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Coogan-Golden v. Wal-Mart Stores East, LP

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

May 30, 2017

WAL-MART STORES EAST, LP, et al., Defendant.


          Elizabeth K. Dillon, United States District Judge

         This case is before the court on defendant Wal-Mart Store East, LP's (Wal-Mart) motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 104) and its supplemental motion for summary judgment, which seeks judgment against Elizabeth Coogan-Golden's claim for punitive damages (Dkt. No. 146.) As the court previously advised the parties it intended to do, the court will deny the motion for summary judgment and grant the supplemental motion. This opinion sets forth briefly the reasons for the court's rulings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. Coogan-Golden was injured while shopping in the Wal-Mart store in Staunton, Virginia, on August 20, 2013. Specifically, while she in the sporting goods section of the store, an electrical junction box cover fell from the ceiling and struck her, resulting in injuries.

         At the time of the accident, the store was having its roof replaced. Wal-Mart had contracted with National Roofing Partners to replace the roof, and National Roofing Partners subcontracted with MountainTop Enterprises d/b/a Saratoga Roofing (Saratoga) to perform the work.[1] It is undisputed that Wal-Mart was not responsible for supervising any of the roofing work or directing the activities of any of Saratoga's employees in the performance of the work, and Coogan-Golden does not dispute that Saratoga was an independent contractor of Wal-Mart's.

         There are a number of undisputed facts that are relevant to whether Wal-Mart had actual notice sufficient to impose liability on it for the accident. Most importantly, there were three other incidents that occurred shortly before the accident involving Coogan-Golden, where items fell from Wal-Mart's ceiling while roofing work was occurring. In one, debris or dust fell from the ceiling onto a customer in the electronics section of the store. In another, a globe that covered a security camera fell and struck a customer.[2] In the third, a piece of plastic conduit came loose and fell, although it did not fall all the way to the floor; instead, it was hanging suspended about ten feet above the floor. Several Wal-Mart's employees testified that they believed those items had fallen as a result of the roofing work. Wal-Mart admits it had notice of all of those incidents, and there are documents and testimony showing that Wal-Mart discussed those incidents internally and with its roofing contractor prior to Coogan-Golden's accident.

         Coogan-Golden's second amended complaint contains two counts, a count of “negligence” and a count of “willful, wanton and/or reckless negligence, ” the latter of which includes a request for punitive damages.


         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         “Summary judgment is appropriate only if taking the evidence and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, ‘no material facts are disputed and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Henry v. Purnell, 652 F.3d 524, 531 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc) (quoting Ausherman v. Bank of Am. Corp., 352 F.3d 896, 899 (4th Cir. 2003)); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). If, after adequate discovery, the nonmoving party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which the party will bear the burden of proof at trial, ” such a failure “necessarily renders all other facts immaterial, ” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986), and “[t]he moving party is ‘entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.'” Id. (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986)).

         B. Analysis

         1. Defendant's motion for summary judgment

         Under Virginia law, which applies here, “‘[a]ll negligence causes of action are based on allegations that a person having a duty of care to another person violated that duty of care through actions that were the proximate cause of injury to the other person.'” Jarmak v. Ramos, 497 F. App'x 289, 291 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting Steward ex rel. Steward v. Holland Family Props., LLC, 726 S.E.2d 251, 254 (Va. 1991)); see Colonial Stores, Inc. v. Pulley, 125 S.E.2d 188, 189-90 (Va. 1962).

         In Virginia, a landowner “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 order to be held liable, a plaintiff must show that “the owner had knowledge of the alleged unsafe condition, or that it had existed for such a length of time as to make it the owner's duty in the exercise of ordinary care to have discovered it.” Grim v. Rahe, Inc., 434 ...

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