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Powers-Sutherland v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

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

December 13, 2016

WAL-MART STORES, INC., t/a SAM'S CLUB, ET AL., Defendants.

          Dan Bieger, Dan Bieger, PLC, Bristol, Tennessee, and David J. Hutton, Hutton & Associates, P.C., Abingdon, Virginia, for Plaintiff;

          W. Bradford Stallard, Penn, Stuart & Eskridge, Abingdon, Virginia, for Defendants.


          James P. Jones United States District Judge

         In this diversity action, the plaintiff seeks recovery for injuries she sustained when she slipped and fell on premises of a retail store. The plaintiff contends that the store owner was negligent by failing to keep premises free from dangerous conditions of which it knew or should have known. Based on the undisputed facts, I will grant the defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment.


         The essential facts, taken from the summary judgment record and recited in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, are as follows.

         On April 14, 2013, the plaintiff, Charlotte Powers-Sutherland, was shopping at the Sam's Club store in Bristol, Virginia, which is allegedly owned and operated by the defendant Sam's East, Inc. (“Sam's”).[1] While walking down one of the aisles, the plaintiff slipped on a substance on the floor near the frozen food cases that “looked like snot or jelly from something you eat” and fell. (Grant Aff. 2, ECF No. 19-1.) A store employee assisted the plaintiff, but the plaintiff indicated that she did not need emergency medical treatment and left the store on her own after shopping for approximately twenty minutes. The plaintiff denies seeing the substance on the floor prior to falling.

         At the time of the fall, no employees were in the area of the spilled substance and were not aware of the substance being on the floor prior to the plaintiff's fall. The store first learned of the substance as a result of the plaintiff's fall. A manager on duty at the time of the incident prepared a report from information obtained by the plaintiff. While the store had surveillance cameras, there is no video of the plaintiff's fall.

         Following discovery, Sam's has moved for summary judgment in its favor. Sam's argues that, pursuant to Virginia law, summary judgment is appropriate because it had no knowledge or notice of the substance on the floor. The motion is ripe for decision, having been fully briefed by the parties.[2]


         Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). To raise a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to avoid summary judgment, the evidence must be “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In making this determination, “the court is required to view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Shaw v. Stroud, 13 F.3d 791, 798 (4th Cir. 1994).

         Rule 56 mandates the entry of summary judgment “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party “need not produce evidence, but simply can argue that there is an absence of evidence by which the nonmovant can prove his case.” Cray Commc'ns, Inc. v. Novatel Comput. Sys., Inc., 33 F.3d 390, 393 (4th Cir. 1994) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Summary judgment is not “a disfavored procedural shortcut, ” but rather is a valuable mechanism for excluding “claims and defenses [that] have no factual basis.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 327. It is the “affirmative obligation of the trial judge to prevent factually unsupported claims and defenses from proceeding to trial.” Drewitt v. Pratt, 999 F.2d 774, 778-79 (4th Cir. 1993) (internal quotations marks and citations omitted).


         Virginia substantive law governs this diversity action. See Erie R.R. v. Tompkins,304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938). In Virginia, the law applicable to slip-and-fall cases is well settled. See Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. v. Parker, 396 S.E.2d 649, 650 (Va. 1990). A land owner “must use ordinary care to keep his premises reasonably safe for an invitee, although he is not an insurer of the invitee's safety.” Tate v. Rice,315 S.E.2d 385, 388 (Va. 1984). In the absence of any evidence tending to show that a landowner knew, or should have known by exercise of reasonable diligence, of the defect or unsafe condition, the landowner ...

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