Connors v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Decision Date03 June 2020
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 17-9390(FLW)
PartiesRICHARD CONNORS, Plaintiffs, v. WAL-MART STORES INC. (d/b/a WALMART), WAL-MART STORE NUMBER 6369; SAM'S WEST, INC. (d/b/a SAM'S CLUB); and JOHN DOES 1-5, and ABC CORP 1-5 (names of persons and/or entities presently unknown who are responsible for the ownership and/or leasing, operation, control, supervision, management, maintenance, repair, inspection, and/or construction of the premises where Plaintiff fell), Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Jersey



WOLFSON, Chief Judge


In this case, Plaintiff Richard Connors ("Plaintiff") sues Sam's East, Inc. ("Defendant") for injuries arising from Defendant's alleged negligence. Specifically, Plaintiff's Complaint alleges that Plaintiff sustained injuries to his knees and rotator cuff as a result of Defendant's negligence in maintaining its premises at a Sam's Club. In the instant motion, Defendant moves for summary judgment on the issues of breach of duty and comparative negligence. For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on the issue of breach of duty, and Plaintiff's claim is dismissed.


The following facts are drawn from Defendant's Stipulation of Undisputed Material Facts ("SUMF").1 On April 15, 2017, a clear, sunny, and dry day, Plaintiff visited Defendant's Sam's Club store located in Edison, New Jersey. SUMF ¶¶ 5, 10. Outside the store entrance was a metal advertisement sign measuring approximately three feet tall and two feet wide, with black legs at its base differing in color from the concrete floor underneath. Id. at ¶¶ 8, 22. The sign was positioned next to a flower display and approximately three feet to the right of the entrance door marked "Welcome." Id. at ¶ 9. The sign did not block any portion of the entranceway.2 Id. at ¶ 16. According to Sam's Club Merchandise Manager, Peiping Mao, the sign was neither broken nor damaged. Id. at ¶ 20. Additionally, in the eight years working at the Edison, New Jersey Sam's Club, he was unaware of any other person other than the Plaintiff ever falling over this sign or any other such sign. Id. at ¶ 28. Plaintiff claims this sign as the source of his injuries after tripping and falling over it. Id. at ¶ 5.

The morning of the accident, Plaintiff parked his car and approached the Sam's Club store in a straight line from the left side of the parking lot towards the main entrance of the storemarked "Welcome." Id. at ¶¶ 10-11, 15. After arriving at the entrance door, Plaintiff paused for a second for the door to open. Id. at ¶ 17. When it failed to open, he realized it was closed and inoperative. Id. at ¶¶ 6, 11, 17. Plaintiff subsequently looked to his right, at which time he saw the exit door and the flower display. Id. at ¶¶ 17-18. He proceeded walking towards the entranceway on the right side of the building and the automatic door marked "Exit." Id. at ¶ 17. As he walked past the main entrance door, at approximately 8:00 am that morning, Plaintiff tripped and fell over the advertisement sign's leg. Id. at ¶¶ 5-6, 10-11, 17. Plaintiff acknowledged not seeing the sign and that the sign was not defective. Id. at ¶¶ 18, 21. Rather, his complaint was over what he believed to be the sign's misplacement. Id. at ¶ 21.

Plaintiff admitted visiting this particular Edison, New Jersey, Sam's Club on several prior occasions, and using the same entrance he attempted to use on the date of the accident. Id. at ¶ 22. While aware that Sam's Club uses advertisement signs like the one involved in his accident, Plaintiff testified he does not look at them. Id. at ¶ 24.

Sam's Club has green bollards in front of the store entrance. Id. at ¶ 25. Store personnel places nothing in front of the bollards (the space between bollards and the parking lot), thereby ensuring a clear pathway for pedestrian travel. Id. While they place advertisement signs behind the bollards in front of the middle bay door, because this door is covered and is not used as a customer entranceway, they never place advertisement signs in front of the "Welcome" or "Exit" doors. Id. at ¶¶ 26-27.


Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as amatter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A factual dispute is genuine only if there is "a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party," and it is material only if it has the ability to "affect the outcome of the suit under governing law." Kaucher v. County of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. "In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence; instead, the non-moving party's evidence 'is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.'" Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255); see also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538, (1986); Curley v. Klem, 298 F.3d 271, 276-77 (3d Cir. 2002).

The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of showing the basis for its motion. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). "If the moving party will bear the burden of persuasion at trial, that party must support its motion with credible evidence . . . that would entitle it to a directed verdict if not controverted at trial." Id. at 331. On the other hand, if the burden of persuasion at trial would be on the nonmoving party, the party moving for summary judgment may satisfy Rule 56's burden of production by either (1) "submit[ting] affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim" or (2) demonstrating "that the nonmoving party's evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim." Id. Once the movant adequately supports its motion pursuant to Rule 56(c), the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to "go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions,answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324; see also Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; Ridgewood Bd. of Ed. v. Stokley, 172 F.3d 238, 252 (3d Cir. 1999). In deciding the merits of a party's motion for summary judgment, the court's role is not to evaluate the evidence and decide the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Credibility determinations are the province of the factfinder. Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992).

There can be "no genuine issue as to any material fact," however, if a party fails "to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. "[A] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial." Id. at 323; Katz v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 972 F.2d 53, 55 (3d Cir. 1992).


Under New Jersey law, in negligence cases, the "plaintiff must establish that defendant breached a duty of reasonable care, which constituted a proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries." Keith v. Truck Stops Corp., 909 F.2d 743, 745 (3d Cir. 1990) (citing Brown v. Racquet Club of Bricktown, 95 N.J. 280 (1984)).

The primary facts of this case are largely undisputed and straightforward. On April 15, 2017, a clear and sunny day, Plaintiff injured himself when visiting Defendant's store. SUMF ¶¶ 5, 10; Pl.'s Br. Opp'n Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. 4-5. As Plaintiff approached the store, he discovered the main entranceway was closed and out of operation. SUMF ¶11. After looking to his right, Plaintiff walked to the building's right-side door. Id. As he did so, he tripped and fellover the black metal legs from an advertisement sign. SUMF ¶¶ 5-6, 8-9. On these facts, the Court must determine the duty of care owed to Plaintiff, whether Defendant breached that duty, and whether Plaintiff's injuries resulted from that breach. In short, the issue is whether Plaintiff has established a prima facie case of negligence, such that there is a genuine issue of material fact with respect to Defendant's alleged negligent conduct. The Court concludes that Plaintiff has failed to do so.

A business proprietor "owes a duty of reasonable care to those who enter the premises upon [an] invitation [for business purposes] to provide a reasonably safe place to do that which is within the scope of the invitation." Keith, 909 F.2d at 745 (quoting Butler v. Acme Mkts., Inc., 89 N.J. 270, 275 (1982)); Monaco v. Hartz Mt. Corp., 178 N.J. 401, 414-15 (2004). This duty encompasses an obligation to maintain the business premises in a reasonably safe manner for the benefit of the invitees. Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 306-07 (2010) ("It is well recognized that the common law imposes a duty of care on business owners to maintain a safe premises for their business invitees because the law recognizes that an owner is in the best position to prevent harm. . . . [T]he law recognizes that for certain activities conducted by operation of some types of business, particularly those that pose inherent risks to the participant, the business entity will not be...

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