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Dismissal Secured in Tort Suit Against National Retail Client

Case Study

Dismissal Secured in Tort Suit Against National Retail Client

August 31, 2022

Goldberg Segalla partner Todd R. Harris successfully secured the dismissal of a tort suit against a large national retail client filed by a woman who faulted the company for “serious and permanent injuries” she allegedly suffered while shopping.

The victory — saving the retailer significant expenses in trial costs and potential judgment — marks an important blueprint for retailers and businesses who may face similar actions.

The plaintiff in this case filed suit claiming she was seriously hurt after tripping over a display set up in an aisle of the client’s department store, asserting that her injuries were the result of negligence on the part of the business.

Though the plaintiff acknowledged seeing the display itself, she claimed she did not see exactly what she tripped over.  She speculated that two metal bars attached to the bottom of the display, protruding into the aisle, caused her fall, noting that the diameter of the objects felt roughly the same size with what her foot came into contact. As such, she claimed her injuries were the result of negligence on behalf of the retailer, which she maintained created a dangerous condition that posed a threat to her safety.

Harris, vice chair of Goldberg Segalla’s Retail and Hospitality practice group, argued the business did not breach any duty to the plaintiff. He highlighted the fact the plaintiff could not definitively identify the cause of her fall, and was equivocal during her deposition as to the precise circumstances surrounding the happening of her accident. Harris further argued that, in any event, such display set up was “open and obvious” and, thus, not inherently dangerous.

Therefore, Harris concluded Goldberg Segalla’s client did not violate its duty to the plaintiff.

In a 21-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth M. Karas granted Goldberg Segalla’s motion for summary judgment in its entirety and agreed with each of the arguments put forth by Harris. While the judge noted that the court is not the arbiter of the plaintiff’s credibility, he wrote that the court relied heavily on the fact that plaintiff’s testimony, as argued by Harris, was notably equivocal and contradictory, and that self-serving statements in the plaintiff’s opposition papers were insufficient to defeat the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

In his opinion, Judge Karas wrote that the plaintiff’s admission that she viewed the display prior to the incident was “germane.”  The evidence “compels a single conclusion” that the metal bars that allegedly caused the accident were not inherently dangerous, the judge wrote, adding that “because a landowner has no duty to protect or warn against open and obvious conditions that are not inherently dangerous, defendants are entitled to summary judgment.”

Goldberg Segalla’s success in securing the decision is significant in that it reinforces that a retailer defendant can prevail in negligence claims when it sufficiently documents its practices and procedures, and secures detailed pre-trial testimony. In his arguments, Harris was able to utilize the client’s business practices, as well as the equivocal nature of the plaintiff’s testimony to establish a prima facie case.

The decision further underscores that comprehensive and detailed depositions are important as they can serve to lock plaintiffs into their version of the events, and provide strong support for a dispositive motion.

Harris litigated the case in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York.  Assisting with the briefing was Goldberg Segalla associate Richard Femia.