Tennessee Grocery Store’s Motion to Dismiss Shopper’s Recklessness Claim is Denied by Federal Court

Slip and fall accidents are common in grocery stores and supermarkets. In a Knoxville premises liability lawsuit arising from such an incident, the plaintiff has the burden of proof in establishing the defendant’s negligence. In order to prove negligence, the plaintiff must show that the defendant breached a duty of care that was owed to him or her and that he or she was injured as a proximate result.

In some cases, the plaintiff may alternatively allege that the defendant’s conduct rose to the level of recklessness – a more serious allegation that can possibly result in punitive damages. Not surprisingly, most defendants will staunchly resist such an allegation. It is the trial court’s job to determine whether or not the facts of a given case are such that a plaintiff’s recklessness claim may proceed.

Facts of the Case

In a recent case, the plaintiff was a man who filed a premises liability lawsuit against the defendant grocery store after he allegedly slipped and fell in water left behind by a floor-cleaning machine. In his complaint for compensatory and punitive damages, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant was both negligent and reckless. More specifically, he asserted that the defendant had used a machine that left water behind while it operated, that the defendant failed to schedule routine maintenance on its cleaning machines, that the defendant’s conduct created a hazardous condition that was not readily observable by its customers, that the defendant failed to post warnings about the dangers caused by the cleaning machine, that the defendant failed to develop or implement policies to prevent the risk of harm to customers, that the defendant had acted recklessly in failing to properly maintain its fleet of floor cleaners because the defendant routinely failed to replace the “squeegee” parts of the machines (which had a life of two to three months) until they were worn out and leaving water on the floor, and that the defendant was aware of – but consciously disregarded – the risk of injury. The defendant filed a motion to dismiss or strike the plaintiff’s punitive damages claims.

Decision of the Court

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, Nashville Division, granted the defendant’s motion in part and denied it in part. According to the court, the defendant’s motion to dismiss or strike the plaintiff’s punitive damages claims should be granted to the extent that the plaintiff had attempted to assert a cause of action for punitive damages; however, the motion was to be denied to the extent that the plaintiff sought a remedy of punitive damages.

Although the defendant argued that, by the plaintiff’s reasoning, every property owner that caused or knew of a slippery condition could be found reckless, the court disagreed. For the purposes of the defendant’s motion, the Court found that the plaintiff had plausibly alleged that the defendant had acted recklessly, particularly with regard to the defendant’s failure to properly maintain its fleet of floor cleaners. According to the court, the defendant’s argument “put the analytical cart before the horse” and was better suited for dispositive motion practice or trial. Noting that the time for proving that the defendant acted with the requisite ill intent would come later, the plaintiff’s task at the pleading stage was simply to allege enough facts to make it plausible that the defendant was liable in order to “unlock the doors of discovery.”

Contact a Knoxville Premises Liability Lawyer

To schedule an appointment with an experienced East Tennessee premises liability attorney, call the Hartsoe Law Firm at 865-524-5657. With offices in downtown Knoxville and on Lamar Alexander Parkway in Maryville, we serve clients throughout East Tennessee. There is no charge for the consultation, and many cases are accepted on a contingency fee contract – we get paid when your case settles or results in a favorable verdict in court, rather than upfront.

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