Trip and Fall in a North Carolina Store

In Utley v. Smith, a North Carolina appellate court considered a trip and fall case. The case arose in 2012 when the plaintiff was shopping for plants in the defendant’s store. He asked a clerk where he could find particular plants and was told he could find them outside. On his way toward the plants, he tripped over a stack of tomato crates and hurt his shoulder and hip.

He sued the defendant in 2014, claiming negligence and loss of consortium. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted. The plaintiff appealed. He argued that there was a genuine factual issue about whether the condition that caused him to trip and fall was open and obvious. He argued that the tomato crates were not open and obvious, and the defendant was negligent.

The appellate court disagreed. It explained that a trip and fall plaintiff needs to prove that the defendant failed to use proper care in performing a legal duty owed to the plaintiff and that this breach of duty was the legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. In North Carolina, property owners owe a duty of reasonable care to all lawful visitors. Business owners are expected to keep the parts of the property that they reasonably expect will be used by customers in a reasonably safe condition during business hours. They are supposed to provide warnings of hidden dangers or unsafe conditions that can’t be seen through a customer’s reasonable observation. However, an owner need not warn customers of obvious dangers of which customers have equal or better knowledge.

The plaintiff in this case had first seen the tomato crates when he walked down the aisle to ask where the plants were, and nothing blocked him from seeing the crates when he backed up the aisle. The appellate court found that the crates were an obvious condition of which the plaintiff knew or should have known at the time of falling, and the defendant didn’t owe a duty to warn of this obvious condition.

The plaintiff also argued that even if the crates were open and obvious, the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty to warn because he couldn’t negotiate the aisle with reasonable safety. The appellate court pointed out that icy steps are an example of a condition that can’t be negotiated with reasonable safety, even if a customer is fully aware of it. It found that the crates could have been negotiated with reasonable safety, since the plaintiff had walked down the aisle once without having any trouble.

The plaintiff also argued on appeal that the defendant failed to immediately seek medical attention for him after his accident. However, the plaintiff had not raised the issue below nor presented an argument or evidence that the defendant was negligent in not getting medical help for the plaintiff before it cleaned up the tomato crates that cluttered the aisle after the plaintiff’s fall. The appellate court held that summary judgment was properly granted for the defendant and affirmed.

If you were injured by a dangerous condition in a retail store, the experienced premises liability attorneys at Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation. Contact us at 888-258-1087 or via our online form.

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