Walker v. Winn Dixie – Premises Liability and Plaintiff Proof Burden

Recently, Florida’s First District Court of Appeal affirmed a summary judgment in favor of a grocery store chain in Walker v. Winn Dixie Stores Inc., where a woman was injured after falling on wet floor near the entrance of the store.

Such outcomes have become increasingly common since 2010, when the Florida legislature enacted Florida Statute 768.0755, which requires plaintiffs prove defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of a dangerous condition and failed to remedy it. waterdrops

Our Fort Myers premises liability attorneys know prior to 2001, this was generally the standard in Florida, with the burden of proof largely on the plaintiff. Merely showing proof of an on-site injury was not enough. But then, the Florida Supreme Court issued its ruling in Owens v. Publix Supermarkets, Inc. The outcome of that ruling was the burden of proof shifted to the owner or operator of the establishment, which was thereafter required to show it exercised reasonable care under the circumstances presented.

Two years later, the state legislature passed Florida Statute 768.0710. Under this provision, it was up to the plaintiff to show defendant failed to exercise reasonable care in the maintenance, inspection,repair, warning or mode of business operation. While actual or constructive notice of water or other transitory substance (or lack of such notice) wasn’t a required element of proof, such evidence was to be considered with all other facts.

When state lawmakers changed the law again in 2010, it was strictly in the favor of businesses and property owners. Where summary judgments in favor of premises liability defendants were once quite rare in Florida, they are now commonplace. That means choosing an attorney with experience is all the more important in these cases.

In the recent Walker case, plaintiff was inside the store for about a half hour, assisting a disabled friend with his grocery shopping. When the pair entered the store, it was bright and sunny. When they returned to the parking lot, it was “misting.” After loading the groceries, plaintiff walked back to the store to return the cart. As she entered the threshold of the store, she slipped and fell.

She would later describe in a deposition the condition that caused her to fall as being “unnoticeable drops of water.” This statement ended up severely harming her case because, as we mentioned earlier, the whole crux of a premises liability claim in these situations hinges on proving the defendant knew (or should have known) about the hazard and failed to act. By characterizing the wet floor as “unnoticeable,” the plaintiff unintentionally bolstered the case for the defense.

Additionally, other details of her testimony, combined with video surveillance images and statements from the store manager, indicated that, at most, rainy conditions were present for between 1 and 4 minutes prior to the fall. Based on this time period, it could not be proven the condition had existed for such a length of time that the store had failed to exercise an ordinary level of care in addressing the hazard.

Plaintiff argued the store should have had constructive knowledge of the situation (as it rained almost daily) and workers failed in completing their routine, rainy-day procedures (rolling out mats, posting warning cones, etc.).

However, the appellate court rejected this argument, finding plaintiff failed to meet the basic burden of proof.

If you have been injured in Fort Myers, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7777 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Florida Statute 768.0755

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Hot Coffee: Documentary Highlights Farce of Tort Reform, Aug. 22, 2014, Fort Myers Injury Lawyer Blog