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Err…Not in this Case
by Ron Davis
Did a judge wrongly influence a jury in a negligence lawsuit against a Missouri shopping center owner? Not according to the Missouri Court of Appeals, which recently reviewed details of the lawsuit and decided that the trial judge did not err in handling the case.
The lawsuit resulted from a slip-and-fall accident at the shopping center, located in Caruthersville. The victim of the accident had parked in the center’s parking lot to shop at a supermarket located there. As she and her husband walked toward the entrance of the store, they had to pass an area where Christmas trees were displayed for sale.
The trees completely blocked their path along the sidewalk and protruded slightly over the sidewalk edge. As a result, the woman stepped from the sidewalk into the parking lot area in an attempt to circle around the trees. In so doing, she apparently stepped on pine needles that had fallen from the Christmas trees. She then lost her footing and fell to the ground, sustaining permanent injuries.
She eventually sued the supermarket, which owns the shopping center where the accident occurred. At trial, a jury found the shopping center owner 100 percent at fault for the woman’s injury and awarded her $27,000.
The shopping center owner appealed, arguing that the judge in the lawsuit wrongly instructed the jury before it reached a verdict. In his instructions, the judge had told the jury members they must assess a percentage of fault to the center’s owner if they believed Christmas trees and their needles were located “on or near” the sidewalk of the store and, as a result, the path to the store was not reasonably safe.
The shopping center owner maintained that there was no evidence that the Christmas tree needles were at the spot in the parking lot where the woman fell.
The Missouri Court of Appeals, in upholding the jury’s verdict, explained, “A connection exists between the sidewalk and the parking lot…. The evidence shows that the condition that caused the fall—Christmas tree needles on the parking lot—was caused by the Christmas trees on the sidewalk…. The accident victim submitted substantial evidence in support of such a theory, and the instruction submitted to the jury is consistent with such a theory. We are unable to conclude that this instruction misdirected, misled or confused the jury, or that it affected the merits of the case.” (Hepler v. Caruthersville Supermarket Co., 102 S.W.3d 564 [Mo.App. S.D. 2003])
Decision: May 2003
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