Plaintiff Fails on Appeal in Restaurant Fall Personal Injury Suit

Plaintiff Judith Henry seeks to recover damages resulting from an accidental fall in the defendants’ restaurant in Houma, Louisiana, on March 13, 2008. The accident occurred when Ms. Henry placed her order and got her soft drink at the counter and began to walk back across the carpeted floor to the table. At that time, she was using a cane and one of her friends was walking ahead of her carrying her soft drink. According to Ms. Henry’s deposition, she was stepping with her right foot when her toe got caught in the carpet. Her foot went backwards and she fell, landing on the foot and breaking her right ankle. Although the carpet was not frayed or worn, she stated it was uneven because it had little squares that formed its weave.

On February 17, 2009, Mr. and Mrs. Henry filed suit for the damages they had incurred as a result of her fall naming NOHSC and its insurer Colony as defendants. On April 1, NOHSC and Colony filed a motion for summary judgment supported by excerpts from Ms. Henry’s deposition, an affidavit from Paul McGoey, NsOHSC managing partner, and an affidavit from Donald Maginnis, a registered architect. Included in this evidence were attachments consisting of photographs of the restaurant interior, a hand-drawn diagram of the restaurant interior and excerpts from the 2006 Life Safety Code Handbook.

After hearing arguments and considering the evidence presented by the parties, the court ruled in favor of the defendants, granting the motion for summary judgment and dismissing the Henrys claims with prejudice The judgment was signed on June 30, 2010. The Henrys then appealed this judgment.

The Appellate Court reviewed the summary judgment de novo using the same criteria that govern the trial court consideration of whether summary judgment is appropriate. The focus in these reviews is namely whether there is any genuine issue of material fact and whether the mover is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The mover has the burden to prove there is no genuine issue of material facts. However, this burden does not require the mover to meet all essential elements of the adverse party’s claim action or defense but, rather, to point out to the court that there is an absence of factual support of one or more elements essential to the claim.

In Louisiana, the general rule is that the owner or custodian of a property has a duty to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition. Under either theory of negligence, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that (1) the property that caused the damage was in the custody of the defendant; (2) the property had a condition that created an unreasonable risk of harm to persons on the premises; (3) the unreasonably dangerous condition was a cause in fact of the resulting injury and (4) defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the risk.

In the instant case, the court’s analysis focused on whether the property had a condition that created an unreasonable risk of harm to persons on the premises. Specifically, in this case, the risk of harm refers to the allegedly “uneven” carpet that Ms. Henry believes caused her to trip. Considering all the facts under the circumstances, the court found for the defendant based upon the following factual supports: (1) She had never tripped slipped or fallen on the carpeted floor nor had she seen anyone else slip and fall in the restaurant. On the day she fell, as she walked toward the counter, she had no trouble walking on the carpet and (2) She did not notice anything on the floor that looked like it presented a hazard or a danger; (3) Since the restaurant opening on February 14, 2008, the carpet had not been altered in any way. In the month before Ms. Henry’s fall, NOHSC did not receive any complaints from patrons employees or anyone else about the restaurant floor or carpet nor did any accidents occur which were attributed in any way to either the floor or carpet. In additon, Donald Maginnis, a licensed architect who was NOHSC’s liability expert, inspected the restaurant premises and provided an affidavit concerning the condition of the floor and carpet. His inspection of the premises and review of applicable building and safety codes did not reveal any defects or coda violations.

In conclusion, the evidence submitted in support of the motion points out an absence of factual support for the essential element of the case, that the carpet or floor where Ms. Henry fell had a condition that created an unreasonable risk of harm to her. The Henrys’ opposition to the motion did not establish that they would be able to satisfy their evidentiary burden of proof at trial. Therefore there was no genuine issue of material fact and the motion was granted.

All of these ideas involved are highly complex and might even stump a law student in review. However, qualified attorneys with experience in personal injury are able to navigate these case complexities to best understand the legal nuances necessary to properly file and prove harms, or determine if they are even provable.

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