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Larocca v. Walmart Stores, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Kansas

April 22, 2015

IRENE LAROCCA, Plaintiff,
v.
WALMART STORES, INC., Defendant.

ORDER

JAMES P. O'HARA, Magistrate Judge.

The plaintiff, Irene Larocca, filed this personal injury suit against the defendant, Walmart Stores, Inc., alleging that she tripped and fell just outside defendant's store in Topeka, Kansas, as a result of defendant's negligence. Before the court is defendant's motion for summary judgment (ECF doc. 15). Defendant argues that it is not liable for plaintiff's injuries because the "slight defect rule" under Kansas law bars plaintiff's claim. For the reasons set forth below, defendant's motion is granted.

I. Uncontroverted Facts

On January 18, 2014, plaintiff went to defendant's store at 1501 SW Wanamaker in Topeka, Kansas. As plaintiff walked toward the store, she tripped on a section of the sidewalk located at the north entrance of the building. Plaintiff alleges that she tripped and fell when she stepped in a hole in defendant's sidewalk. The "hole" was approximately one inch in depth. Plaintiff alleges that as a result of this occurrence, she sustained injuries.

Defendant captured the incident on surveillance video.[1] Plaintiff admits that photographs taken by defendant depict the hole on the sidewalk and the area that caused the incident.[2]

Plaintiff filed her complaint on September 9, 2014, alleging defendant is negligent for failing to keep the business place safe and failing to warn of a dangerous condition.[3] As a result, plaintiff seeks damages in excess of $75, 000.

Defendant now moves for summary judgment on plaintiff's claim. Plaintiff has stipulated to the facts outlined in defendant's statement of uncontroverted facts. However, plaintiff adds the following facts: (1) the hole plaintiff fell in was located in a public entrance of the store; and (2) in the surveillance video of plaintiff's fall, the same entrance is receiving "heavy foot traffic from customers."[4] Defendant denies both facts as stated.[5] Defendant maintains that plaintiff did not fall; the surveillance video undisputedly shows that, while plaintiff did trip, she came nowhere close to falling onto the sidewalk.

II. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[6] A fact is "material" when it is essential to the claim, and issues of fact are "genuine" if the proffered evidence permits a reasonable jury to decide the issue in either party's favor.[7] In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must examine all evidence in a light most favorable to the opposing party.[8]

The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.[9] This burden may be discharged by "showing" that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.[10] Once the moving party has properly supported its motion for summary judgment, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party, who "may not rest on mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial."[11] The existence of some disputed facts does not automatically preclude granting summary judgment.[12]

Summary judgment is not a "disfavored procedural shortcut."[13] It is an important procedural vehicle "designed to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action."[14] One of the principal purposes of summary judgment is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims or defenses, and the rule should be interpreted in a way that allows it to accomplish this purpose.[15] With these standards in mind, the court addresses defendant's motion.

III. Analysis

The well-established essential elements of a negligence claim are as follows: (1) the existence of a duty, (2) breach of that duty, (3) injury, and (4) a causal connection between the duty breached and the injury suffered.[16] Generally, claims based on negligence present factual determinations for the jury, not legal questions for the court.[17] However, questions regarding the existence of a duty of care are purely legal determinations.[18] "If a court concludes that a defendant did not have a duty to act in a certain manner toward the plaintiff, then the defendant cannot be liable to the plaintiff for negligence."[19] In such cases, a court may correctly grant summary judgment in the defendant's favor.[20]

Defendant argues the court should grant summary judgment in its favor because the "slight defect rule" under Kansas law bars plaintiff's claim. Since 1935, Kansas courts have applied a judicially created "slight defect" rule that negates the existence of a duty that might otherwise exist.[21] Under the rule, "slight variances in the level of sidewalk surfaces, whether caused by projections, depressions or otherwise, are not sufficient to establish actionable negligence in the construction or maintenance of the sidewalk."[22] In other words, "[s]light and inconvenient defects in the sidewalk... do not furnish basis for actionable negligence, even though a pedestrian may trip, fall, and injure [himself or] herself on account of ...


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