A Massachusetts appeals court recently reversed a lower court’s grant of summary judgment to a defendant retail store following the plaintiff’s injury in the store, despite admitting that the plaintiff did not have a very strong case.
Defendant Boys in Berries, LLC operates a farm and retail store in Sharon, Massachusetts. In July 2010, Maria Belanger arrived at the farm store with her husband, Ray, entering the store while her husband stayed in the car. Belanger selected a few items to purchase and went to check out. At the end of the checkout counter was a large cardboard box placed on top of a wood pallet. The box and pallet were directly adjacent to the end of the checkout counter, set back several inches from the vertical surface of the counter. From the checkout line, the top of the box was visible, but the square pallet on which it rested could not be seen. While in line, Belanger noted that the box was octagonal.
After paying for her items, Belanger walked forward and turned to her right, heading to the exit. She noticed the pallet underneath the box only a “couple of seconds” before catching her right foot under the corner of the pallet. Her subsequent fall resulted in a hip and shoulder fracture. The octagonal box had warning arrows pointing to the pallet corners. These arrows, however, like the pallet itself, were obscured from the view of a person in the checkout line due to the placement of the box.
A large crate of melons stood on the opposite side of the exit path and within a few feet of the pallet and box. At the time of the accident, there were no defects with the lighting or any debris on the floor. There was no evidence suggesting that the pallet was defective or broken.
The lower court granted summary judgment to the defendants, Boys in Berries, LLC and Farm Family Casualty Insurance Company. Plaintiffs Maria and Ray Belanger appealed, asserting that the lower court erred in ruling that the defendants did not create an unsafe condition as a matter of law.
The appeals court first explained that landowners owe a duty to maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition in view of all circumstances, including the likelihood of injury to others, the seriousness of the injury, and the burden of avoiding the risk. Moreover, landowners must remove or warn visitors of any unreasonable dangers of which the landowner is aware or reasonably should be aware unless the dangers are open and obvious.
The appeals court explained that although the use of a pallet itself may not be unreasonably dangerous, the manner in which it is placed could present a genuine dispute with respect to the issue of dangerousness. On the record before it, the court held that a reasonable jury could have found that the defendant Boys in Berries, LLC created an unsafe condition by placing the box on top of the obscured pallet along the path from the checkout counter to the store. Moreover, the jury could find that the arrows on the box — also obscured — were intended to warn of the type of injury sustained by Belanger. While the record admittedly did not create a strong case for the plaintiffs, it nonetheless presented a genuine issue of material fact.
Additionally, the court explained, the record presented a genuine dispute regarding whether the pallet was an open and obvious danger, not requiring a warning. The open and obvious doctrine rests on the assumption that the warning provided by the open and obvious nature of the danger is by itself sufficient to relieve the property owner of its duty to protect visitors from dangerous conditions. Here, however, the court reasoned that a reasonable jury could find that the protruding corner of the pallet could not be seen until a customer turned to exit the store, and it was therefore not placed in an open and obvious manner. While the judge did not err in his general assessment that the plaintiffs’ case was not very strong, the appeals court concluded that the plaintiffs surmounted the relatively low bar required to survive summary judgment.
The court therefore reversed and remanded.
If you have been injured by another party’s negligence, you may face significant medical bills and time off work, and you may need the assistance of a premises liability lawyer to redress your injuries. At the Neumann Law Group, our personal injury attorneys provide trustworthy legal representation to accident victims all over the state of Massachusetts. Contact us toll-free at 800-525-NEUMANN or use our online form to set up a free consultation.
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