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Boggs v. Texas Roadhouse, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

July 25, 2018

LILIA BOGGS
v.
TEXAS ROADHOUSE, INC. AND TEXAS ROADHOUSE HOLDINGS, LLC

          RULING

          SHELLY D. DICK CHIEF JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment, [1] filed by Defendants Texas Roadhouse, Inc. and Texas Roadhouse Holdings, LLC (“Defendants”). Plaintiff, Lilia Boggs has filed an Opposition[2] to this motion, to which Defendants filed a Reply.[3] For the reasons which follow, Defendants' motion shall be DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On May 21, 2016, Plaintiff had dinner with friends at the Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Slidell, Louisiana.[4] The Texas Roadhouse is a chain of family-friendly steak restaurants.[5] When a patron of Defendants' restaurant is identified as having a birthday, servers bring the “birthday saddle” to the table or booth so the birthday celebrant is recognized and/or photographed on the saddle.[6] At around 9:00 p.m. on May 21, as Plaintiff prepared to leave the restaurant, she made her way towards the restroom at the rear of the restaurant.[7] Plaintiff alleges that, on the way to the restroom, she approached a birthday celebration involving the “birthday saddle” in the main aisle located through the middle of the restaurant between the bar and a line of booths.[8] Plaintiff testified that she became aware of the birthday celebration when she heard the “hollering and screaming” by the five or six servers involved in the celebration.[9] Plaintiff claims that she waited for the celebration to end and then stepped through a narrow, one-foot passageway between the saddle and a barrel of peanuts. Plaintiff further claims the sole of her sandal became lodged under the base of the saddle's wooden frame causing her to trip and fall, striking her head and right arm on the ground.[10] As a result of this fall, Plaintiff contends she sustained injuries to her head and right arm and has incurred over $60, 000 in medical costs for treatment of these injuries.

         Plaintiff filed suit against Defendants pursuant to the Louisiana Liability Merchant Statute[11] to recover damages sustained as a result of this incident. Defendants have moved for summary judgment arguing that Plaintiff cannot carry her burden under this statute because the complained-of condition was open and obvious, and Defendants exercised reasonable care.

         II. LAW AND ANALYSIS

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if 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.” “When assessing whether a dispute to any material fact exists, we consider all of the evidence in the record but refrain from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.” A party moving for summary judgment “must ‘demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact,' but need not negate the elements of the nonmovant's case.” If the moving party satisfies its burden, “the non-moving party must show that summary judgment is inappropriate by setting ‘forth specific facts showing the existence of a genuine issue concerning every essential component of its case.'” However, the non-moving party's burden “is not satisfied with some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, by conclusory allegations, by unsubstantiated assertions, or by only a scintilla of evidence.”

         Notably, “[a] genuine issue of material fact exists, ‘if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'” All reasonable factual inferences are drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. However, “[t]he Court has no duty to search the record for material fact issues. Rather, the party opposing the summary judgment is required to identify specific evidence in the record and to articulate precisely how this evidence supports his claim.” “Conclusory allegations unsupported by specific facts … will not prevent the award of summary judgment; ‘the plaintiff [can]not rest on his allegations … to get to a jury without any “significant probative evidence tending to support the complaint.”'”

         B. The Louisiana Merchant Liability Statute - La. R.S. 9:2800.6

         This matter is governed by the Louisiana Merchant Liability Statute, [12] which provides:

A. A merchant owes a duty to persons who use his premises to exercise reasonable care to keep his aisles, passageways, and floors in a reasonably safe condition. This duty includes a reasonable effort to keep the premises free of any hazardous conditions which reasonably might give rise to damage.
In a negligence claim brought against a merchant by a person lawfully on the merchant's premises for damages as a result of an injury, death, or loss sustained because of a fall due to a condition existing in or on a merchant's premises, the claimant shall have the burden of proving, in addition to all other elements of his cause of action, all of the following:
(1) The condition presented an unreasonable risk of harm to the claimant and that risk of harm was reasonably foreseeable.
(2) The merchant either created or had actual or constructive notice of the condition which caused the damage, prior to the occurrence.
(3) The merchant failed to exercise reasonable care. In determining reasonable care, the absence of a written or verbal uniform cleanup or safety procedure is insufficient, alone, to prove failure to exercise reasonable care.

         In order to prove the Defendants' liability under Section A, Plaintiff must demonstrate that the Defendants failed to meet their duty to use “reasonable care to keep [its] aisles, passageways, and floors in a reasonably safe condition.”[13] The duty imposed on a merchant under the statute “includes a reasonable effort to keep the premises free of any hazardous conditions which might reasonably give rise to damage.”[14] However, a merchant “is not the insurer of the safety of his patrons ... [and] is not liable every time an accident happens.”[15] In evaluating whether the effort taken to protect customers was reasonable, a court must look to the specific circumstances of each case and “the degree of vigilance must be commensurate with the risk involved, as determined by the overall volume of business, the time of day, the section of the store and other relevant considerations.”[16]

         The determination of the unreasonableness of a risk is a mixed question of law and fact that is the proper province of the jury or finder of fact.[17] In determining whether a condition presented an unreasonable risk of harm, a fact finder should “balance the intended benefit of the thing with its potential for harm and the cost of prevention.”[18] This requires the fact finder to “decide whether the social value and utility of the hazard outweigh[s] and thus justif[ies] its potential harm.”[19]

         The Louisiana Supreme Court addressed this issue in Broussard v. State, Office of State Buildings.[20] In Broussard, a UPS delivery driver sustained injuries when he admittedly and voluntarily chose to attempt to traverse a building's visibly misaligned elevators, while maneuvering a loaded dolly (weighing approximately three hundred pounds), by attempting to push the dolly over a one and one-half to three-inch elevation caused by the elevator's misalignment. After his attempt was unsuccessful, he turned around, stepped backwards into the elevator, and attempted to pull the dolly over the elevation. “[T]he inertia ...


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