Previously on this blog, we have looked at a variety of cases involving premises liability. Most have centered on an injury that occurs when the plaintiff visits a store or other commercial enterprise; in those cases, the defendant faces a heightened “merchant” standard of care under state statute, namely La. R.S. 9:2800.6. This post will add to the discussion by reviewing a recent case in which the First Circuit Court of Appeal considered the premises liability standard applicable to a hospital in a trip-and-fall case.
On August 14, 2007, Marion Terrance visited the cafeteria at the Baton Rouge General Medical Center. Terrance allegedly slipped on the mat in front of the ice machine that had become soaked with water. She injured her groin and lower back in the resulting fall. Terrance filed suit against the hospital alleging negligence due to the “unreasonably dangerous foreign substance” on the floor (water) and that the hospital had failed to clean it up. The hospital denied that the fall occurred at all and argued that it had no knowledge of any foreign substance on the floor. Conflicting testimony was presented during the bench trial. The cafeteria supervisor, upon being informed of Terrance’s fall by another employee, immediately inspected the floor around the ice machine and found a dry mat and no spilled water. She also reported that the fall would have occurred just shortly after her most recent routine floor inspection, during which no water was noted. In fact, hospital employees had never noticed any water dripping from the ice machine. Nevertheless, the trial judge entered judgment in favor of Terrance and awarded her $26,910 in damages. The trial court’s decision rested on the “unreasonable condition” that existed around the ice machine that caused Terrance to slip and fall. The hospital appealed, arguing that there was no evidence that an unreasonably dangerous condition existed at the time of Terrance’s injury.
The First Circuit Court of Appeal began its analysis by establishing that hospitals are not covered by the merchant standard for premises liability contained in La. R.S. 9:2800.6. Instead, general negligence theory would apply. Under this standard, a hospital owes a duty to its visitors to “exercise reasonable care for their safety,” but the duty owed is less than that required of a defendant engaged in a commercial enterprise. The court explained that once Terrance made her allegation that she slipped, fell, and injured herself because of a foreign substance on the hospital’s premises, the burden then shifted to the hospital to show that it “acted reasonably to discover and correct the dangerous condition reasonably anticipated.” The court noted the dispute at trial over the existence of a wet floor at all, but did not find any error in the trial court’s factual finding that the water did, in fact, exist and that it caused Terrance to fall. However, the court did take issue with the trial court’s immediate award of damages to Terrance without permitting the hospital to attempt to rebut the presumption of negligence:
“The trial court should have analyzed and considered whether the hospital acted reasonably to discover and correct the dangerous condition that it could have reasonably anticipated near the ice machine in the cafeteria… If the trial court had properly considered the hospital burden, a different outcome should have been rendered in this case.”
In the court’s view, the evidence presented at trial showed that the hospital acted reasonably to discover and correct any dangerous condition that might arise and in doing so discharged its duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of visitors. Finding that the “record supports a finding that the hospital met its burden of proof and therefore absolved itself from liability,” the court concluded that the trial court erred in holding the hospital liable for Terrance’s injuries and reversed the judgment.
This case points up the distinction in Louisiana jurisprudence between profit-seeking businesses and (presumably non-profit) community service providers like hospitals. The former, which exist primarily to “sell goods, foods, wares, or merchandise,” are subject to a heightened duty to keep their premises in a safe condition for all customers and other visitors. The latter are evaluated under simple negligence standards.
If you have been injured by an unsafe condition on someone else’s property, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with an attorney who can help.