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Stultz v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Danville Division

October 4, 2016

RUBY A. STULTZ, Plaintiff,
v.
WAL-MART STORES, INC. and WAL-MART STORES EAST, L.P., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JACKSON L. KISER SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         On September 2, 2015, Plaintiff Ruby A. Stulz (“Plaintiff”) filed a state negligence action against Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., and Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., (“Defendants”) in Henry County Circuit Court. (Compl., Sept. 2, 2015 [ECF No. 1-2].) Defendants filed a Notice of Removal prior to service on December 10, 2015. [ECF No. 1.] In their Answer, Defendants allege that Plaintiff's injuries were caused by her contributory negligence. (Answer pg. 3, Dec. 15, 2015 [ECF No. 8].) Defendants moved for summary judgment on August 31, 2016. (Mot. for Summ. J., August 31, 2016. [ECF No. 15.] The matter was fully briefed, and the parties appeared for oral argument on the Motion on September 22, 2016. Having considered the briefs and the arguments of the parties, the matter is now ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied.

         I. STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND[1]

         On October 6, 2013, Plaintiff drove her car to the Wal-Mart Supercenter, located at 976 Commonwealth Boulevard in Martinsville, Virginia, to buy yarn for her granddaughter. (Dep. of Ruby A. Stultz 21:23-25, 22:23-23:2, June 24, 2016 [ECF No. 16-3] (hereinafter “Pl's Dep.”) Plaintiff arrived at approximately 12:47 p.m. and entered through the Tire and Lube Express (“TLE”) entrance, where oil changes and vehicle maintenance are performed. (Id. at 25:22- 26:9.) Plaintiff was a regular customer of this Wal-Mart and had used this entrance several times prior to the incident which gave rise to the present litigation. (Pl. Interrogatory Answers and Req. for Produc. ¶ 1, June 21, 2016 [ECF No. 16-2] (hereinafter “Pl.'s Interrog.”).) The door to the TLE is solid but has a window, giving a view into the customer area of the TLE. On the day of the incident, however, a piece of a paper was posted to the window, partially obscuring the view through the window, “meaning that a customer could not see through the glass to the floor below.” (Br. in Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. ¶ 4, Sept. 8, 2016 [ECF No. 19] (hereinafter “Pl's Br.”).)

         A security camera located in the TLE customer area captured the incident. (See Br. in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (hereinafter “Defs.' Br.”) Ex. 4, Aug. 31, 2016 [ECF No. 16-4] (hereinafter “Surveillance Tape”).) At approximately 12:10:40 p.m., one of Defendants' employees placed two wooden pallets near the entryway of the TLE customer area. At approximately 12:47:54 p.m., Plaintiff, dressed in a pink shirt, approached the door from the outside. (Pl.'s Dep. 26:10-26:12; Defs.' Br. Ex. 5 [ECF No. 16-5].) Plaintiff stated in her Response that the pallets “were located approximately one step in front of the door as it opens.” (Pl.'s Br. ¶ 5.) On the video, however, Plaintiff took three steps before she tripped over the pallets and fell to the ground. (Surveillance Tape 12:47:57-12:48:02 p.m.) When she fell, both her knees hit the ground simultaneously, and she caught herself with her hands. (Pl.'s Dep. 45:15-45:25.)

         Plaintiff concedes she was not looking down as she entered. She claims “she was distracted as she was looking over to the customer counter to her left, and this distracted her view of what was immediately at her feet as the door opened.” (Pl.'s Br. ¶ 7.) Plaintiff stated that the blue pallets were noticeable against the white floor “[i]f you're looking down while you're walking.” (Pl.'s Dep. 43:4-7.) The solid door, coupled with the paper sign posted in the door's window, prevented her from seeing the pallets. (Pl.'s Interrog. ¶ 1.) Instead, Plaintiff was looking to her left, towards the cash registers, hoping to see a Wal-Mart employee to direct her to the yarn section. (Pl.'s Dep. 40:24-41:8.) Plaintiff was using a cane at the time as a result of a workplace accident in 2010. (Pl.'s Dep. 17:16-18:2, 45:10-12; Pl.'s Interrog. ¶ 2.)

         For approximately six minutes after her fall, Plaintiff paced around the TLE customer area, presumably looking for an employee. (Surveillance Tape 12:48:00-12:54:00 p.m.) Eventually, Robert Vaughn, a Shift Manager, came to speak with her. (Aff. of Robert Vaughn, August 19, 2016 [ECF No. 16-6] (hereinafter “Vaughn Aff.”).) Plaintiff declined to have store personnel call 911 for an ambulance. (Pl.'s Dep. 60:10-18.) Plaintiff completed her purchase with the assistance of a Wal-Mart manager, who escorted her throughout the store. Another employee escorted Plaintiff to her vehicle. (Pl's Dep. 61:13-20.) It is unclear whether Plaintiff requested this assistance. Plaintiff drove herself home and called her friend, a Registered Nurse, to take her to the hospital. (Pl.'s Dep. 60:19-61:3.) Plaintiff alleges that she was “seriously and permanently injured about her head, neck, body and extremities” as a result of her fall. (Compl. ¶ 5.)

         After the incident, Vaughn reviewed the video surveillance and affirmed that thirteen individuals walked into the TLE customer area through the same door as Plaintiff, and that none tripped over the pallet. (Vaughn Aff. ¶¶ 5-6.) Plaintiff counters that two of the individuals who came through the door walked through twice, bringing the actual total to eleven separate persons. One individual appeared not to notice the pallets until her foot hit the stack, causing her to quickly change direction to avoid the pallets. (Surveillance Video 12:14:13-:21 p.m.) Vaughn had the pallets removed shortly after speaking with Plaintiff. (Surveillance Video 1:07:15 p.m.; Vaughn Aff. ¶ 3.)

         Plaintiff originally filed this action on September 2, 2015, in Henry County Circuit Court. Prior to being served, Defendants filed a Notice of Removal on December 10, 2015, based on diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C § 1332. In her Complaint, Plaintiff alleged that Defendants' employee negligently placed wooden pallets near a customer entryway, causing her to trip over the pallets and injure herself. (Compl. ¶¶ 2-4.) On August 31, 2016, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing Defendants met the proper standard of care, and Plaintiff's injuries were caused by her own contributory negligence. Plaintiff filed a response on September 8, 2016 (see Pl.'s Br.), Defendants filed a Reply (Defs.' Reply Br. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ J., September 15, 2016 [ECF No. 22] (hereinafter “Defs.' Reply Br.”)), and the parties argued Defendants' Motion on September 22, 2016.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The court must view the facts, and the inferences to be drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962). A genuine issue of material fact exists if reasonable jurors could find by a preponderance of the evidence that the non-moving party is entitled to a verdict in their favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). The court must not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 143 (2000).

         The moving party has the initial burden of pointing out the deficiency in the non-movant's case that would make it impossible for a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict in the non-movant's favor. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). A movant-defendant may show that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law by demonstrating that the plaintiff could not prove an essential element of his case. Id. at 322-23. It is then up to the non-movant to demonstrate to the court that there are genuine issues of material fact, and that he has made a sufficient showing on each of the essential elements of his case. Emmett v. Johnson, 532 F.3d 291, 297 (4th Cir. 2008); Hinkle v. City of Clarksburg, 81 F.3d 416, 421 (4th Cir. 1996). Therefore, summary judgment is appropriate when the moving party points out a lack of evidence to support an essential element of his or her claim. See Blair v. Collonas Shipyards Inc., 52 F.Supp.2d 687, 692 (E.D. Va. 1999), aff'd 203 F.3d 819 (4th Cir. 2000).

         In a diversity case, a federal court must apply the substantive law of the forum state. See generally Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938). Therefore, the Virginia law applicable to slip-and-fall cases governs this case. Logan v. Boddie-Noell ...


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