Appeals Court Finds that Business Had No Actual or Constructive Notice of a Puddle before a Fall Injury

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago has affirmed a decision of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissing a lawsuit against a Wal-Mart store for injuries suffered by Kristen Zuppardi. She went to the Wal-Mart store in Champaign, Ill., with her brother and her son on June 15, 2010. When she entered the store, Ms. Zuppardi took a shopping cart from the front of the store and then walked down one of the main aisles of the store. Ms. Zuppardi was on her way to the back of the store to purchase milk. As she was walking down the aisle she slipped and fell in a puddle of water on the store’s concrete floors. She filed a complaint against Wal-Mart in state court in June 2012. The case was removed to the Federal District Court by Wal-Mart for diversity of citizenship jurisdiction.

One of the Wal-Mart store’s assistant managers, George Steward, stated that he did not witness the fall, but that he knew that because the fall occurred in close proximity to the store’s back doors, Wal-Mart personnel would have promptly dealt with the puddle even if the plaintiff had not fallen.

Wal-Mart was unable to locate the customer’s incident file of this occurrence and was accordingly incapable of producing any documents related to the investigation other than five photographs depicting the location of the fall and a report submitted to Wal-Mart’s casualty claims administrator. There was no video footage available.

The U.S. District Court granted summary judgment for Wal-Mart finding that it did not have actual constructive notice of the puddle prior to Ms. Zuppardi’s fall. Ms. Zuppardi took this appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

She argued that the district court erred in denying her motion to strike Wal-Mart’s reply, alleging that Wal-Mart acted in bad faith by making contradictory statements in factual allegations and that Wal-Mart violated the Central District of Illinois’ Local Rule 7.1 by providing an explanation in response to undisputed material facts.

The appellate court disagreed. The panel stated that the plaintiff’s contention that Wal-Mart’s reply contained contradictory factual allegations was not correct.

In addition, the panel noted that the district court judge did not abuse his discretion when he determined that Wal-Mart had not violated Local Rule 7.1.

Next, Ms. Zuppardi argued that the district court judge erred in granting Wal-Mart’s motion for summary judgment. The panel stated that state law holds that businesses owe their invitees a duty to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition to avoid injuring them. However, the panel stated that the issue in the instant case was whether Ms. Zuppardi could establish that Wal-Mart breached that duty.

Because the plaintiff could not present evidence that the substance she slipped on was more likely placed on the premises due to Wal-Mart’s negligence rather than a customer, it had no choice but to grant summary judgment. She offered evidence that she slipped on something that was sold by Wal-Mart and that evidence did not support an inference that Wal-Mart had caused the spill.

The panel then concluded that she presented no evidence of actual or constructive knowledge on the part of Wal-Mart. There was no evidence presented as to how long the spill might have been present before she fell.

Lastly, the court stated that the district court was correct in denying the plaintiff’s argument that the lack of evidence establishing placement of notice of the puddle should be construed against Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart lost its own investigative file, which, in Ms. Zuppardi’s opinion, would have been dispositive and revealing as to what and when Wal-Mart knew of the formation of this puddle. Unfortunately for Ms. Zuppardi, the appellate panel affirmed the decision dismissing her case for those given reasons.

Kristen Zuppardi v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 13-3276 U.S. Court of Appeals 7th Cir., Oct. 24, 2014.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury cases, automobile accident cases, truck accident cases, bicycle accident cases, motorcycle accident cases and nursing home accident cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Elmwood Park, Franklin Park, River Grove, Crestwood, Country Club Hills, Hinsdale, Hillside, Hazel Crest, Harwood Heights, Hanover Park, Harvey, Melrose Park, Northlake, Northfield, Northbrook, Mount Prospect, Orland Park, Willow Springs, Tinley Park and Summit, Ill.

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