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Woods v. Winn-Dixie Montgomery, L.L.C.

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit

June 27, 2018

GILDA WOODS
v.
WINN-DIXIE MONTGOMERY, L.L.C., THE COCA-COLA COMPANY A.K.A. LOUISIANA COCA-COLA BOTTLING COMPANY A.K.A. COCA-COLA REFRESHMENTS USA, INC., AND JONATHAN BURDEN

          ON APPEAL FROM THE TWENTY-NINTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF ST. CHARLES, STATE OF LOUISIANA NO. 78, 659, DIVISION "D" HONORABLE M. LAUREN LEMMON, JUDGE PRESIDING

          COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE, GILDA WOODS Lloyd N. Frischhertz, Jr., Marc L. Frischhertz, Anthony J. Impastato.

          COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLANT, WINN-DIXIE MONTGOMERY, L.L.C., THE COCA-COLA COMPANY A.K.A. LOUISIANA COCA-COLA BOTTLING COMPANY A.K.A. COCA-COLA REFRESHMENTS USA, INC., AND JONATHAN BURDEN, Quentin F. Urquhart, Jr., Christopher T. Whelen, Matthew J. Averill.

          Panel composed of Judges Fredericka Homberg Wicker, Marc E. Johnson, and Stephen J. Windhorst.

          MARC E. JOHNSON JUDGE.

         Defendants/Appellants, Winn-Dixie Montgomery, L.L.C. (hereinafter referred to as "Winn-Dixie"), the Coca-Cola Company a.k.a. Louisiana Coca-Cola Bottling Company a.k.a. Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, Inc. (hereinafter referred to as "Coca-Cola"), and Jonathan Burden appeal the judgment that found them at fault for a slip and fall and awarded damages in favor of Plaintiff/Appellee, Gilda Woods, from the 29th Judicial District Court, Division "D". For the following reasons, we affirm the judgment.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The pertinent facts for this appeal are as follows:

         On October 8, 2013, Jonathan Burden was employed by Coca-Cola as a Merchandiser[1] assigned to the Winn-Dixie store located on Highway 90 in Luling, Louisiana. After arriving at the store and conducting a survey of the items that needed to be restocked, Mr. Burden began the process of moving the merchandise from the warehouse to the beverage aisle and stocking the shelves. At approximately 2:24 p.m., he removed two cases of Monster Energy drinks that were on top of one of the stacks of merchandise and placed them on the floor, so he could retrieve four cases of Coca-Cola that were under the Monster Energy drinks. Mr. Burden then left the beverage aisle with the Coca-Cola cases, leaving the Monster Energy drinks on the floor[2] for approximately 30 minutes.

         Meanwhile, a few customers, including Ms. Woods, traversed the beverage aisle. Ms. Woods specifically went to Winn-Dixie that day to purchase soft drinks that were on sale. While walking down the aisle, Ms. Woods pulled the shopping cart behind her with her right arm because her left arm had recently undergone rotator cuff surgery and was in a medical sling. When she found the desired drinks, Ms. Woods began to place a couple of cases in her shopping cart. A female customer also on the beverage aisle noticed Ms. Woods struggling with the drinks and offered to assist Ms. Woods. As the customer placed a case of drinks in Ms. Woods' cart, Ms. Wood took a step backward, near the Monster Energy drinks, to give the customer space. When the customer went to place a second case of drinks in Ms. Woods' cart, Ms. Woods took another step backward to avoid being hit in her left arm by the case of drinks being placed in the cart. As she stepped back the second time, Ms. Woods tripped over the Monster Energy drinks that were left on the floor by Mr. Burden.[3] An ambulance had to be called to Winn-Dixie to transport Ms. Woods to the hospital.

         On July 14, 2014, Ms. Woods filed a "Petition for Damages." In her petition, Ms. Woods alleged Mr. Burden was negligent for creating an unreasonable risk of harm by leaving the Monster Energy drinks on the floor; Winn-Dixie and Coca-Cola were vicariously liable for Mr. Burden's negligence; and Winn-Dixie was liable pursuant to La. R.S. 9:2800.6 for failing to exercise a reasonable effort to keep its premises free from hazardous conditions. Ms. Woods further alleged that she sustained severe and disabling injuries and damages resulting from Defendants' negligent actions. Defendants filed a joint "Answer" to Ms. Woods' petition, denying the allegations of negligence. The matter was set for a jury trial on June 12, 2017.

         At the conclusion of the trial, the jury rendered the following verdict determinations according to a preponderance of the evidence: a condition existed at the Winn-Dixie store that presented an unreasonable risk of harm and the risk of harm was foreseeable; Mr. Burden, along with Coca-Cola, was negligent in leaving the Monster Energy drinks on the floor of the aisle at Winn-Dixie; the negligence of Mr. Burden was a proximate cause of injuries to Ms. Woods. The jury further found Ms. Woods was not negligent in her conduct. The jury allocated 50% fault to Winn-Dixie and 50% fault to Mr. Burden and Coca-Cola for the injuries sustained by Ms. Woods. The jury then awarded Ms. Woods a total award of $877, 102 for full and fair compensation. On June 20, 2017, the trial court adopted the jury's verdict and rendered a judgment in favor of Ms. Woods. Winn-Dixie was found liable for $438, 551 in damages, and Mr. Burden and Coca-Cola were found liable for the other $438, 551 in damages, together with legal interest from the date of judicial demand until paid and costs pursuant to La. C.C.P. art. 1920. The instant appeal followed.

         ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR

         On appeal, Defendants assign the following errors: 1) the trial court erred in failing to properly instruct the jury on the law governing an open and obvious condition; 2) alternatively, the jury clearly erred in failing to allocate any comparative fault to Ms. Woods; and 3) in the further alternative, the jury's award of $620, 000 in general damages was abusively high.

         LAW AND ANALYSIS

         Jury Instructions

         Defendants allege the trial court erred in failing to properly instruct the jury on the law governing an open and obvious condition. Defendants argue the trial court simply buried the phrase "obviousness and apparentness" in a laundry list of other factors that the jury was to consider when making a determination as to whether the condition at issue constituted an unreasonable risk of harm. They contend that whether a condition is open and obvious is an essential, fact-based, and outcome-determinative issue, and the importance of making a factual finding as to whether the condition at issue was "open and obvious" was glossed over in a laundry list of other factors that the jury was to consider. Defendants further argue that the erroneous instructions and omission of a proper statement of the law governing open and obvious conditions by the trial court prevented the jury from adequately considering the key issue in this case, thus creating a manifest error. They request that the jury verdict be set aside and a de novo review be conducted by this Court.

         Conversely, Ms. Woods maintains the trial court properly instructed the jury in the instruction, and the final version of the jury instruction in question was, in substance, exacted as Defendants requested during the charge conference. She avers that the jury was properly instructed as to the risk/utility balancing test, which Defendants considered to be a laundry list, to determine whether the store's condition presented an unreasonable risk of harm. She further avers that the jury charges proposed by Defendants were inaccurate statements of the law and were properly rejected. Because the jury instruction adequately informed the jury on the law applicable to the case, Ms. Woods asserts there is no ground to reverse the jury's verdict and conduct a de novo review.

         This Court, in Oregan v. Cashio, 16-563 (La.App. 5 Cir. 4/26/17); 220 So.3d 845, 849-50, provided the following law regarding jury instructions:

Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure Article 1792(B) requires that a trial judge instruct the jury on the law applicable to the case submitted to them. "The trial judge is responsible for reducing the possibility of confusing the jury and may exercise the right to decide what law is applicable and what law it deems inappropriate." Trial courts are given broad discretion in formulating jury instructions and a trial court's judgment should not be reversed so long as the charge correctly states the substance of the law.
The trial judge is under no obligation to give any specific jury instruction that may be submitted by either party; however, the judge must correctly charge the jury. The question considered on review is whether the trial judge adequately instructed the jury; specifically, whether the jury instructions misled the jury to the extent that it was prevented from dispensing justice.
Adequate jury instructions are those which fairly and reasonably point out the issues and which provide correct principles of law for the jury to apply to those issues. When deficiencies in the jury instructions are raised on appeal, the appellate court must consider the instruction as a whole to determine if the jury charges adequately provided the correct principles of law as applied to the issues framed in the pleadings and the evidence and whether the charges adequately guided the jury in its deliberations. If the trial court omits an applicable, ...

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