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Sixth Cir. Reinstates Shopper's Negligence Claim Against Target

By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 02, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We have long believed that the Target clearance aisle was a dangerous place, but that belief was based on monetary concerns, not safety hazards. Regardless, we love Target.

An unpublished Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion issued last week, however, reminds us that danger lurks even in happy places. With that in mind, the Sixth Circuit reinstated a Target clearance shopper’s negligence claim against the retail giant, finding that the district court had erred in granting Target’s motion for summary judgment.

Plaintiff Kelly Hollerbach was injured when two picture frames fell off a hook and landed on her toe in a Michigan Target store. Hollerbach claimed that she did not touch the items before they fell.

Michigan premises liability law includes a specific negligence claim based on an injury that arises out of a condition on the property. To establish a prima facie case of premises liability, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant owed and breached a duty to her, an injury resulted from that breach, and the plaintiff incurred damages.

Hollerbach sued, basing her negligence claim on Target's property condition.

Target moved for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, arguing that Hollerbach's claim should be dismissed because the claim was "based on impermissible speculation," and that Target owed her no duty because there was no evidence that Target either created, or was on notice of, the allegedly defective condition.

Concluding that Target did not have constructive notice of the allegedly defective condition - and that the condition was open and obvious - the district court granted summary judgment.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case.

During its proceedings, the district court had determined that the defective condition in the display was the slight downward slant of a second fixture/hook, (not the fixture that had once contained the falling frames). The court further determined that Hollerbach had seen the non-offending fixture/hook, that its slant was open and obvious, and that she thus should have appreciated the danger that frames may fall.

The Sixth Circuit found that the district court improperly concluded that Target did not have notice of the allegedly defective condition.

Target presented no evidence that a third party, such as an outside vendor, would have installed the clearance aisle display, positioned or affixed the fixtures/hooks, or placed or arranged the picture frames in the home-goods clearance aisle.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that a reasonable jury could conclude Target created or tolerated the condition, so Target's knowledge of the condition could be inferred. Accordingly, the court reinstated the case.

Hollerbach's negligence claim survived based on photographs that she took to document the accident scene. (A Target team leader, who also took photos for an internal accident report, photographed the wrong aisle.) If a client contacts you about a similar negligence claim, make sure that you have independent documentation of the alleged hazard that is the basis of your claim.

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