. The Third Circuit ultimately held that the record reasonably supported the trial judge’s finding that Ms. Stevens “legitimately fell” on the rice and that she therefore was not fraudulent in bringing her claim.
With regard to the second assignment of error, Market Basket asserted that the trial court erred in its finding that Market Basket was 100% liable, which was based on the trial judge’s determination that a Market Basket employee who saw the rice less than one minute prior to Ms. Stevens’ fall should have warned Ms. Stevens. Market Basket argued, however, that the surveillance video clearly established that Ms. Stevens had actual knowledge of the rice on the floor prior to her fall. The Third Circuit ultimately agreed with Market Basket on this assignment of error, finding that the surveillance video conclusively established that Ms. Stevens slipped, but did not fall, on the rice twenty-two seconds prior to her falling on the rice. Thus, the Third Circuit reversed the trial court’s finding on liability and reallocated 60% of the fault to Ms. Stevens, with the remaining 40% allocated to Market Basket.
Take-Away: Although the preservation of surveillance footage is necessary to avoid potential spoliation sanctions, the same footage can be used to support a property owner’s argument that the defendant did not breach the standard of care required by the law and, in some cases, can even be used to prove a plaintiff’s fault in a premises liability action.
This article was co-authored by Kelly Brilleaux, an associate at Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore LLC.