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Morse v. ALDI Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

September 12, 2019

SHIRLEY MORSE, Plaintiff,
v.
ALDI INC., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          THOMAS E. JOHNSTON, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendants' Aldi, Inc. (Maryland), Aldi, Inc. (Ohio), and Aldi, Inc. (Pennsylvania) (collectively, “Defendants”) Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 27.) For the reasons discussed more fully herein, Defendants' motion is DENIED. (ECF No. 27.)

         I. BACKGROUND

         On August 26, 2016, Plaintiff Shirley Morse (“Plaintiff”) was grocery shopping at an Aldi's store, owned and operated by Defendants, in Dunbar, West Virginia. (See ECF No. 28 at 2; see also ECF No. 29 at 1.) While shopping, she went into the restroom located in a hallway from the main shopping floor. As she exited the restroom several minutes later, Plaintiff tripped over a box that had been placed on the hallway floor sometime after she entered the restroom. (See ECF No. 28 at 3; see also ECF No. 29 at 2.) As a result of her fall, Plaintiff suffered bodily injuries and has endured ongoing medical treatment. (See ECF No. 1 at 10 ¶ 15 (Compl.).)

         Plaintiff filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County, West Virginia, on August 21, 2018, asserting a premises liability claim against Defendants. (Id. at 8-10.) Plaintiff alleges that the box in the walkway was a tripping hazard that customers were routinely exposed to throughout the store. (Id. at 9 ¶¶ 8-9.) Plaintiff claims that Defendants should have known of the alleged hazard and breached their duty to maintain the store in safe condition. (Id. ¶¶ 11-13.)

         On September 14, 2018, Defendants removed the case to this Court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. (Id. at 1-3 (Notice of Removal).) On June 12, 2019, Defendants filed the present motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 27.) Plaintiff timely responded to the motion, (ECF No. 29), and Defendants filed a timely reply, (ECF No. 31). As such, the motion is fully briefed and ripe for adjudication.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs motions for summary judgment. This rule provides, in relevant part, that summary judgment should be granted if “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Summary judgment is inappropriate, however, if there exist factual issues that reasonably may be resolved in favor of either party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). “Facts are ‘material' when they might affect the outcome of the case, and a ‘genuine issue' exists when the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” News & Observer Publ'g Co. v. Raleigh-Durham Airport Auth., 597 F.3d 570, 576 (4th Cir. 2010). When construing such factual issues, the Court may neither weigh the evidence, Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249, nor make determinations of credibility. Sosebee v. Murphy, 797 F.2d 179, 182 (4th Cir. 1986). Rather, the Court must view the evidence “in the light most favorable to the [party opposing summary judgment].” Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); see also Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255 (“The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” (citation omitted)).

         The moving party may meet its burden of showing that no genuine issue of fact exists by use of “depositions, answers to interrogatories, answers to requests for admission, and various documents submitted under request for production.” Barwick v. Celotex Corp., 736 F.2d 946, 958 (4th Cir. 1984). Once the moving party has met its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to “make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). If a party fails to make a sufficient showing on one element of that party's case, the failure of proof “necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Id. at 323.

         “[A] party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment may not rest upon mere allegation or denials of his pleading, but must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 256. “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence” in support of the nonmoving party is not enough to withstand summary judgment; the Court must ask whether “the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Id. at 252.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Defendants argue that Plaintiff cannot prevail on a premises liability claim because the material facts are undisputed that: (1) the box was open, obvious, and reasonably apparent to Plaintiff, (see ECF No. 28 at 5-6), and (2) Defendants did not have sufficient knowledge of the alleged danger at issue so as to trigger a duty upon Defendants to cure or warn against the alleged unsafe condition, (see Id. at 6-7).

         In her response, Plaintiff maintains that she was not aware of the box that Defendants allege was open and obvious. (See ECF No. 29 at 1.) She also claims that Defendants should have known of the danger that caused her injuries because “it had a haphazard practice of placing boxes and other debris” on the floor throughout the store. (Id.) Plaintiff argues that at the very least Defendants' motion must be denied because questions of material fact exist as to whether the box was open and obvious and whether Defendants breached their duty to protect customers from a safety hazard they should have known existed. (Id. at 5-7.)

         It is firmly established in West Virginia that an owner or possessor of property “owes to an invited person the duty to exercise ordinary care to keep and maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition.” Burdette v. Burdette, 127 S.E.2d 249, 252 ( W.Va. 1962) (citations omitted); see also syl. pt. 4, Mallet v. Pickens, 522 S.E.2d 436 ( W.Va. 1999) (abolishing the distinction between invitees and licensees in West Virginia). This duty, however, “does not apply to defects or conditions which should be known to the invitee or which would be observed by him in the exercise of ordinary care.” McDonald v. University of West Virginia Bd. Of Trustees, 444 S.E.2d 57, 60 (1994). As such, “[t]here is no liability for injuries from dangers that are obvious, reasonably apparent, or as well known to the person injured as ...


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