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Knowledge of Hazard Required
by Sara Palmer

Walgreens has been found not liable to the accident resulting in the broken kneecap caused by a fall in a store.

One day in January 2018, Robin Austin visited a Walgreen's store in Hebron, Indiana. After she spent some time looking around the store, she headed towards the registers when she slipped and fell. In her recounting of the incident she said “I - walking towards the cash register, my right foot hit something wet, and all of my weight landed on my left knee. I went down, all my weight on my left knee, and then immediately fell backwards on my back." Several people that went to her aid after she fell claim that they did not see anything on the floor that would cause her to fall. “Stella Vanderhere, Austin's friend, arrived at the store approximately seven minutes after Austin fell. Vanderhere observed 'water everywhere', and she took several pictures showing puddles of water in the general area where Austin had fallen and where people had gathered after the fall."

Paramedics arrived after Vanderhere, and took Austin to St. Anthony Medical Center where she was diagnosed with a broken knee cap. Austin told the paramedics that she “was walking and slipped on wet floor." She told the doctor something similar, telling him that she “was walking in Walgreens ... when she slipped on water, and fell onto her left kneecap."

Austin brought suit against Walgreen in Indiana state court, but Walgreens had the case removed to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, citing “diversity jurisdiction”. Both parties agreed to have a magistrate judge oversee the case. “Walgreen moved for summary judgment. In response to the motion, Austin submitted her statements to the paramedics and doctor at St. Anthony Medical Center. Walgreen moved to strike those statements as inadmissible hearsay. In a single order, the magistrate judge granted the motion to strike and the motion for summary judgment." This decision caused Austin to appeal.

The appeal is about determining “whether Austin's statement that she stepped on 'something wet' is sufficient to show that there was indeed a hazardous substance on the floor." However, the Supreme Court believes that while Austin may have had enough evidence that there was “a hazard on the floor, she did not present any evidence that Walgreen had knowledge of it."

In this case, there is no evidence of actual or constructive knowledge of a hazard. No employees were aware that there “was any kind of hazard on the floor in the area of the store where Austin fell before her fall." In regards to there being any constructive knowledge, Austin failed to prove that “a condition [which] has existed for such a length of time and under such circumstances that it would have been discovered in time to have prevented injury if the storekeeper, his agents or employees had used ordinary care."

Austin's main argument that Walgreen's was knowledgeable of a hazard, was “because the store's assistant manager admitted that when there was snow outside, as there was on the day in question, customers could track snow into the store and create potentially hazardous situations." In this instance, the Supreme Court does not believe that “just because the assistant manager knew that hazards were possible does not mean that he knew they had actually materialized at the place where Austin fell." In Walgreen's there are many potential hazards; “but that does not automatically impute instantaneous knowledge of when those hazards come about."

In conclusion, the Supreme Court affirmed that the “magistrate judge did not err in granting summary judgment to Walgreen."

(Austin v. Walgreen Co., No. 17-2629 (7th Cir. 2018))

Decision: March 2018
Published: March 2018

 
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