Factual and procedural background
Club Demonstration Services, Inc. (CDS) contracted with Costco to demonstrate products to customers shopping in Costco stores. CDS employees would demonstrate products to customers while stationed at various demonstration tables.
Lilyan Hassaine went with her sister-in-law to Costco to shop on Oct. 29, 2018. Her sister-in-law was pushing a shopping cart while Hassaine was walking beside her. Surveillance video from Costco showed Hassaine and her sister-in-law enter an aisle that appeared to be clean. After they moved on, a dark substance could be seen on the floor. Hassaine and her sister-in-law left the aisle. During that time, multiple people could be seen on the video walking past the spill, including a Costco employee and a CDS employee. Neither employee cleaned up the spill. Seven minutes later, Hassaine and her sister-in-law returned to the aisle, with Hassaiene walking behind her sister-in-law while carrying a few items in her hands. When they reached the spill, Hassaine slipped in it and fell on her back. She was helped up by her sister-in-law, and several Costco employees then came to help her and clean up the spill
Hassaine believed the spill was caused by liquid soap leaking from a container in her sister-in-law’s shopping cart. She filed a lawsuit against both Costco and CDS, alleging premises liability and negligence. CDS filed a motion for summary judgment and argued that it did not have a duty of care to inspect or maintain the area where Hassaine fell. It also argued that even if it did owe a duty, Hassaine could not prove that CDS breached the duty because only seven minutes elapsed between the time the spill occurred and when Hassaine fell. It also argued that she could not prove causation because she was unsure of what the substance on the floor was and could not show that it was related to any products CDS employees were demonstrating.
In the contract between CDS and Costco, CDS was identified as an independent contractor. It was also responsible for maintaining its demonstration tables and the 12-foot area surrounding them. The location where Hassaine fell was between 16 and 17 feet away from the nearest CDS demonstration table, according to witnesses. CDS argued that since it was outside of the vicinity it was responsible to maintain under its contract, it did not owe Hassaine a duty of care.
Hassaine opposed CDS’ motion for summary judgment. She argued that the company owed a duty of care to its invitees regardless of what was contained in its private contract with Costco. She also argued that there were triable issues of material fact concerning whether CDS employees worked together with Costco employees to identify and clean spills. A few Costco and CDS employees acknowledged that CDS employees typically notified Costco employees when they saw spills, and the surveillance video showed a CDS employee walking by the spill two times during the seven minutes between when it occurred and when Hassaine fell.
The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment filed by CDS. It found that because the contract specified that CDS only was responsible for maintaining the 12 feet around its workstations, CDS did not owe Hassaine a duty of care to inspect and maintain the area where she fell since it was outside of the 12-foot vicinity. Hassaine filed an appeal.
Issue: Whether a private contract can limit the duty of care owed by a contractor to invitees?
On appeal, the court considered whether the trial court erred by finding that the duty CDS owed only extended to the 12 feet around its workstations as defined by its contract with Costco. Hassaine argued this was an incorrect interpretation of duty under the state’s premises liability laws.
Rule: The duty of care owed to an invitee cannot be contractually restricted to a set work area.
Hassaine argued that under Danisan v. Cardinal Grocery Stores, Inc., 155 Cal.App.2d 833 (Cal. Ct. App. 1957), the trial court erred when it limited the duty of care owed by CDS to invitees to what was listed in its private contract. She argued that a private contract cannot limit the duty of care owed by the owner or operator of premises to invitees.
Under Cal. Civ. Code § 1714, all people owe an ordinary duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent others from injury and can be held liable when they fail to exercise reasonable care and someone is injured as a result. This duty only doesn’t apply when an exception exists under a statute or when policy considerations require the creation of one.
The court noted that the general duty does not apply when the defendant did not create or contribute to the risk that harmed the plaintiff and that people generally have no duty to protect others. However, the court found that the no-duty to protect rule also has exceptions, including when there is a special relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff. The court then noted that a special relationship exists between businesses that open their premises to the public. This duty extends to those who are lawfully present on the premises, and businesses have a duty of care to keep their premises reasonably safe. The duty of care extends to all areas of the premises over which the business has control or to all areas the business invites visitors to use.
The court found that CDS was a part of Costco’s business enterprise and thus owed a duty of care to the customers who were lawfully present in the store. CDS argued that because of its contract, the court should not apply the general duty of care to it. The court noted that CDS was operating a demonstration table at the end of the aisle where Hassaine fell and was offering samples of ravioli to customers when Hassaine fell. CDS argued that as an independent contractor, the court should impose an exception to the duty of care and restrict it to the 12-foot perimeter as called for in its contract with Costco.
However, the court noted that the duty of care arises from Cal. Civ. Code § 1714 and not from contract law. The court found there was no policy reason to limit the tort duty of care to the provisions of the private contract between Costco and CDS.
The Court of Appeal then discussed the Danisan case cited by Hassaine. In that case, a dry goods vendor, a butcher, and a produce vendor all leased space in the same building. A customer went to the produce area after visiting the butcher and slipped and fell because of an onion peel lying on the floor. The trial court granted motions for summary judgment filed by the butcher and the vendor of the dry goods, but the Court of Appeal reversed. The court found that while each vendor leased only a portion of the space, they each worked together to invite customers into the entire store. This meant that each of them owed a duty of care to the customers that extended to the entire premises.
The court noted that like in Danisan, CDS had a limited area it was responsible for maintaining. However, it also worked together with Costco to invite customers in. The court found that its duty of care owed to customers extended to Costco’s entire premises instead of the 12-foot perimeter around its demonstration table. The court also found there were no policy reasons that would support limiting CDS’ duty of care to what was included in its contract with Costco.
The court also found that triable issues of material fact remained about whether CDS breached its duty of care and whether it contributed to Hassaine’s accident and injuries. CDS argued that seven minutes was not enough to support a finding that it breached the duty of care. However, the court noted that Hassaine had presented evidence that the CDS employee had constructive knowledge of the spill since the employee was seen on video walking by it twice within the seven minutes. The court also found that a triable issue of material fact existed about causation. While CDS argued that Hassaine could not prove causation because she was unsure what she slipped in, the court noted that testimony had been presented about leaky soap bottles and an oily substance leaking from the cart.
The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order granting CDS’ motion for summary judgment and returned the case for further proceedings. Hassaine was awarded her costs on appeal.
Consult a personal injury attorney
If you have suffered injuries while visiting a business because of a dangerous, uncorrected condition, you might have legal rights. Speak to a personal injury attorney at the law firm of Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers, APC today by calling 866-966-5240.