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Plaintiff’s Negligence Claim Against Retailer Store Dismissed For Failure to Prove Causation for Fall

By on January 22, 2021 in Negligence with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Jeanne Ludwig was shopping at the Michaels store when she tripped and fell over the base of a railing while backing up inside a shopping cart corral inside the store.  Plaintiff was looking for lights to display on her windowsill and tripped when her foot hit the base of the railing for the cart corral.  The issue in Ludwig v. Michaels Arts & Crafts Store, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 220618 (D.N.J. November 23, 2020) was whether the plaintiff was able to establish proof of causation, i.e. that the cart corral railing protruding into the walkway caused her fall.

While plaintiff was looking for the lights to display on her windowsill, she was directed by a cashier to look “over to the left on the other side of the store.”  The plaintiff went past the rest of the cashiers, which she thought was an aisle, but was blocked by carts.  She took at least three steps back before she was stopped by the carts.  She testified that she did not see them as she entered what appeared to be an aisle.  In fact, however, it was a corral for storage of the shopping carts.  As she backed up, her left foot hit the base of the railing and she went down.  She could not recall on which portion of the base she tripped over.  While Ludwig was aware of the railing, she was not aware that there was a base to the railing.  As a result of her accident, she suffered a fractured hip and a displaced left femoral neck fracture.

The plaintiff retained the services of an expert, Wayne F. Nolte, PhD, PE.  He opined that the accident site was in a hazardous condition due to the presence of a base plate for the cart corral system that projected into a foreseeable and accessible path of travel for customers.  Essentially, he opined that the base plates were a trip hazard.

The defendant store contended that the plaintiff failed to establish proof of causation.  The defendant argued that even if the cart corral was improper because the base plates extended into the walkway, the plaintiff was unable to substantiate that the improper aspect of the cart corral railing base plate is what caused her to fall.  Plaintiff conceded that she did not know or recall which portion of the base plate caused her to fall.

The Court pointed out that the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing causation by some competent proof.  She “was required to submit evidence establishing that it was more likely than not defendant’s improperly extending the base plates into the walking area caused her fall.”  The mere possibility that she contacted the portion of the base plate that extended into the walkway, as opposed to the portion of the base plate that did not extend into the walkway, would not be sufficient to meet her burden of proof. 

The plaintiff did concede that there were two possibilities that caused her fall.  First, that her foot caught on the interior section of the base plate which “dangerously extended” into the walkway or, second, her foot could have caught the portion of the base plate directly under the railing which was not extending into the walkway area, which would relieve the defendant of liability.

The District Court pointed out that when “the matter remains one of pure speculation or conjecture, or the probabilities are at best evenly balanced, it becomes the duty of the Court to direct a verdict for the defendant.”   While the Court recognized that the plaintiff’s accident was “real” and her injuries were “surely real” for which any “decent person” would sympathize, she was required to submit proof that the extended base plate caused her fall. 

Therefore, the Court found that she failed to produce evidence of that, as she herself did not know and there was no relevant third-party testimony or video evidence to substantiate what she tripped over.  Because she failed to establish that there was a genuine issue of material fact for trial, “i.e. that she possesses evidence from which a jury could legitimately find by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant’s negligently-kept cart corral caused her injuries,” the District Court granted the defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment and dismissed the Complaint.


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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 30 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020-2023, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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