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Lee v. AutoZone Stores, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

January 2, 2019

ROBERT LEE
v.
AUTOZONE STORES, LLC ET AL.

         SECTION: “H”

          ORDER AND REASONS

          JANE TRICHE MILAZZO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 15). For the following reasons, the Motion is GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         This personal injury suit arises out of Plaintiff Robert Lee's fall in the parking lot of an AutoZone in Hammond, Louisiana. On September 15, 2017, Lee drove his pickup truck to AutoZone in search of motor oil. At the time, he was recovering from surgery performed on his left knee to repair a torn tendon. This disability qualified him to park in handicap spots. When he arrived at the store, he parked his pickup in a handicap spot. Immediately to the left of the spot, the ground was elevated. The difference in elevation between the parking spot and the area to the left of the spot, which led to the front entrance of the store, was about six inches.

         Lee stepped out of his pickup and onto the raised area without issue. He walked into the store, spoke with a store employee, and then proceeded back to his pickup to make a phone call. As Lee approached his pickup, he failed to notice the difference in elevation between the ground and the parking spot. Instead of stepping directly into his truck, he stepped into the space between the curb and his pickup. Not expecting the ground to be lower, Lee lost his balance and fell forward. His left knee-the one on which surgery had recently been performed-struck the side of the pickup. Lee alleges that this fall caused him to re-injure his knee. He further alleges that he fell because AutoZone negligently designed the curb where he fell.

         On November 17, 2017, Lee filed suit against AutoZone and its insurer in Louisiana's 21st Judicial District Court for Tangipahoa Parish. AutoZone removed the suit to this Court on December 21, 2017.

         On November 13, 2018, AutoZone filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment. AutoZone argues that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the hazard that allegedly caused Lee's injury-a curb-was open and obvious. Lee responds that the curb was not open and obvious because it was not marked with paint or any other visual cue to warn pedestrians of the roughly six-inch drop in elevation between the parking spot and the ground that led to the entrance of the store.

         LEGAL 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.”[1] “As to materiality . . . [o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.”[2] Nevertheless, a dispute about a material fact is “genuine” such that summary judgment is inappropriate “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”[3]

         In determining whether the movant is entitled to summary judgment, the Court views facts in the light most favorable to the non-movant and draws all reasonable inferences in his favor.[4] “If the moving party meets the initial burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to produce evidence or designate specific facts showing the existence of a genuine issue for trial.”[5] Summary judgment is appropriate if the non-movant “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case.”[6]

         “In response to a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmovant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate the manner in which that evidence supports that party's claim, and such evidence must be sufficient to sustain a finding in favor of the nonmovant on all issues as to which the nonmovant would bear the burden of proof at trial.”[7] The Court does “not . . . in the absence of any proof, assume that the nonmoving party could or would prove the necessary facts.”[8] Additionally, “[t]he mere argued existence of a factual dispute will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion.”[9]

         LAW AND ANALYSIS

         Louisiana Revised Statutes § 9:2800.6 provides a negligence cause of action to people who suffer an injury at a business because of an unsafe condition at the business.[10] Subsection B of the statute sets forth the elements a plaintiff must prove to succeed on his claim.[11] The statute provides:

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.[12]

         AutoZone argues that Lee cannot prove that a condition existed at AutoZone presenting an unreasonable risk of harm to Lee. This Court agrees.

         A failure to make a clear showing of any one element under Louisiana's merchant liability statute is fatal to a plaintiff's claim.[13] The first element of the statute requires a plaintiff to show that a condition existed at a merchant's premises presenting an unreasonable risk of harm to the plaintiff.[14] Louisiana courts employ a risk-utility balancing test when determining whether a condition presents an unreasonable risk of harm.[15] The ultimate question of the test is whether the utility of the hazard outweighs the risk of harm it presents. ‚ÄúSimply put, the trier of fact must decide whether the social value ...


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