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Nondelegable Duty Nondelegable
by Sara Palmer

The Supreme Court was in favor of Rodriguez in all counts except one where it felt that the district court was correct in it's ruling.

One day shortly after 6:00 a.m., when the store opened, Gloria Rodriguez walked into a Smith's grocery store to purchase breakfast. At the beginning of aisle 13 she slipped and fell on a puddle of water left by Benigno Galeno while he was cleaning the floors, injuring her head, neck and shoulders. Galeno had been contracted by J&I Maintenance, the company that Smith's hired to clean its floors.

Rodriguez sued Kroger Co. and Smith's Food & Drugs Centers, Inc., J&I Maintenance and Galeno. Before the trial, Rodriguez settled with Galeno. During the trial "a jury apportioned 5 percent of the fault to Smith’s, none of the fault to the janitorial company, 75 percent of the fault to the independent contractor, and 20 percent of the fault to Rodriguez herself." When the trial was over, "Rodriguez argued that Smith’s and [J&I Maintenance] were liable for [Galeno's] share of the damages. The district court disagreed and entered judgment based on the jury’s allocation of fault. The district court also awarded Rodriguez 5 percent of her costs. Rodriguez appealed."

Rodriguez felt that since "Smith’s was charged with a nondelegable duty to keep its premises safe, the court should have required Smith’s to pay damages for the independent contractor’s negligence in addition to its own. She also claims that the nondelegable duty doctrine mandated that the district court enter judgment against the janitorial company for the damages flowing from the independent contractor’s negligence." As such, Rodriguez filed a proposed judgement which stated that "the court should enter judgment against Smith’s for 80 percent of Rodriguez’s damages: 5 percent attributable to the fault allocated to Smith’s and 75 percent attributable to the fault allocated to Galeno. Additionally, Rodriguez argued that because J&I and Galeno assumed Smith’s nondelegable duty, the court should enter judgment against J&I for 75 percent of Rodriguez’s damages, attributable to 75 percent of the fault allocated to Galeno."

Both Smith's and J&I contested Rodriguez's proposed judgment; "[t]hey argued that such a rejiggering of liability would run afoul of Utah’s Liability Reform Act (LRA). Smith’s and J&I reasoned that under the LRA, no defendant can be liable to any person seeking recovery for any amount in excess of the proportion of fault attributed to that defendant, and that Rodriguez’s proposed judgment would do precisely that."

The district court concluded that Smith's was liable for 5% of Rogriguez's damages, and also "awarded Rodriguez 5% of her costs," to which Rodriguez appealed.

Two issues were raised by Rodriguez on appeal. The first was over the fact that the district court did not find Smith's and J&I liable for Galeno's portion of damages caused by his negligence. Rodriguez felt that the district court erred, in that it did not take into consideration the nondelegable duty doctrine which would mean that "both Smith’s and J&I should also be liable for Galeno’s portion of the damages." Both companies countered with the LRA, which states "no defendant is liable to any person seeking recovery for any amount in excess of the proportion of fault attributed to that defendant".

The second issue raised by Rodriguez was that the district court erred in reducing her costs award to an amount representing 5 percent of the taxed costs. Rodrigues argues that "while the trial court did not elaborate on its decision, it seems evident that the trial court treated taxed costs in the same manner as 'damages' under Utah Code section 78B-5-820."

In conclusion, the Supreme Court found that "Smith's had a nondelegable duty to keep its premises resonably safe for invitees." As such, the court deemed the company "liable for the damages arising from Galeno's negligence." It decided to "remand with instructions to enter judgment against Smith's for 80 percent of Rodriguez's damages to account for Smith's own negligence and the negligence of Galeno." It kept the ruling for J&I the same.

(Rodriguez v. Kroger Co., (Supreme Court of the State of Utah, No. 20161012))

Decision: June 2018
Published: June 2018



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