In a recent case, a couple appealed a final summary judgment in a travel center’s favor. They had also wanted to amend the complaint to include punitive damages, but were denied. The case arose when a man slipped on diesel fuel that had spilled at a service station. He sued on the grounds of negligent maintenance. The defendant argued that its employees had followed all the appropriate clean-up procedures in addition to the spill being open and obvious. The trial court agreed with the defense and granted summary judgment in its favor.
In slip and fall cases, the burden to prove there are no material issues of fact is more difficult than some other personal injury cases. A court may not grant summary judgment unless the defendant establishes that the absence of negligence was unequivocal or that it was the injury’s exclusive proximate cause.
The man who fell was considered a business invitee. In Florida, a business invitee is owed (1) a duty to employ reasonable care in ensuring the property’s conditions have been safely maintained and (2) duty to warn about dangers an owner has or should have had knowledge of, that are not known to the invitee. The man was a seasoned truck driver, plus he saw the spill right away when he came to the station and was aware of it because he had seen the trash can aisle blockage and had moved through the spill as he walked to the station store.
The appellate court explained that it was clear the gas station store did not have a duty to warn the man because he had knowledge of the spill’s existence. It is obvious from the appellate record that Pilot had not been required to warn Tallent because he was aware of the spill’s existence. The defendant’s knowledge of the danger needs to be greater than the business invitee’s awareness of it to be held liable.
The spill in this case was open and obvious. However, that alone would not negate the potential for liability related to allowing the hazardous condition to remain in existence. Rather, it simply raised comparative negligence as an issue and would prevent summary judgment from being appropriate. Even if you have no duty to warn, you may still have a duty to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition if it anticipates a potential harm to the woman as a result of the spill.
The discharge of the duty to warn doesn’t necessarily discharge a related duty requiring business owners to maintain the premises in conditions that are reasonably safe. If a defendant anticipates a potential harm, it should clean up a spill. In his case, the court found that it could not conclude there was no issue of fact that could be considered material relating to whether the defendant had kept the property in a condition that was reasonably safe. The defendant put reliance on its head maintenance person’s testimony to prove it had followed the company’s cleanup procedures the day that the fall occurred. The dispute related to the spill’s size and scope, but it was more than 20 gallons, spreading 40 feet from the starting point in the gas pump lane.
The maintenance guy was unable to confirm whether he had put out the trash cans or cleaned that day. The plaintiff had not seen barriers or cleaning materials other than the trans cans. Whether or not the defendant’s employees had appropriately followed cleaning procedures remained a material issue of fact, so summary judgment was reversed.