Walker et al v. Target Corporation
Memorandum Opinion and Order granting in part and denying in part 78 Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court grants the motion as to Plaintiffs' punitive damages claim, but the Court denies it in all other respects. Signed by District Judge Keith Starrett on 7/3/17 (cb)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF MISSISSIPPI
DR. DEBRA L. WALKER, et al.
CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:16-CV-42-KS-MTP
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
For the reasons below, the Court grants in part and denies in part
Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment  as to liability. Specifically, the Court
grants the motion as to Plaintiffs’ punitive damages claim, but it denies the motion in
all other respects.
This is a slip-and-fall case. Plaintiff Debra Walker slipped in a puddle of water
while shopping at Target in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She claims that the fall caused
her to sustain permanently disabling injuries. Her husband claims a loss of
consortium. They demanded a wide variety of damages. Defendant filed a Motion for
Summary Judgment  as to liability, which the Court now addresses.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Rule 56 provides that “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant
shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is
entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a); see also Sierra Club, Inc.
v. Sandy Creek Energy Assocs., L.P., 627 F.3d 134, 138 (5th Cir. 2010). “An issue is
material if its resolution could affect the outcome of the action.” Sierra Club, Inc., 627
F.3d at 138. “An issue is ‘genuine’ if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to
return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Cuadra v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 626
F.3d 808, 812 (5th Cir. 2010).
The Court is not permitted to make credibility determinations or weigh the
evidence. Deville v. Marcantel, 567 F.3d 156, 164 (5th Cir. 2009). When deciding
whether a genuine fact issue exists, “the court must view the facts and the inference
to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Sierra
Club, Inc., 627 F.3d at 138. However, “[c]onclusional allegations and denials,
speculation, improbable inferences, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic
argumentation do not adequately substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue
for trial.” Oliver v. Scott, 276 F.3d 736, 744 (5th Cir. 2002).
Debra Walker’s Premises Liability Claim
In a premises liability case, the plaintiff must prove the four elements of
common-law negligence: (1) duty, (2) breach of duty, (3) causation, and (4) damages.
Rogers v. Sunbelt Mgmt. Co., 52 F. Supp. 3d 816, 822 (S.D. Miss. 2014). The duty owed
to the plaintiff depends on his or her status as an invitee, licensee, or trespasser. Doe
v. Miss. State Fed’n of Colored Women’s Club Housing for the Elderly in Clinton, Inc.,
941 So. 2d 820, 826 (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). Therefore, “[p]remises liability analysis
under Mississippi law requires three determinations: (1) legal status of the injured
person, (2) relevant duty of care, and (3) defendant’s compliance with that duty.” Wood
v. RIH Acquisitions MS II LLC, 556 F.3d 274, 275 (5th Cir. 2009); see also Leffler v.
Sharp, 891 So. 2d 152, 156 (Miss. 2004).
It is undisputed that Plaintiff was an invitee at the time of the accident.
“Mississippi law imposes upon a business owner or operator a duty to the invitee to
keep its premises in a reasonably safe condition and to warn of dangerous conditions
which are not readily apparent to the invitee.” K-Mart Corp. v. Hardy, 735 So. 2d 975,
981 (Miss. 1999). However, a business owner is not an insurer against all accidents and
injuries that may occur on its premises. Anderson v. B. H. Acquisitions, Inc., 771 So.
2d 914, 918 (Miss. 2000). Furthermore, mere proof of the existence of a fall within a
business is insufficient to recover on a negligence claim. Rod v. Home Depot USA, Inc.,
931 So. 2d 692, 695 (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). To prove a premises liability claim, a
plaintiff-invitee must show either:
(1) a negligent act of the defendant caused her injury; (2) the defendant
had actual knowledge of the dangerous condition, but failed to warn the
plaintiff; or (3) the defendant should have known about the dangerous
condition, in that the dangerous condition existed for a sufficient amount
of time to impute constructive knowledge to the defendant.
Id. at 694-95 (citing Byrne v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 877 So. 2d 462, 465 (Miss. Ct. App.
Plaintiffs contend that a Target employee caused Mrs. Walker’s injury. They
argue that a Target employee left a refrigerated cart full of products in the aisle, and
that condensation dripped from the cart onto the floor, creating the puddle of water in
which Mrs. Walker slipped. The record contains evidence to support this theory.
Arnold Lynch, a former Target employee, testified that he was restocking
refrigerated yogurt at the time of the accident. Exhibit 6 to Response at 50-51, Walker
v. Target Corp., No. 2:16-CV-42-KS-MTP (S.D. Miss. May 18, 2017), Ecf No. 109-6. Mrs.
Walker testified that the cart was “very close” to the puddle of water. Exhibit 8 to
Response at 149, Walker v. Target Corp., No. 2:16-CV-42-KS-MTP (S.D. Miss. May 18,
2017), ECF No. 109-8. She said the “boxes were sweating and you could see the water
beaded up on there,” id. at 154, and that condensation had also formed on the metal
cart. Id. at 159-60. Finally, Mrs. Walker testified that Lynch said “something to the
effect of, ‘Oh my gosh, it must be this cart.” Id. at 151. She reiterated that Lynch “made
a comment to indicate his suspicion and his evaluation that the water . . . came off [his]
cart. And he moved the cart, when I was on the floor, looking for more water to see if
it was creating another puddle.” Id. at 154.
This evidence is sufficient to create a genuine dispute of material fact as to
whether Defendant created the dangerous condition which caused Mrs. Walker’s injury
by leaving a refrigerated cart of yogurt in the aisle. Therefore, the Court denies
Defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiff Debra Walker’s premises
Prentiss Walker’s Loss of Consortium Claim
Defendant argues that summary judgment is appropriate as to Mr. Walker’s loss
of consortium claim because it is derivative of Mrs. Walker’s premises liability claim.
As the Court denied Defendant’s motion as to Mrs. Walker’s premises liability claim,
it also denies the motion as to Mr. Walker’s loss of consortium claim.
“Punitive damages may not be awarded if the claimant does not prove by clear
and convincing evidence that the defendant against whom punitive damages are
sought acted with actual malice, gross negligence which evidences a willful, wanton or
reckless disregard for the safety of others, or committed actual fraud.” MISS. CODE ANN.
§ 11-1-65(1)(a). Punitive damages are generally only allowed “where the facts are
highly unusual and the cases extreme.” Wise v. Valley Bank, 861 So. 2d 1029, at 1035
(Miss. 2003). “[S]imple negligence is not of itself evidence sufficient to support punitive
damages, but accompanying facts and circumstances may be used to show that that
portion of defendant’s conduct which constituted proximate cause of the accident was
willful and wanton or grossly negligent.” Choctaw Maid Farms v. Hailey, 822 So. 2d
911, 924 (Miss. 2002).
Plaintiffs cited no evidence demonstrating “actual malice, [or] gross negligence
which evidences a willful, wanton or reckless disregard for the safety of others . . . .”
MISS. CODE ANN. § 11-1-65(1)(a). Moreover, Plaintiffs cited no law whatsoever in
support of their punitive damages claim, much less a case awarding punitive damages
in a slip-and-fall case with facts similar to this one. In the Court’s opinion, this is a
case of simple negligence, at worst, and that is not enough to merit a punitive damages
instruction. Choctaw Maid, 822 So. 2d at 924.
Plaintiffs argue that Defendant’s conduct during discovery merits punitive
damages, but they cited no law in support of this novel argument. Under Mississippi
law, a defendant’s conduct during discovery is neither a factor in determining whether
punitive damages are available, MISS. CODE ANN. § 11-1-65(1)(a), nor a factor in
determining the amount of punitive damages. MISS. CODE ANN. § 11-1-65(1)(e)-(f). “The
purpose of punitive damages . . . is to punish a tortfeasor . . . .” State Farm Mut. Auto.
Ins. Co. v. Daughdrill, 474 So. 2d 1048, 1052 (Miss. 1985). There are other remedies
available for misconduct during litigation, as the Court has already addressed in its
Order  of June 7, 2017.
Plaintiffs also suggested that Defendant destroyed and/or failed to preserve
video of the thirty minutes before and after her fall. To the extent Plaintiffs intended
to make a spoliation argument, they failed to cite any law to support the claim or to
discuss the specific facts. Regardless, Plaintiffs have not presented evidence of any of
the elements of a spoliation claim. See Barnett v. Deere & Co., No. 2:15-CV-2KS-MTP,
2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117312, at *2-*4 (S.D. Miss. Aug. 31, 2016) (discussing law
governing spoliation claims).
For these reasons, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendant’s
Motion for Summary Judgment  as to liability. Specifically, the Court grants the
motion as to Plaintiffs’ punitive damages claim, but it denies the motion in all other
SO ORDERED AND ADJUDGED, on this, the 3rd day of July, 2017.
/s/ Keith Starrett
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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