Faircloth v. US

Decision Date29 June 1993
Docket NumberNo. 92-106-CIV-7-F.,92-106-CIV-7-F.
Citation837 F. Supp. 123
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of North Carolina
PartiesMary Louise Todd FAIRCLOTH, and husband, Samuel L. Faircloth, Plaintiffs, v. UNITED STATES of America, Defendant.

Richard A. Mu, John Philip Swart, Brumbaugh & Mu, Jacksonville, NC, for Mary Louise Todd Faircloth and Samuel L. Faircloth.

Stephen A. West, U.S. Atty., Eastern District of N.C., Raleigh, NC, for U.S.

ORDER

JAMES C. FOX, Chief Judge.

This matter is before the court on Motion for Summary Judgment, filed by the United States ("the Government" or "defendant") on May 5, 1993. The plaintiffs have filed a Response in opposition thereto and the Government filed a Reply.

In its Reply, the Government raised the issue of contributory negligence — an issue not addressed by name in either the Motion or the plaintiffs' Response. Plaintiffs filed on June 11, 1993, a "Motion for Leave to File Reply to Defendant's Reply Brief," in which they point out that Local Rule 4.06 permits replies only to "matters raised initially in a response to a motion or accompanying supporting documents." Rather than address the Government Reply's contributory negligence discussion, plaintiffs' proposed "Reply Brief" instead re-argues the plaintiffs' position in opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment set forth in their Response.

On June 15, 1993, the Government filed its own motion to file yet another Reply in which it would challenge allegations set out in the plaintiffs' "Reply." The court has reviewed both of the proposed supplemental filings and finds that neither addresses any "new" issues or adds anything of substance to assist the court in its determination of the Motion for Summary Judgment. Both the plaintiffs' and the Government's Motions to file "Replies" are DENIED.

Background Facts

The fundamental facts underlying this lawsuit essentially are undisputed. At 4:20 p.m. on July 11, 1991, Mrs. Faircloth entered the Leland, North Carolina, Post Office in order to pick up a package before the Post Office closed at 4:30 p.m. It had been raining at least since 3:00 p.m. Mrs. Faircloth, wearing a pair of flip-flops, entered the Post Office, made a right turn and headed toward the counter at which time she slipped and fell. Mrs. Faircloth, who at the time weighed approximately 180 pounds, fractured her right arm, which she had extended in an effort to break her fall. Neither Mrs. Faircloth nor another customer, Janice Carroll, noticed any water on the floor before the fall, but both later testified that after Mrs. Faircloth had fallen, they noticed the Post Office floor around Mrs. Faircloth was wet. There was a mat directly in front of the door through which Mrs. Faircloth entered and, although she does not specifically recall wiping her feet, Mrs. Faircloth stated that it is her habit to do so. Mrs. Faircloth's daughter-in-law, Angela Best, had been in the Post Office approximately an hour earlier and stated in her deposition that she had noticed little puddles of water on the floor. Ms. Best stated that she, too, had slipped on the floor but had not fallen. It does not appear that Ms. Best notified Postal authorities of the existence of water on the Post Office floor.

Postal employees testified in deposition that, to their knowledge, the floor had not been mopped on the day Mrs. Faircloth fell. Postmaster Ellen Shaw testified that, although she was aware that on rainy days, patrons would track water into the Post Office if they did not wipe their feet, she did not recall an occasion when the floor had been mopped because of the accumulation of water on rainy days. No signs were posted in the Post Office lobby on July 11, 1991, to warn patrons of wet floors. The Postmaster admitted that she was unfamiliar with the Supervisor's Safety Handbook provisions on posting caution signs because she had not read it.

Mrs. Faircloth and her husband have sued the United States pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2674 et seq., seeking $100,000.00 for personal injuries and for loss of consortium, alleging negligence of Government employees at the Leland Post Office. They filed their complaint on August 10, 1992, after having been denied administrative relief.

Analysis

A. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate when there exist no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2509, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The party seeking summary judgment bears the burden initially of coming forward and demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Once the moving party has met its burden, the non-moving party then must come forward and demonstrate that such a fact issue does indeed exist. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). Summary judgment, of course, is not designed as a substitute for the resolution of disputed factual issues. The function of the trial court at the summary judgment stage is not to weigh the evidence but to determine whether a genuine issue exists for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 249, 106 S.Ct. at 2510. In determining whether a question of fact exists, the trial court must examine all of the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Ross v. Communications Satellite Corp., 759 F.2d 355, 364 (4th Cir.1985).

Any analysis of the propriety of summary judgment must focus on both the materiality and the genuineness of the alleged fact issues. Id. "The mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 247-48, 106 S.Ct. at 2510. The Anderson Court noted that the question of whether a fact issue is material is determined by reference to the substantive law, and that "only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Id. at 248, 106 S.Ct. at 2510.

As the Supreme Court stated in Celotex Corp. v. Catrett:

In our view, the plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who 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. In such a situation, there can be "no genuine issue as to any material fact," since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case renders all other facts immaterial. The moving party is "entitled to judgment as a matter of law" because the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof.

Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. at 322-23, 106 S.Ct. at 2552. The moving party therefore can meet its burden as to an issue whose proof at trial will rest on the non-movant by demonstrating that there is a lack of evidence to support the non-moving party's case. Id. at 325, 106 S.Ct. at 2554.

The proper standard for determining if summary judgment is appropriate mirrors the standard for directing a verdict under Rule 50(a), Fed.R.Civ.P., whereby the trial judge must direct a verdict, if under the governing law, there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 250, 106 S.Ct. at 2511. Generally, "issues of negligence, contributory negligence and proximate cause, the resolution of which requires the determination of reasonableness of the acts and conduct of the parties under all the facts and circumstances of the case, cannot ordinarily be disposed of by summary judgment." Gross v. Southern Ry. Co., 414 F.2d 292, 296 (5th Cir.1969).

The applicable law in a Federal Tort Claims case such as this is "the law of the place where the act or omission occurred." United States v. Neustadt, 366 U.S. 696, 706 n. 15, 81 S.Ct. 1294, 1300 n. 15, 6 L.Ed.2d 614 (1961). The parties agree that the North Carolina law of premises liability and negligence controls.

The defendant in a slip and fall case was entitled to summary judgment if it was able either to show nonexistence of an essential element of the plaintiff's claim or to show that the plaintiff could not produce evidence of essential element of her claim; defendant was not required to produce evidence showing that it did not know or should not have known of the substance which caused the fall.

Roumillat v. Simplistic Enterprises, Inc., 331 N.C. 57, 414 S.E.2d 339, 345 (1992).

Standard of Care; Elements of Claims

The parties also agree that Mrs. Faircloth was an "invitee" of the Leland Post Office on July 11, 1991, when she fell. Under North Carolina law, an owner of a premises must exercise ordinary care to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition for invitees, and must warn of hidden dangers. Roumillat, 414 S.E.2d at 342. A premises owner does not automatically insure the safety of invitees, and, of course, is not liable in the absence of negligence. Duggins v. Colonial Stores, Inc., 323 F.2d 117, 119 (4th Cir.1963). A customer's fall does not create an inference of negligence. Gaskill v. Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co., 6 N.C.App. 690, 171 S.E.2d 95, 97 (1969).

In order to prevail at trial, the plaintiffs must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that she was injured as a proximate result of (1) an unreasonably hazardous condition, or (2) a failure by the Postal employees to warn of a hidden danger. In addition, she must show that the defendant either (1) negligently created the condition causing her alleged injury,...

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