Kmart Corp. v. Bassett

CourtSupreme Court of Alabama
Writing for the CourtSEE, Justice.
PartiesKMART CORPORATION v. Christine BASSETT.
Decision Date21 April 2000

769 So.2d 282

KMART CORPORATION
v.
Christine BASSETT

1971910.

Supreme Court of Alabama.

April 21, 2000.


769 So.2d 283
John M. Milling, Jr., and Doy Leale McCall III of Hill, Hill, Carter, Franco, Cole & Black, P.C., Montgomery, for appellant

Robert L. Pittman of Beasley, Wilson, Allen, Crow & Methvin, P.C., Montgomery (brief on application for rehearing filed by Jere L. Beasley, Robert L. Pittman, and Scott T. McArdle of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, P.C., Montgomery), for appellee.

On Application for Rehearing

SEE, Justice.

The opinion of November 19, 1999, is withdrawn, and the following opinion is substituted therefor.

Christine Bassett sued Kmart Corporation ("Kmart"), seeking damages for personal injuries she sustained when the automatic entry doors at a Kmart store prematurely closed on her, causing her to fall and break her hip. After the first trial of her claims ended in a mistrial, the jury in a second trial awarded her $289,000 in damages; the trial court entered a judgment on that verdict. Because we hold that the trial court erred in denying Kmart's postverdict motion for a judgment as a matter of law, we reverse and remand.

I.

In January 1995, Christine Bassett, an 83-year-old woman who walked with the aid of a cane, went to a Kmart store in Montgomery. Bassett stepped on a rubber mat outside the store to open the automatic doors. The doors swung open, and she began walking into the store. When she was about one-third of the way onto the rubber safety mat inside the store, the doors began to close. Bassett

769 So.2d 284
alleges that one of the doors struck her left hip and caused her to fall. In the fall, Bassett suffered a broken hip. After the accident, the store manager examined the doors. They worked properly and did not need to be repaired

In January 1996, Bassett sued Kmart,1 alleging negligent or wanton maintenance or repair. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Kmart. The trial court, however, granted Bassett a new trial because, before the jury entered its deliberations, one of the jurors had gone to the store and had inspected the automatic doors. After the retrial, the court submitted to the jury only Bassett's claims alleging negligent maintenance or negligent repair.2 The jury returned a verdict in favor of Bassett, awarding her $289,000 in damages. Kmart moved for a judgment as a matter of law or, alternatively, for a new trial or a remittitur. The motion was denied by operation of law, see Rule 59.1, Ala. R. Civ.P., and Kmart appealed.

II.

When reviewing a trial court's denial of a motion for a judgment as a matter of law ("JML"), this Court applies the same standard "used by the trial court in granting or denying the motion[ ] initially." Bussey v. John Deere Co., 531 So.2d 860, 863 (Ala.1988). The denial of a defendant's motion for a JML is proper only when the plaintiff has presented substantial evidence to support each element of the plaintiff's claim. See Glenlakes Realty Co. v. Norwood, 721 So.2d 174, 177 (Ala. 1998). "Substantial evidence" is "evidence of such weight and quality that fair-minded persons in the exercise of impartial judgment can reasonably infer the existence of the fact sought to be proved." West v. Founders Life Assurance Co. of Florida, 547 So.2d 870-71 (Ala.1989). In determining whether the nonmoving party presented substantial evidence, this Court, like the trial court, must view all evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Bussey, 531 So.2d at 863.

"It is a well-established rule of law in this state that in order to prove a claim of negligence a plaintiff must establish that the defendant breached a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff and that the breach proximately caused injury or damage to the plaintiff." Lowe's Home Centers, Inc. v. Laxson, 655 So.2d 943, 945-46 (Ala.1994). The duty owed by a premises owner to an invitee is also well established:

"The owner of premises owes a duty to business invitees to use reasonable care and diligence to keep the premises in a safe condition, or, if the premises are in a dangerous condition, to give sufficient warning so that, by the use of
769 So.2d 285
ordinary care, the danger can be avoided."

Armstrong v. Georgia Marble Co., 575 So.2d 1051, 1053 (Ala.1991). This duty does not, however, convert a premises owner into an insurer of its invitees' safety. See Hose v. Winn-Dixie Montgomery, Inc., 658 So.2d 403, 404 (Ala.1995). Moreover, the mere fact that a business invitee is injured does not create a presumption of negligence on the part of the premises owner. See id. Rather, a premises owner is liable in negligence only if it "fail[s] to use reasonable care in maintaining its premises in a reasonably safe manner." Id.

Thus, in order to defeat Kmart's motion for a judgment as a matter of law on her negligence claim, Bassett had to present substantial evidence indicating that Kmart had failed to use reasonable care to maintain its automatic doors in a reasonably safe condition, Hose, 658 So.2d at 404, and that Kmart's failure proximately caused the doors to malfunction in such a way as to injure her. Bassett, however, did not produce any evidence at trial to indicate what caused the automatic doors to malfunction as she entered the store.

Kmart argues that Bassett failed to make out a prima facie case of negligence because, it argues, she failed to produce substantial evidence indicating that Kmart breached its duty of care to her. She argues that she produced substantial circumstantial evidence indicating that Kmart had negligently maintained the automatic doors. Specifically, she argues that she presented evidence indicating that the company that installed the doors sold maintenance contracts as part of its business; that Kmart had no maintenance contract for the doors; that Kmart had a policy of waiting until the doors needed repair or maintenance before calling someone to work on them; that the Kmart store manager, Doug Stanley, knew that the doors occasionally malfunctioned by failing to work at all; and that without preventive maintenance, automatic doors will malfunction or stop working properly.

However, Bassett's evidence is insufficient to prove a breach of duty, an element of her negligence cause of action. She did not produce substantial evidence indicating that Kmart failed to maintain the automatic doors in a reasonably safe condition or that the maintenance Kmart provided was unreasonable. Bassett impliedly argues that Kmart's failure to have a preventive-maintenance contract was a breach of duty. However, Bassett's own expert, Jack Cherry, the owner of the door company that had installed the automatic doors, testified that he did not try to sell such a contract to Kmart because he did not think Kmart needed one. Cherry also testified that if the doors had been inspected six months before the date of Bassett's fall, that would have been reasonable maintenance on Kmart's part. Bassett's fall occurred slightly less than seven months after the most recent inspection. However, Cherry did not testify that a failure to inspect the doors for a period exceeding six months would have been unreasonable. Hence, Kmart's policy of not contracting with the door company for its preventive-maintenance program, but, instead, waiting until a door needed repair or maintenance and then calling for repairs, standing alone, is not substantial evidence of negligence.3

Bassett also argues that she produced evidence that, under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, permitted the jury to infer that Kmart had negligently maintained the automatic doors. Specifically, she argues that evidence that the automatic doors closed while she was still standing on the inside mat is sufficient to allow the jury to infer that Kmart was negligent.

769 So.2d 286
The trial court agreed with Bassett; it denied Kmart's motions for a judgment as a matter of law and instructed the jury on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Kmart argues that the trial court erred in submitting Bassett's case to the jury under the res ipsa loquitur doctrine because, it argues, Bassett did not satisfy the requirements for applying the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Specifically, Kmart argues that Bassett failed to satisfy the second requirement for applying that doctrine—that she did not "foreclose the possibility that [the company that installed the door or another company that sometimes serviced the door] was negligent, that the safety mat itself was inherently defective, or ... that the alleged malfunction could have occurred even in the absence of any negligence." We agree

The res ipsa loquitur doctrine allows "an inference of negligence where there is no direct evidence of negligence." Ex parte Crabtree Industrial Waste, Inc., 728 So.2d 155, 156 (Ala.1998). For the doctrine to apply, a plaintiff must show that:

"(1) the defendant ... had full management and control of the instrumentality which caused the injury; (2) the circumstances [are] such that according to common knowledge and the experience of mankind the accident could not have happened if those having control of the [instrumentality] had not been negligent; [and] (3) the plaintiff's injury ... resulted from the accident."

Crabtree Industrial Waste, 728 So.2d at 156 (quoting Alabama Power Co. v. Berry, 254 Ala. 228, 236, 48 So.2d 231, 238 (1950), and citing Ward v. Forrester Day Care, Inc., 547 So.2d 410, 411 (Ala.1989), and Khirieh v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 594 So.2d 1220, 1223 (Ala.1992)). However, "[i]f one can reasonably conclude that the accident could have happened without any negligence on the part of the defendant[], then the res ipsa loquitur presumption does not apply." Crabtree Industrial Waste, Inc., 728 So.2d at 158.

Thus, the issue is whether the malfunctioning of Kmart's automatic doors is something that "according to common knowledge and the experience of mankind... could not have happened if...

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53 practice notes
  • Russell v. State, CR–10–1910
    • United States
    • Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals
    • May 29, 2015
    ...inference cannot be derived from another inference.’ An inference must be based on a known or proven fact." ' Kmart Corp. v. Bassett, 769 So.2d 282, 287 (Ala.2000), quoting Khirieh v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 594 So.2d 1220, 1224 (1992), quoting, in turn, Malone Freight Lines, Inc. v......
  • Tillman v. RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alabama
    • June 30, 2003
    ...by the defendant to the plaintiff and that the breach proximately caused injury or damage to the plaintiff.'" Kmart Corp. v. Bassett, 769 So.2d 282, 284 (Ala.2000)(quoting Lowe's Home Ctrs., Inc. v. Laxson, 655 So.2d 943, 945-46 (Ala.1994)(emphasis added)). Similarly, "`[t]o establish wanto......
  • Culp v. State, CR–13–1039.
    • United States
    • Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals
    • November 21, 2014
    ...(C. 303.) We take judicial notice that Wheaties cereal has been advertised as the "breakfast of champions." See Kmart Corp. v. Bassett, 769 So.2d 282, 286 (Ala.2000) ("A court may take judicial notice of certain facts that are within the common knowledge.").4 On one occasion when Hand was t......
  • Russell Corp. v. Sullivan
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alabama
    • January 12, 2001
    ...inference cannot be derived from another inference." An inference must be based on a known or proven fact.'" Kmart Corp. v. Bassett, 769 So.2d 282, 287 (Ala.2000), quoting Khirieh v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 594 So.2d 1220, 1224 (1992), quoting, in turn, Malone Freight Lines, Inc. v.......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
52 cases
  • Russell v. State, CR–10–1910
    • United States
    • Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals
    • May 29, 2015
    ...inference cannot be derived from another inference.’ An inference must be based on a known or proven fact." ' Kmart Corp. v. Bassett, 769 So.2d 282, 287 (Ala.2000), quoting Khirieh v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 594 So.2d 1220, 1224 (1992), quoting, in turn, Malone Freight Lines, Inc. v......
  • Tillman v. RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alabama
    • June 30, 2003
    ...by the defendant to the plaintiff and that the breach proximately caused injury or damage to the plaintiff.'" Kmart Corp. v. Bassett, 769 So.2d 282, 284 (Ala.2000)(quoting Lowe's Home Ctrs., Inc. v. Laxson, 655 So.2d 943, 945-46 (Ala.1994)(emphasis added)). Similarly, "`[t]o establish wanto......
  • Culp v. State, CR–13–1039.
    • United States
    • Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals
    • November 21, 2014
    ...(C. 303.) We take judicial notice that Wheaties cereal has been advertised as the "breakfast of champions." See Kmart Corp. v. Bassett, 769 So.2d 282, 286 (Ala.2000) ("A court may take judicial notice of certain facts that are within the common knowledge.").4 On one occasion when Hand was t......
  • Russell Corp. v. Sullivan
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alabama
    • January 12, 2001
    ...inference cannot be derived from another inference." An inference must be based on a known or proven fact.'" Kmart Corp. v. Bassett, 769 So.2d 282, 287 (Ala.2000), quoting Khirieh v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 594 So.2d 1220, 1224 (1992), quoting, in turn, Malone Freight Lines, Inc. v.......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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