In June, The Louisiana Court of Appeals published their opinion for Watts V. Scottsdale Ins. Co., a case involving a trip-and-fall that occurred at a restaurant in Minden, Louisiana. In the decision, the court articulated the plaintiff’s standard for prevailing in trip-and-fall cases that occur within the state.
The facts of the case are simple enough. In this case, 82 year old plaintiff Mildred Watts tripped over a metal strip located in the path between a restaurant parking lot and front entrance. Ms. Watts contended the metal strip, due to its dark coloration, was shaded by the shrubbery around it and therefore she couldn’t see it before her resulting fall. As a consequence of her trip-and-fall, Ms. Watts sustained serious injuries to her mouth and teeth. Accordingly, Watts sued the restaurant and its liability insurance carrier on a theory of negligence.
Before ruling on the matter, the court explained that trip-and-fall negligence cases brought against merchants in Louisiana are governed by La. R.S. 9:2800.6. This statute requires a plaintiff to prove, among other elements of her claim, that (1) a condition present on the defendant’s property presented an unreasonable risk of harm and that the harm was reasonably foreseeable; (2) the defendant created the condition, or had actual or constructive notice of the condition prior to the plaintiff’s trip-and-fall; and (3) the defendant failed to excercise reasonable care. In order to win her case, the court explained that Ms. Watts must prove all three of the La. R.S. 9:3800.6 elements by a preponderance of evidence.
The court first looked to the question of Element (1), whether the metal strip presented an unreasonable risk of harm. While there is no firm rule for determining whether a condition is unreasonably harmful or not, the court made clear that if a condition’s social utility outweighs its alleged harm, it often cannot be “unreasonably dangerous.” Furthermore, if a condition’s risk of harm is so obvious to the plaintiff that she can avoid it, the condition likely does not present an unreasonable risk of harm. In light of the presented facts, the court concluded the metal strip that caused the fall was not unreasonably dangerous. The court reasoned that because the metal strip was used to hedge a flower bed near the restaurant and was considerably separated from the pedestrian entranceway, it had a reasonable, useful, and non-dangerous function. The metal strip’s utility outweighed its harm to patrons. Moreover, the court was not swayed by Ms. Watt’s allegation that she could not see the strip. Instead, the court stated that because the strip was elevated several inches above the surface of the ground, it should have been obvious to Ms. Watts when she was walking near it before the fall. Indeed, Ms. Watts testified she had seen the metal strip in her prior visits to the restaurant.
In reviewing the question of Element (2), the court next looked at whether the restaurant had any notice of the strip’s alleged propensity to cause trips, falls, or other similar harms. Testimony revealed that the restaurant owner was never made aware of any prior accidents involving the metal strip in the nine years he owned the restaurant, and he therefore did not have actual notice of the metal strip’s dangerous condition. Secondly, the strip was visibly separated from the regular pathway to the restaurant, and the restaurant thereby had no constructive notice of of any harm because it was not foreseeable to restaurant ownership that patrons would walk on the metal strip, as opposed to the regular pathway. Finally, because the ownership did not encourage patrons to walk in the flower bed by creating stepping stones or other alternate pathways near the metal strip, the restaurant did not create the dangerous condition. Accordingly, the court ruled the restaurant neither created the alleged dangerous condition, nor had any constructive or actual notice of harm associated with the metal strip.
Lastly, the court quickly dispensed with Element (3), whether the restaurant used reasonable care. The court determined the restaurant did use reasonable care because it kept the metal strip out of the restaurant entrance pathway and otherwise kept it in normal condition.
Because Ms. Watts could not prove all three elements of La. R.S. 9:2800:6, the Louisiana Court of Appeals concluded that Ms. Watts could not recover for her injuries sustained in the trip-and-fall at the Minden restaurant.
As the Watts case shows, plaintiffs have a weighty burden when attempting to recover for injuries suffered as the result of a trip-and-fall on business property. Nevertheless, recovery for a trip-and-and fall is not impossible. Indeed, many of the required elements of La. R.S. 9:2800:6 are not clear cut and may actually play out differently than Watts did.
Plaintiffs can take proactive action to ensure the viability of their own trip-and-fall case. First, plaintiffs should always use designated pathways when possible while on merchant property. Second, plaintiffs should use reasonable care to be aware of and avoid obviously dangerous conditions, such as large holes in concrete sidewalks or the like. Third, in the unfortunate event a trip and fall does occur, plaintiffs should immediately report the fall to the merchant management regardless of injury severity. Finally, and most importantly, before talking further with the merchant or the merchant’s insurance carrier about potential settlement of the trip-and-fall claim, the plaintiff should always consult and retain an experienced attorney. The attorney can examine the factual circumstances of the trip-and-fall and properly frame the facts for negotiation and possible litigation with the merchant.
If you have recently experienced injuries suffered from a trip-and-fall, please do not hesitate to contact Berniard Law Firm. Our firm’s experienced attorneys will guide you through the trip-and-fall legal process and will be sure to maximize your rights throughout the process.