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Indiana Supreme Court Finds Store Manager Not Liable for Negligence in Wal-Mart Trip-and-Fall Personal Injury Lawsuit

The Indiana Supreme Court recently opined on a certified question from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana that a Wal-Mart store manager could not be held liable for negligence for a trip-and-fall incident that occurred in the store on account of alleged failures to properly hire, train, and supervise Wal-Mart’s employees, as well as alleged failures to implement proper safety policies and procedures. In Branscomb v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., the Court considered the certified question when Wal-Mart and the store manager sought to remove the case from state court to federal court under federal diversity jurisdiction upon the basis that the store manager, Clark, an Indiana citizen, was fraudulently joined to the lawsuit, was not a proper party to the case, and, therefore, his citizenship should be ignored, leaving only Wal-Mart, a non-Indiana citizen, as a defendant. After Wal-Mart removed the case to federal court on diversity grounds, Plaintiffs sought to remand the matter back to state court, alleging questions of fact existed as to the store manager’s role in the negligence giving rise to the Plaintiffs’ injuries. The federal court noted there was no clear precedent on the issue and, therefore, certified the question to the Indiana Supreme Court.

In analyzing the question, Indiana’s Supreme Court noted that although Indiana recognizes the tort of negligent hiring, training, and supervision, the tort is not applicable if the tortfeasor employee is acting in the course and scope of employment. Branscomb had suffered injuries when he tripped over a pallet in the Wal-Mart garden center, leading to his fall. Looking at the allegations of the case, the court observed that the facts made no suggestion that the individual who placed a pallet on the floor in Wal-Mart’s garden center had been acting outside the scope of their employment and the Plaintiffs had made no such allegation. Consequently, under these particular allegations, the court found the Plaintiffs could only possibly hold Wal-Mart liable for the personal injuries sustained for which they were seeking recovery in their lawsuit.

As for the other allegations—that the store manager failed to implement proper safety policies and procedures to prevent the trip-and-fall event—the store manager submitted an affidavit stating that managers in his position do not have any discretion to unilaterally determine safety policies and procedures for the store, which discretion is, instead, given by “managers from higher up the Wal-Mart corporate ladder.” The court then turned to Indiana premise liability law, which provides only a possessor, controller, or person entitled to “immediate occupation” of the land has a duty to business invitees, like Branscomb, to prevent foreseeable harm from dangers on the land that were known or should have been known by the person. Because the Wal-Mart store manager accused of negligence did not possess the land, was not in control of the land when the fall occurred (it was his day off), and there were others who were entitled to occupy the land with intent to control it while the manager was off duty, the manager did not owe Branscomb a duty at the time of his fall under Indiana law.

Although Plaintiffs were arguing Wal-Mart and the manager shared a duty to customers, the court noted this argument was inconsistent with the definition of a possessor of land and other caselaw supporting this position. The court further noted Indiana law provides that a premises owner in Indiana may not delegate the duty it owes to keep its premises safe for its own employees. Finally, the court rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that Restatement (Second) of Agency § 352 provides an avenue for recovery against the manager as an agent where “physical harm results from reliance upon performance of the duties by the agent, or unless the agent has control of land or other tangible things.” The Restatement requires a showing of reliance by the injured party upon the agent, which the court noted the Branscombs did not allege. And, the court had already dispensed with the alternative argument that the manager had control over the property. Accordingly, the court concluded that although the manager’s actions in maintaining the store benefits customers, the duty the manager owes is to Wal-Mart, not the customers, absent additional factual circumstances not presented in the case. You may read the Branscomb decision here.

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