California companies have a duty of care to keep their premises in reasonably safe conditions for their visitors. (NOTE: For a full summary of California law on accident and injury claims on commercial property, click here). There are limits to this duty of care, however. In Peralta v. The Vons Company, Cal. Court of Appeals, case no. B282130, the extent of the duty of care owed to visitors was explored.
Background of the case
On Feb. 2, 2014, Rose Peralta went to purchase bread from a Vons grocery store. The bakery told her that the bread was baking and to come back in 10 minutes. Peralta picked out some pastries and returned to the bakery counter after 10 minutes had passed. While she was walking, she slipped and fell. Peralta claimed that she felt something slippery on the floor that had caused her to fall. She filled out an accident report form, and the manager looked at the area where she had fallen. The manager did not see anything slippery on the floor’s surface and instead only saw some crumbs from the pastries that Peralta dropped when she fell. Peralta was wearing 3-inch stiletto heels at the time of her accident. Peralta and her husband sued Vons for damages, including medical expenses, reduced earning capacity and loss of consortium for her husband. Vons filed a motion for summary judgment, which the lower court granted. The Peraltas filed an appeal of the lower court’s dismissal, arguing that there were issues of triable fact to be decided by a jury.
Issue: Whether Vons exercised reasonable care to keep its premises safe
Vons argued that it did not have any notice or knowledge of a dangerous condition that existed in the area where Peralta fell. It argued that a printout of the inspection records showed that an employee had inspected the bakery area eight minutes before Peralta fell. Vons argued that there was nothing on the floor other than crumbs from the pastries that Peralta dropped when she fell, and the manager did not see any slippery substance on the floor. Peralta argued that she felt something slippery under her shoe and knew that there was grease or oil on the floor. A civil engineer stated that he tested the slip resistance of the floor. It exceeded the requirements when it was dry but fell below industry standards for slip resistance when it was wet. The engineer opined that the nature of Peralta’s fall demonstrated that there was likely a slippery substance on the floor. Peralta also argued that she did not see anyone inspecting the bakery area for the 10 to 15 minutes prior to her fall. On appeal, Peralta argued that there were issues of triable fact remaining about whether a slippery substance was present on the floor and if the inspection of the floor was conducted within a reasonable time before the fall happened.
Rule: Employers must exercise reasonable care to keep their premises safe for customers, but they are not required to ensure the safety of their visitors
Plaintiffs have the burden of proof to show evidence that the defendant’s conduct more than likely caused their slip and fall accidents. The possibility that a defendant’s actions might have caused the fall is not sufficient. When the plaintiff only uses speculation or conjecture to claim causation, a court must direct a verdict in favor of the defendant. Courts must also direct verdicts for the defendants in cases in which the plaintiffs are unable to present evidence showing that the dangerous conditions existed for a sufficient amount of time for the defendants to have discovered them.
The court first looked at whether or not an issue of triable fact existed regarding whether or not there was a slippery substance on the floor. Peralta had previously testified that she did not see anything on the floor before or after she fell. Immediately after the accident, the store manager inspected the area and did not see anything on the floor other than the crumbs from the pastries. Peralta argued that the store’s owner had allegedly told her that employees had fallen in the same area in the past, but the court rejected the statement as hearsay. Finally, the Peraltas introduced the civil engineer’s opinion about the slip resistance of the floor when it was wet and that Peralta’s fall indicated that there must have been a slippery substance on the floor’s surface. The court found that the engineer’s opinion was conjecture and not enough to lead to an issue of material fact.
The court next looked at whether the dispute over when the inspection was conducted was an issue of triable fact for a jury. Using the opinion in Ortega v. Kmart Corp., 83 Cal. App. 4th (2001), the court analyzed the evidence presented by the plaintiffs. Peralta had argued that she did not see anyone inspecting the bakery area for 10 to 15 minutes before she fell. The store manager had testified that inspection records showed that the area had been inspected eight minutes prior. In Ortega, the court found that plaintiffs may show that a store has constructive notice of a dangerous condition by showing that an inspection wasn’t conducted within a reasonable time before an accident. However, the court found that in this case, Peralta’s testimony that no inspection was completed was insufficient because she had failed to prove that a dangerous condition even existed.
The court affirmed the district court’s ruling, and the case was dismissed. The court’s ruling demonstrates that while stores do have a duty of care to keep their premises free of hazards and safe for their customers, they will not be liable in a slip and fall case in which the plaintiffs are unable to prove that a dangerous condition even existed.
Slip and fall accidents can cause serious injuries, but a store’s operator or owner will not always be liable. People who have been injured in a slip and fall accident may want to talk to an experienced Los Angeles personal injury attorney for an evaluation of their potential claims. For an evaluation of your potential claim, contact the Law Offices of Steven M. Sweat today.