Last week the United States District Court Northern District of Texas granted Target summary judgment in Sandoval v. Target Corporation in a slip and fall case arising from the Target store in Grapevine, Texas. This case demonstrates an important element of premises liability cases that the property owner has actual or constructive knowledge of the condition causing the injury. (You can read the court’s opinion here.)
Grapevine, Texas lawsuit
In Sandoval, the plaintiff Vilma Sandoval entered the store one morning. While passing the Starbucks at the front of the store she slipped and fell. Sandoval claimed she slipped on wet flooring. Target presented evidence that after she fell the floor appeared dry. A nearby employee stated he saw her shoe come off and that is what caused her to trip and fall. The court held the plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence that a condition of the property caused her injury. It granted Target summary judgment.
Elements of the claim
Although the court granted summary judgment on a factual sufficiency issue, the court discussed an important element of premises liability lawsuits: knowledge of the condition. The elements in a slip and fall case are:
1. Existence of a condition in the premises creating an unreasonable risk of harm;
2. The property owner/occupier knew or should have known of the condition;
3. The owner/occupier failed to take reasonable steps to reduce or eliminate the risk by rectifying or warning of the condition;
4. That failure to act reasonably proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries.
Actual or constructive knowledge
The second element requires the property owner or occupier to have actual knowledge or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition. Constructive knowledge means the owner/occupier should have known about the condition. Holding the owner/occupier to this constructive knowledge standard requires employers to inspect the property conditions and not bury its head in the sand to avoid discovering dangerous conditions to avoid liability. Proving constructive knowledge requires showing facts that the owner/occupier failed to discover the condition but had the owner/occupier exercised reasonable care it would have discovered the condition. Actual knowledge is more apparent: the owner/occupier has personal knowledge of the condition or because it created the condition.
Elements the plaintiff had to prove in Texas
In this case, if the floor really was wet, Sandoval would have to prove one or more of:
1. Target made the floor wet and left it wet with no notice or effort to dry it;
2. Store management was made aware that the floor was wet and made no effort to dry it or warn customers;
3. Target failed to take any steps to inspect the floor in that area within a reasonable period of time.
The court’s opinion notes that the cashier in the Starbucks near where the fall occurred stated she had recently walked through the same area and did not notice the floor was wet, so Target had neither actual knowledge of a slippery floor nor constructive knowledge as an employee had recently observed the area and determined there was no danger.
In slip and fall cases it is not enough that the plaintiff suffers injury by a dangerous condition in the store. The store management must have had an opportunity to fix a dangerous condition or warn people of a dangerous condition before the injury occurs. Sometimes stores do not need specific knowledge of an individual instance of a repeatedly created dangerous condition. This may be the case where the same dangerous condition occurs over and over in the same location and the store has taken no steps to prevent the repeating danger or to warn people of its possibility. This is common in produce areas where smashed produce can become slippery or near entrances where wet customers may drip off onto the floor as they enter. This is why you often find non-slip mats in produce sections and near store entrances.