In a quick deliberation, Clayton jurors find movie theater chain not liable for woman tripping over fallen ‘wet floor’ sign
Written by Alyson M. Palmer of the Daily Report.
A movie theater chain that lost a trip-and-fall case before a unanimous state Supreme court earlier this year has been redeemed by a Clayton County jury.
The jury decided this month that AMC is not liable to a woman who claimed she was injured after tripping on a “wet floor” sign at the company’s theater. According to winning lawyer Christopher M. Ziegler of Atlanta’s Gray, Rust, St. Amand, Moffett & Brieske, the jury deliberated fewer than 30 minutes before ruling in Amc’s favor.
While he was pleased for his client, Ziegler said the jury verdict didn’t override the lesson of the Georgia Supreme Court’s ruling, which said the trip-and-fall case had to go to a jury. “I think the jury verdict is mostly meaningless as to any message it sends to businesses,” Ziegler said Tuesday, explaining that businesses still will look to the Supreme Court’s June ruling in the case, one he has said puts businesses in an untenable position as they decide whether to mark a spill with a warning sign. “That decision says a business can be found negligent and liable for marking a spill with a ‘wet floor’ sign … at least if the circumstances are right, and, as i read the decision, that’s always going to be a jury question.”
Decatur lawyer A. Thomas Stubbs, who represented the plaintiffs at trial, said the Supreme court decision told businesses that they “should not think of all warning signs as one size fits all,” but the jury verdict had another message for the business community.
“We’re in a state where every plaintiff faces an uphill battle,” said Stubbs, saying Clayton County is reputed to be a plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction. “Businesses should be comfortable that jurors are not wide-eyed folks giving away other people’s money.”
Plaintiff Nancy Sue Brown had visited the AMC Southlake theater on Christmas Day in 2003, a traditionally busy day of the year for movie theaters. A few minutes before the movie ended, an AMC employee set up an A-frame “wet floor” sign over a small spill about 10 to 20 paces outside the auditorium door, according to the Supreme court opinion in the case.
The opinion says that by the time Brown reached the sign, it had fallen over and was lying flat on the floor. Her vision obstructed by the mass of people around her, Brown’s toe caught in the sign’s handle and she fell to the floor. Brown and her husband filed suit. Clayton State court Judge John C. Carbo III granted summary judgment for AMC because he found that the “wet floor” sign had been prop- erly placed and that there was no evi- dence that anyone knew the sign had collapsed. But a panel of the Court of Appeals reversed, saying Carbo was wrong to conclude the sign was properly placed as a matter of law.
In a unanimous opinion by then-chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, who since has retired from the court, the Supreme Court ruled that a 1997 state Supreme Court decision meant that routine issues of slip-and-fall and trip-and-fall cases—such as how closely a retailer should monitor its premises and how vigilant patrons must be for their own safety in various settings—must be answered by juries, not judges. Given Browns’ evidence of the risk posed by the A-frame type of “wet floor” sign when used in areas traversed by large concentrations of people, she wrote, the court couldn’t say as a matter of law that AMC had fulfilled its duty to avoid creating an unreasonable safety risk for the public.
Back in Clayton County on Monday, Nov. 30, the lawyers— Ziegler and associate Korey M. Carter for AMC, and Stubbs and John E. King Jr. of Savannah for the plaintiffs—began picking a jury. According to Ziegler, the lawyers finished their cases around 4:45 p.m. that Friday and received a jury verdict at about 5:15 p.m.
At trial, the parties didn’t call any expert witnesses, including the expert whose pretrial testimony about the dangers of “wet floor” signs may have helped the plaintiffs get past summary judgment in the appellate courts. Ziegler said the expert had disagreed with parts of his own affidavit in his deposition, but Stubbs denied there was a conflict. The expert’s testimony was useful for the pretrial appellate process, said Stubbs, but wasn’t necessary or appropriate given the Supreme court’s ruling that the question about the sign was one for a jury.
The plaintiffs have argued that there were alternatives to the “wet floor” sign AMC had used at the Southlake location in December 2003, such as a more stable sign that’s knocked over less easily and a rope line barrier around a sign. But Ziegler said that during voir dire nearly every potential juror agreed with his argument: “i argued that the ‘wet floor’ sign used in this case was pretty much the normal, standard sign that everyone sees everywhere they go,” said Ziegler.
Another key issue at trial was whether the fall at the theater had caused the back injury of which Brown complained. Stubbs explained that Brown suffered a broken foot, dislocated toe and back injury that led to back sur- gery 23 months later. Stubbs said he asked the jury for $383,000 in total to cover pain and suffering, medical expenses, and loss of consortium for Brown’s husband.
Stubbs said he spoke with a few jurors after the trial, and he concluded the jury had found it “impossible to untangle” the back injury of which Brown complained from other back problems Brown had experienced before and after the fall. “We had, we thought, very strong medical evidence that we offered that linked the fall directly to the injuries that she talked about,” said Stubbs, “but the jury decided otherwise.”
Still, Ziegler said the one juror with whom he spoke—one of several jurors who had worked with the sort of “wet floor” sign at issue in the case—wanted to compensate the plaintiff for her medical bills, even though the juror thought AMC had done nothing wrong in putting out the “wet floor” sign. Ziegler said that showed the importance of a judge’s ability to grant summary judgment in civil cases. “I was reminded by that comment that there’s going to be cases where jurors find no negligence against a business,” said Ziegler, “but they’re still going to want to award some compensation, maybe out of sympathy, or maybe they think that that’s the right thing to do.” Stubbs said his clients are considering their options. “They’ve got to decide what direction to go, and we’re discussing that now.”
The case is Brown v. American Multi-Cinema, no. 2005cv07508. Jury sides with AMC chain in trip-and-fall suit trip.
The Plaintiff was following a PT Cruiser whose driver veered into the right lane the last second to avoid impacting the wrecker. Mr. Coggins then hit the wrecker flush in the rear at approximately 55 mph, causing complete destruction of his Dodge Caliber and significant head and back injuries to Mr. Coggins. Mr. Coggins lost consciousness at the scene and was transported to Polk Medical Center where he was diagnosed with wrist contusions, facial contusions, lacerations, a large hematoma and a concussion. He was later treated for a closed head injury with symptoms of severe and disabling headaches, ringing in the ears, light and noise sensitivity, disorientation, confusion, irritability, behavioral and personality changes. He also underwent a lumbar discectomy and fusion for his alleged low back injury. Mr. Coggins’ attorney characterized his injuries as severe, painful, permanent and disabling.
Mr. Coggins alleged $59,091.26 in medical expenses and claimed to have missed 5 months of work from his job as a laborer at Newark Paperboard in Cedartown, resulting in approximately $16,000 in lost wages.
At trial, Plaintiff’s counsel reduced the claimed medical expenses to $21,193.00 dropping the contention that the back surgery was related to the automobile accident. The defense was able to convince the jury that Mr. Coggins was partially at fault for the accident and obtained a verdict in the amount of $11,251.93. The jurors afterwards explained that they awarded the Plaintiff half of the medical expenses that were conceded to be due to the accident and half of his claimed lost wages, but only for the three weeks after the accident. The jury did not award damages for the Plaintiff’s alleged pain and suffering. Mr. St. Amand retained the services of an accident reconstruction expert, Will Partenheimer of FORCON International, who performed a line of sight study which showed the Plaintiff had over 2,000 feet of visibility prior to the point of impact. The Plaintiff rejected an offer to settle for $25,000 prior to trial. No appeal is expected.