Burden of Proof in Claims Against Merchants

Louisiana merchants must keep their premises safe not only for their guests or customers but also for any person invited onto the property for business purposes. This also includes persons delivering goods to restaurants like in the case of Jones v. Jula Trust, LLC.

Jones was a deliveryman for Pepsi. En route, he stopped at a Jennings Popeye’s restaurant to deliver some Pepsi products that morning. While pulling his loaded dolly through the restaurant’s back door, he slipped and fell. His slip caused the boxes of Pepsi to topple on top of him. About a year after his accident, Jones initiated suit against Popeye’s by filing against the landlord of the property, JULA Trust, LLC. Jones claimed that either water or grease on the floor caused his fall, but he could not explain where the substance had come from. The Popeye’s manager said that he had conducted a walk-through inspection of the premises that morning and had not seen anything slippery on the floors. Nor had any employees notified him about any slippery substance on the floor the morning of the accident.

La. R.S. 9:2800.6 requires a merchant to maintain the through ways of the premises in a safe manner, and in a condition so as to not cause harm to patrons. The burden of proof remains with the plaintiff to show the following elements: (1) The conditions at hand posed a reasonably foreseeable danger to the injured person in the case, and that the harm was not a reasonable harm one would expect in the situation; (2) The merchant, prior to the incident, caused the conditions responsible for, or could have prevented the accident, after becoming aware of the problem; (3) The merchant violated the standard of care necessary for the situation. Not having a written or verbal safety and cleanup code is not enough on its own to prove that a standard of care was violated when evaluating reasonable care in a situation or incident.

Jones argued that Popeye’s had caused his fall because customers were not allowed in the back, so the employees must have left a mess for him to fall on. He attributed the mess to the ice machines in the back leaking water. However, he did not introduce any evidence to substantiate that claim. Jones could not recall if his clothing was wet after the fall, if there was sufficient water to cause a puddle, or if it had rained the previous night. Due to the lack of evidence, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The appellate court affirmed. Since the Popeye’s manager had inspected the property that morning and no employees had notified him about any slippery floors, Jones was unable to show that Popeye’s had created the mess leading to his fall or even knew about a mess before the accident. It appears that the merchant had exercised reasonable care under the third element because the manager had conducted his morning walk-through inspection.

A motion for summary judgment will prevent a case from going to trial if there is not enough evidence to establish that the plaintiff will be able to meet his burden of proof in front of a jury or judge. Once filed, the movant only needs to show that there is not enough factual support for at least one of the necessary elements. Here, Jones could not produce enough evidence to prove the second or third elements of the claim.

Since motions for summary judgments are common, it is essential to have legal representation that is familiar with the procedural matters that must be made to survive these motions. The Berniard Law Firm has substantial experience in responding to motions for summary judgment.