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Who Takes the Fall?
by Ron Davis
Round two in a New Jersey trip-and-fall lawsuit goes to the owners of the shopping center where the accident occurred.
The scene of the accident is Milltown Shopping Center in Milltown. And the resulting lawsuit pits the center’s partnership owners against Target Corporation, which operates a store there.
The victim of the accident is a woman who patronizes the shopping center. On the day of her accident, she was walking to the entrance of the Target store when she stumbled and fell. The cause of her fall, she says, was an opaque, circular piece of strapping that she had stepped on and that became entangled with her left foot. As a result of the fall, she suffered a compression fracture and a left hip fracture..
A companion at the time of the incident corroborated the woman’s account of the accident. The companion said that after the fall, she picked up the strapping and threw it aside so no one else would trip on it.
But neither woman reported the incident to anyone until several days later. At that time, the companion took her friend to the Target store and both told a manager what had happened. Target personnel responded that the store’s safety policies included cleaning up debris at the front entrance, but denied sole responsibility for maintaining the area where the fall occurred.
In fact, Target had the right to maintain the common area adjacent to the store, but Target may not have ever exercised that right. Target had, however, assumed the responsibility of steam cleaning the sidewalks and picking up debris and refuse just outside the store.
The injured woman eventually sued the shopping center’s owners as well as Target and the company that the shopping center hired to maintain and clean the property.
A New Jersey court ruled in favor of Target, noting that an agreement between the parties appointed the shopping center’s owners as “operator” of the center and that Target neither owned the parking lot nor the sidewalks. “[They were] owned by the partnership…and because of that, [the partnership] was responsible for it,” the judge said.
As for the possibility of any negligence by Target, the judge acknowledged that “it is possible that the piece of plastic came out of Target.” But he added that “it was in the common area” and “if it’s in a common area, it’s the responsibility of the operator.”
The shopping center’s owner appealed that ruling.
A New Jersey appellate court reversed the lower court, explaining, “The issue of which entity was responsible for maintenance of the sidewalk where the woman fell was pivotal to construing and applying the indemnification provisions…. The remaining issues presented…need not be decided at this time due to our conclusion that Target failed to meet its prima facie burden of persuasion.” (Marino v. Target Stores, 2009 WL 2461057 [N.J.Super.A.D.])
Decision: August 2009
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