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Estes v. Wal-Mart Stores Texas, L.L.C.

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

June 27, 2017

YVONNE ESTES, Plaintiff,
v.
WAL-MART STORES TEXAS, L.L.C., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          BARBARA M. G. LYNN CHIEF JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, filed on March 16, 2017 [ECF No. 10]. For the reasons stated below, the Motion is GRANTED. I. BACKGROUND Plaintiff Yvonne Estes filed this case in Texas state court on June 14, 2016, alleging that Defendant Wal-Mart Stores Texas, L.L.C. is liable for injuries she sustained in April 2015, when she allegedly slipped and fell on a puddle of rainwater located in the partially enclosed entryway to one of Defendant's stores in Dallas, Texas.

         Video surveillance equipment captured the forty-five minute period prior to Plaintiff's fall, as well as a partial view of her fall. [ECF No. 23]. The video depicts overcast weather, and several customers entering and exiting the store, carrying umbrellas. Approximately forty-four minutes before the incident, the video shows a Wal-Mart employee placing a caution cone in the center of the entryway. About six minutes later, an employee moved the cone towards the front of the entryway, and placed an additional cone there. A photograph shows that the cones displayed the words “CAUTION” and “WET FLOOR, ” and depicted a falling figure. Def.'s App. [ECF No. 12] at 14. Approximately twenty-five minutes before Plaintiff fell, an employee is seen on the video mopping the entryway. [ECF No. 23]. The video shows many walking through the entryway and around the signs, without incident, prior to Plaintiff's fall.

         Plaintiff fell just inside the threshold of the entryway, a few feet from one of the cones. Id. The video captures only a portion of Plaintiff's body, essentially from her knees down. Id. It does not display the puddle in which Plaintiff claims she fell. Plaintiff testified on deposition that it was raining when she fell and that before falling, she saw many puddles of water covering a large part of the entryway. Estes Depo., Def.'s App. [ECF No. 12] at 18-19.

         Defendant removed the case on July 15, 2016, on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. [ECF No. 1]. Defendant now moves for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the movant establishes that there is no genuine issue of material fact as reflected in the pleadings, affidavits, and other summary judgment evidence, and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; see also Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 884 (1990); McGee v. Arkel Int'l, LLC, 671 F.3d 539, 542 (5th Cir. 2012). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of evidence supporting the nonmovant's claims. Babcock v. Hartmarx Corp., 182 F.3d 336, 338 (5th Cir. 1999) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986)). Once the movant meets this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to prove that summary judgment is not appropriate. Tobin v. AMR Corp., 637 F.Supp.2d 406, 411 (N.D. Tex. 2009) (Lynn, J.) (citing Fields v. City of S. Hous., 922 F.2d 1183, 1187 (5th Cir. 1991)).

         In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, all factual disputes are to be interpreted in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, provided both parties have introduced evidence showing that a dispute exists. See Lynch Props., Inc. v. Potomac Ins. Co., 140 F.3d 622, 625 (5th Cir. 1998). A district court properly grants summary judgment if, when viewing all facts in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, it determines there are no genuine issues of material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

         Plaintiff asserts claims of premises liability, negligence, and gross negligence. Regarding her premises liability claim, under Texas law, a property owner owes an invitee a duty to exercise reasonable care to reduce or eliminate an unreasonable risk of harm created by a condition on the premises about which the property owner knew or should have known. See Del Lago Partners, Inc. v. Smith, 307 S.W.3d 762, 767 (Tex. 2010); Wal-Mart v. Reece, 81 S.W.3d 812, 814 (Tex. 2002). However, a property owner is not an insurer against all risks. See Cox v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., 755 F.3d 231, 233 (5th Cir. 2014). To prevail on her premises liability claim, Plaintiff must show: (1) a condition on the premises posed an unreasonable risk of harm; (2) Defendant knew or should have known about the condition; (3) Defendant breached its duty to exercise reasonable care to reduce or eliminate the risk of harm; and (4) Defendant's failure was the proximate cause of Plaintiff's injuries. See Reece, 81 S.W.3d at 814 (citing Keetch v. Kroger Co., 845 S.W.2d 262, 262 (Tex. 1992)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Defendant moves for summary judgment on the grounds that at least one element of Plaintiff's claims for premises liability and negligence and gross negligence have been negated. Def.'s MSJ [ECF No. 10] at 1‒2. The negligence claims turn on the same issues as the premises liability claim, since they all require proof of duty and breach. See TXI Operations, L.P. v. Perry, 278 S.W.3d 763, 764-65 (Tex. 2009); State v. Williams, 940 S.W.2d 583, 584 (Tex. 1996) (per curiam).

         Defendant asserts that the puddles of rainwater did not, as a matter of undisputed fact and law, pose an unreasonable risk of harm to Plaintiff. Def.'s MSJ [ECF No. 10] at 1-2. Further, Defendant argues that it did not owe Plaintiff a duty, but even if it did, it did not breach such a duty. Id. Thus, Defendant contends that Plaintiff has failed to establish genuine issues of material fact on the first and third elements of her premises liability claim.

         Texas courts have generally held that naturally accumulating conditions do not create an unreasonable risk of harm to invitees. See M.O. Dental Lab v. Rape, 139 S.W.3d 671, 676 (Tex. 2004) (holding that mud that accumulates naturally on an outdoor slab does not pose an unreasonable risk of harm, since it is caused by rain, an element beyond the premises owner's control); Tex. Dep't of Transp. v. Martinez, No. 04-04-00867-CV, 2006 WL 1406571 at *8 (Tex. App.-San Antonio May 24, 2006) (finding that the presence of rainwater on a road is a naturally occurring condition that does not create an unreasonable risk of harm). A naturally accumulating condition is one that builds due to weather conditions or other forces of nature, without the assistance or involvement of non-natural events or contacts. Compare Scott & White Mem'l Hosp. v. Fair, 310 S.W.3d 411, 412‒15 (Tex. 2010) (property owner not liable for injury caused by ice, because it is a naturally accumulating condition), with Furr's, Inc. v. Logan, 893 S.W.2d 187, 191‒92 (Tex. App.-El Paso 1995, no writ) (ice accumulation caused by a leaking vending machine was not naturally occurring and could thus support a premises liability claim). Further, the Texas Supreme Court has noted that “invitees are at least as aware as landowners of the existence of [ice] that has accumulated naturally outdoors and will often be in a better position to take immediate precautions against injury.” Scott & White Memorial Hosp. v. Fair, 310 S.W.3d 411, 414 (Tex. 2010) (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Supreme Court concluded that accumulated ice is not properly considered to be unreasonably dangerous, because the danger complained of “is one that is normally associated with ice, one that [plaintiff] was clearly aware of, and one not substantially more dangerous than should be anticipated”. Id. at 417.

         Texas law thus recognizes that ice is a naturally occurring element that does not pose an unreasonable risk of harm. See Scott & White, 310 S.W.3d at 419; Martinez, 2006 WL 1406571, at *8. There is no reason that rain should be treated differently. Plaintiff provided no evidence that the puddle in which she slipped did not result from naturally occurring rain falling at the time of her fall. Plaintiff admitted that it was raining when she slipped, and the video shows overcast skies and customers using umbrellas. Estes Depo., Pl.'s App., [ECF No. 21] at 21; ECF No. 23. There is no evidence that the puddle accumulated due to any non-natural condition. In fact, Plaintiff presented no evidence that the hazard she complains of-a slippery puddle-was not a danger normally associated with rain, one that Plaintiff was not clearly aware of, nor one that was substantially more dangerous than should have been anticipated. See Scott & White, 310 S.W.3d ...


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