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A Slip-and-Fall Accident in a Restaurant: What Happens when the Manager Never Saw Water Dripping from the Ceiling?

A recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania that dismissed a lawsuit arising from a slip-and-fall accident makes clear that a plaintiff must be able to prove that a business defendant either created a harmful condition on its premises or had actual or constructive notice of it in order to prevail in litigation.

Liquid on the Floor

In Watson v. Boston Market Corp., a customer slipped and fell on liquid on the floor while exiting the restroom of a Boston Market restaurant. She remained on the floor, flat on her back, for about four minutes. While on the floor, she looked up and saw water dripping onto the floor from the ceiling light. The customer also saw stains on the ceiling next to the light. As a result of her fall, the customer maintained that she suffered “serious and permanent injuries to her lumbar spine.”

The restaurant manager testified that the restrooms at the Boston Market were inspected on at least an hourly basis. She said she inspected the restroom in which the customer fell no more than 45 minutes before learning of her fall and saw no liquid on the floor at that time. She also testified that she did not recall any time in which there was water dripping from the ceiling.

The customer sued, and Boston Market sought to have the case dismissed, arguing that based upon the facts that the customer presented, she was not entitled to a judgment against the restaurant as a matter of law.

Pennsylvania Law

Pennsylvania case law provides that possessors of premises “owe a duty to protect invitees from foreseeable harm.” That is, possessors owe a duty when the possessor “knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitee.” To establish that a possessor knew, or through reasonable care should have known, of the harmful condition, an invitee must prove either that the possessor “had a hand in creating the harmful condition” or “had actual or constructive notice of such condition.”

Constructive Notice

Here, the District Court found that the customer failed to provide any evidence demonstrating that Boston Market had a hand in creating the condition. Thus, for her case to survive, the customer had to prove that Boston Market had either actual or constructive notice of the water on the floor.

The court made short work of finding that Boston Market did not have actual notice of the water:

There is no evidence that defendant knew of the water on the floor, nor is there evidence that the ceiling was leaking or leaked on any previous occasion.

The court then turned to the issue of constructive notice. To prove constructive notice, the customer would need to establish that through the exercise of ordinary care, Boston Market should have been aware of the wet floor.

 Unfortunately for the customer, the court found that Boston Market did not have constructive notice:

[The restaurant manager] testified that she inspected the restroom no more than forty-five minutes before [the customer’s] fall and observed no water on the floor. … [The customer] stated that there were no footprints, track marks, or slip marks on the floor. … With this record, the jury would be left to improperly speculate as to whether the water appeared immediately after [the restaurant manager] left the restroom, less than forty-five minutes before the fall, or mere seconds before the fall.

The court further rejected the customer’s argument that the stains on the restroom ceiling revealed that the leak in the ceiling was a recurring condition or was present for sufficiently long to put the restaurant on constructive notice of the harmful condition:

Stains on the ceiling in and of themselves do not establish that defendant should have been aware of a leaking ceiling, or water on the floor, on this occasion. As defendant points out, [the customer] presented no evidence to show that the stains came from a recent leak, as opposed to being remnants from an old ceiling air conditioning unit that defendant replaced six months before [the customer’s] fall.

Conclusion

We’ve said it before in this blog, and we’ll say it again. Being injured is not enough. In order to recover in personal injury litigation, a plaintiff must be able to prove that a defendant acted negligently. In this case, the facts did not support such a finding.

If you have been injured in an accident, it is important to consult with a personal injury attorney immediately to ensure that your legal rights are protected.