An Example of the Duty of Care For Stores and Injured Customers

The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of the owner of a Lafayette hardware store and affirmed the trial court’s granting of Summary Judgment against a customer who was bitten by a spider while shopping there.

While in the store, Lee Johnson picked a rosebush from an outdoor display at the Ace Hardware store owned by Defendant Stine LLC (Stine Lumber/Ace Hardware). An employee carried the bush inside so Johnson could buy it. When Johnson picked it up from the checkout counter several wolf spiders emerged, one of which bit Johnson’s finger. He suffered extreme swelling, slurred speech, and memory loss as a result of the bite and sued the owner of the store for damages.

Two significant issues came up in the Court of Appeals’ opinion that provide insight into what must be proven in a case like this one. First, the Court found that spoilation of evidence with respect to the spider did not apply.

Spoilation of Evidence is “a tort action against someone who has impaired the party’s ability to institute or prove a civil claim due to negligent or intentional [destruction] of evidence” (McCool v. BeauregardMem’lHosp., 01-1670, p.2 (La.App. 3 Cir. 4/3/02)). If spoilation is proven, negligence in the underlying action is presumed. However, in order to be successful, one must prove:

(1)the intentional or negligent destruction of evidence, and’

(2) that the first element was for the purpose of depriving the plaintiff of its use.

Here, because the Defendant stored the spider for two years rather than discarding it, the Court found that Stine did nothing to the spider with intent to deprive Johnson of the use of the evidence in his lawsuit.

The second issue in the case, and very central to a claim like this, involves the duty of a merchant to those that use his premises. In LAR.S. 9:2800.6 the duty owed by a merchant to his customers is explained. A merchant has a duty to maintain aisles and floors in a manner, which provides reasonable safety for customers. Merchants can uphold their duty by taking reasonable measures to keep their establishment free of hazardous conditions.

This duty creates a burden for a claimant, having to provide evidence of the following:

(1) Injury resulted from a condition that created an unreasonable but foreseeable risk of harm.

(2) Prior to the injury, the merchant was constructively or actually aware of the condition.

(3) There was a failure to exercise reasonable care on the part of the merchant. The lack of a uniform safety policy alone is not enough to demonstrate failure to exercise reasonable care.

The Court here found that Stine did not have a duty to protect Johnson from being bitten by a migratory spider on one of its outdoor plants because that risk was outside the limited scope of duty provided under Louisiana law. If you have been injured while on the premises of someone else’s business however, you may very well have a viable claim for damages. Your success will depend on excellent legal representation by an attorney who understand the nuances of the law in this area. Such phrases such as “unreasonable risk of harm,” “reasonably forseeable,” “reasonable care,” actual or constructive notice,” etc. are all legal terms of art that have very specific meaning. Your attorney must be able to understand the facts of your case well enough to know if you meet the stringent criteria.