Factual and Procedural Background
Hibachi Buffet is a restaurant with seating for 200 guests. Jorge Perez was a customer who went to the restaurant for lunch. During his visit, he walked up a hallway to the restroom and adjusted his dentures. When he entered the hallway to go to the restroom, the floor tiles were dry. After he left the restroom, there was a spill of liquid on the hallway floor that he slipped in and fell hard on the tiled surface, sustaining serious injuries.
After Perez fell, a friend of his took photos of the spill and a video of it. The photos, video, and Perez’s recollection indicated the spill was approximately 10 inches wide and extended down the hallway past the restrooms and into the kitchen. The spill did not enter either of the bathrooms.
Perez filed a lawsuit against Hibachi Buffet to seek compensation for his injuries and losses under theories of premises liability based on the employee’s negligence and Hibachi Buffet’s vicarious liability. During the discovery phase, Perez sent interrogatories. One question he asked Hibachi Buffet was to admit whether its employees used the hallway to push dish carts to the kitchen with dirty dishes, including cups with liquid in them from customers’ tables. In answer to this interrogatory, the restaurant replied “admit.”
The manager of the Hibachi Buffet, Lanfang Wang, who subsequently became an owner of one of the chain’s restaurants, testified that the restaurant had surveillance video of the hallway. She testified that because of the camera angle, it wasn’t possible to see Perez’s slip and fall accident, although everyone agreed that there was liquid present in the hallway and that Perez slipped and fell in it. She also claimed that the restaurant’s employees didn’t use the hallway to push dish carts to the kitchen because it was too narrow and denied that liquid ever spilled from the employees’ dish carts. However, her testimony contrasted with the previous admission by the restaurant in the interrogatories that the employees did use the hallway to push full dish carts to the kitchen after bussing tables. The restaurant also never provided a copy of the video to Perez and claimed she didn’t know what had happened to it.
The case went to a trial before a jury. Perez filed a motion in limine asking the court to instruct the jury about the spoliation of evidence regarding the video and that the jury should infer that the video, if provided, would have shown evidence detrimental to Hibachi Buffet’s defense. However, the court denied the motion in limine.
During the closing arguments, Perez’s attorney argued that there was no other explanation for the liquid on the floor that extended to the kitchen than that an employee had spilled it while pushing a dish cart to the kitchen. In its closing, Hibachi Buffet argued that there was no evidence presented at trial that liquid spilled from a dish cart and that it could have come from a little girl or someone not making it to the bathroom on time.
The jury returned a verdict of $850,000 in favor of Perez. Hibachi Buffet filed a motion for a new trial or a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The trial court granted both motions. The judge held that no evidence had been presented showing that an employee had created the spill or that carts were pushed down that hallway instead of a different one on the day that Perez fell. The court stated that inferences must be based on the evidence presented at trial, but it ignored any inferences that could be made from the spill extending down the hallway into the kitchen for 10 feet. The court granted both motions, finding that to do otherwise would amount to impermissible speculation. Perez filed an appeal.
Issue: Whether the court erred by granting the motion for a new trial and the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict based on the jury having to speculate the cause of the spill?
On appeal, Perez argued that the court committed prejudicial error when it granted both motions in favor of the defendant. He argued that there was no other reasonable explanation for the existence of the spill based on its size and shape than that it had been created by an employee, and the court erred when it found that the jury’s verdict in Perez’s favor was based on impermissible speculation rather than a permissible inference from the evidence presented at trial.
Rule: When an employee negligently causes a dangerous condition, knowledge of its existence is imputed to the employer under the theory of respondeat superior.
Employers in California are vicariously liable for the negligence of their employees when they are acting in the course and scope of their employment. An employer does not have to have direct knowledge about an employee’s negligent creation of a hazard. Instead, knowledge of the negligent act is imputed to the employer under the doctrine of respondeat superior. Under respondeat superior, employers are liable for the negligent actions of their employees while they are working.
The court considered the explanations for the spill that were presented by both Perez and Hibachi Buffet at trial. It noted that Perez’s arguments were both reasonable and supported by the evidence presented at trial. It found that Hibachi Buffet’s arguments were not reasonable or based on the evidence.
In response to an interrogatory sent to Hibachi from Perez, the court noted that Hibachi Buffet admitted that its employees used the hallway that went past the bathrooms into the kitchen to transport dishes from the dining area to the kitchen, including cups partially filled with liquid. The court stated that while logical inferences are allowed, speculation is not. When a jury reaches a verdict, the trial court is supposed to analyze the evidence in a light that is most favorable to the party that won the verdict. It is supposed to disregard conflicting evidence and should only grant a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict if the existing evidence does not substantially support the verdict.
In reviewing the evidence presented at trial, the appellate court found that it supported Perez’s arguments. It noted that the spill pattern was 10 feet long, did not enter or exit either bathroom, and was 10 inches wide in a uniform pattern extending into the kitchen from the hallway. It noted that the mention of a girl by Hibachi Buffet was wholly unsupported by any evidence presented at trial. It also rejected Hibachi Buffet’s alternative argument that the spill could have been created by a customer not making it to the bathroom and instead urinating in the hallway. The court pointed out that there was no testimony that the liquid smelled or looked like urine from anyone and that it was illogical to argue that a customer would urinate down the hallway all the way into the kitchen past both bathrooms during a busy lunch rush.
By contrast, the appellate court found Perez’s argument was both logical and an inference that was supported by the evidence of the spill pattern. The court found that employees spilling liquids in restaurants is a common occurrence and within the experience of average jury members.
The court reversed the trial court’s orders granting both motions. The Court of Appeal reinstated the verdict, awarded Perez his costs on appeal, and returned the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with its decision.
Consult a Los Angeles Premises Liability Attorney
If you were injured after slipping and falling in a restaurant or another retail establishment because of a dangerous, uncorrected condition on the premises, you might have legal rights to pursue compensation through a personal injury lawsuit. Even if the business doesn’t have direct knowledge of the existence of the condition, its knowledge can be imputed if the condition existed for a long enough time that it should reasonably have known about its existence. The experienced attorneys at the Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers, APC offer free consultations and can review the factors of what happened in your case to determine whether you have a viable claim. To learn more about the legal remedies that might be available to you, call us for a free case evaluation at (866) 966-5240.