ROBERT B. SPAWN reports on a recent unpublished decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.
A recent New Jersey case involved a Plaintiff-Patron who sustained injuries after slipping and falling on the premises of a Defendant-Movie Theater.
Plaintiff testified in his deposition that, as he was attempting to exit one of Defendant’s theaters after seeing a 6:30 p.m. show, he “saw trash or debris on the floor, tripped over it, and fell right into the emergency exit door on a metal bar.” Plaintiff also indicated in testimony that he had seen “litter” when he first sat down in the theater before the movie, but “paid it no mind.” Plaintiff, however, was unable to precisely define what he had seen on the floor, further stating that the trash or litter “could have been anything.” In any event, Plaintiff suffered a crush avulsion and a large laceration to his forehead as a result of his fall.
According to Defendant’s Concessions Manager, after each show, one usher generally used a broom to sweep garbage to the end of the aisle and another usher walked around with a garbage bag to pick up debris. The Concessions Manager further explained that a “breach person” was responsible for inspecting the theaters each hour to check whether there were any items posing a tripping hazard, and completed a corresponding “patrol card” after each inspection. On the evening of Plaintiff’s injury, the patrol cards revealed that the subject theater was inspected on an hourly basis between 12:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m., and twice at 6:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m., 8:00 p.m., and 9:00 p.m. The Concessions Manager also indicated that she had inspected the area where Plaintiff fell and found no snags or rips in the carpet, fluid from spills, or anything else that could have caused Plaintiff to lose balance. Accordingly, Defendant argued that it did not breach any duty of care owed to Plaintiff, and moved for summary judgment.
The trial judge agreed with Defendant, and held that, even if Plaintiff did slip on trash, Plaintiff alleged no facts tending to show that Defendants were under actual or constructive notice of the debris on the floor. Plaintiff appealed, arguing that Defendant must have had constructive notice of the debris because the debris he tripped over was the same as what he observed when taking his seat.
The Appellate Division began its analysis by stating that, generally speaking, business owners owe to invitees (like Plaintiff) a duty of reasonable or due care to provide a safe environment as long as the Plaintiff is acting within the scope of the invitation. That duty of due care requires a business owner to discover and eliminate dangerous conditions, to maintain the premises in a safe condition, and to avoid creating conditions that would render the premises unsafe. The Court further stated that, when a patron is injured by a dangerous condition, a business owner will only be liable if the business owner actually knew about the condition (actual notice) or if the condition existed for such a length of time that the business owner should have known of its presence (constructive notice).
In the case at hand, the Appellate Division noted that Plaintiff could not even describe what he slipped on with any precision, and never established what exactly caused him to trip and fall. The Appellate Division also explained that Plaintiff’s bald assertion that he saw the same debris he tripped over before he sat down to watch the movie did not establish that Defendant’s employees were aware of the debris, either actually or constructively. The Court thus held that a reasonable jury could not conclude, based solely on Plaintiff’s fall, that Defendant’s employees were aware of and had time to remedy a dangerous condition, and affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to Defendant.
Please contact Robert B. Spawn if you have any questions or need assistance in connection with this subject.