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Plaintiff Can Bring Slip and Fall Case Under Respondeat Superior

By Robyn Hagan Cain on February 08, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The California Supreme Court revived a plaintiff's slip and fall case against a jewelry store this week under the theory of respondeat superior, noting that it was no ordinary slip and fall case.

The difference in this premises liability case? The plaintiff was not a customer, but an independent contractor who was injured in an employees-only area.

Tom Getchell worked as an independent contractor at Rogers Jewelry store in Sacramento's Arden Fair Mall. He alleges that he was injured after he slipped in jewelry cleaning solution in the break room of the store, and that the solution leaked onto the floor from its container or was poured onto the floor by one of the store's employees. Getchell sued Rogers Jewelry for negligence and premises liability.

The trial court granted summary judgment for Rogers Jewelry, agreeing that Getchell failed to show that the store had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition and that the condition was open and notorious. Getchell appealed, and won.

Here's why the California Supreme Court agreed with him.

The cleaning solution at the center of the case is stored in a five gallon bucket in the employee break area, a space restricted to store staff. The only people who use and have access to the cleaning solution are Getchell and defendant's employees.

The cleaning solution bucket has a rotating spigot pump. In order to use the spigot, it must be rotated over the side of the bucket. When not in use, the spigot is supposed to be positioned over the bucket. That way, if it leaks, it will drip onto the lid of the bucket instead of the floor.

On several occasions, Getchell observed store employees use the spigot and leave it positioned over the side of the bucket; if the spigot had leaked in that position, cleaning solution would drip onto the floor.

The California Supreme Court noted that the case turned on whether the dangerous condition was created by the negligence of an employee over whom the Rogers Jewelry had control. In such a case the notice doctrine applicable in dangerous condition of property cases is governed by the doctrine of respondeat superior.

Since the court reviewed the matter on summary judgment, the key question was whether, based on the facts in the summary judgment motion, there was a reasonable inference that the dangerous condition was caused by the negligence of one of store's employees.

Getchell offered evidence that the break room where the accident occurred and the cleaning solution that caused the accident were under the exclusive control of the defendant and its employees, and he presented evidence that he did not cause the cleaning solution to be on the floor. The California Supreme Court found that Getchell had produced sufficient evidence to establish a reasonable inference that one of the store's employees caused the accident, so it ruled that he could proceed with his slip and fall case.

Because there was a triable issue of material fact, summary judgment was inappropriate.

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