Wilson v. AutoZone Stores, LLC.

Decision Date02 December 2020
Docket NumberNo. 140 EDA 2020,140 EDA 2020
Citation245 A.3d 1041 (Table)
Parties Anthony WILSON v. AUTOZONE STORES, LLC., AutoZone, AutoZone II., and AutoZone Inc. Appeal of : AutoZone Stores, LLC
CourtPennsylvania Superior Court

MEMORANDUM BY PELLEGRINI, J.:

AutoZone Stores, LLC (AutoZone) appeals from the judgment entered following a jury trial in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (trial court) in favor of Anthony Wilson (Wilson). The jury found that AutoZone's negligence caused Wilson to sustain injuries during a fall in oil spilled outside of an AutoZone store and awarded Wilson $432,000 in damages. We affirm.

I.

We glean the following facts from the certified record. On May 10, 2013, Wilson went to a local AutoZone store to purchase anti-freeze. As he was entering the store, he noticed a "gooey, slippery" substance on his new shoes, which he assumed that he must have stepped in while walking through the parking lot. N.T., 8/27/19, at 60, 78-79. He told an AutoZone employee that there was a spill in front of the store and that they should clean it up. The employee responded, "I just work at AutoZone." Id.

Wilson continued shopping in the store for 15 to 30 minutes and then left through the same door he had entered. He was no longer thinking about the substance he had stepped in and he did not notice it on the ground as he exited the store. However, as he walked toward his car, he slipped on oil and sustained serious injuries. There were no cones or tape in the area to alert passers-by to a spill. Wilson testified that there was oil covering a one-to-two foot area on the curb directly in front of AutoZone where he fell. While he acknowledged that he noticed the substance on his shoe when he entered the store earlier, he testified that he did not see the oil outside and did not know where the spill was located until after he fell. Id. at 82, 90.

As a result of the fall, he sustained a patellar tendon rupture

and medial meniscal tear in his left knee. He later underwent surgery to repair the injury and physical therapy thereafter. By the time of trial over six years later, Wilson testified that he had not recovered the full range of motion in his left knee and was no longer able to perform certain physical activities such as running, playing sports or cleaning. He walks with a limp, is unable to stand for long periods and has difficulty using the stairs. He testified that he still experiences severe pain in his knee on a daily basis. Wilson said that he had gout and other problems with his right leg prior to the accident but the issues he now experiences with his left leg only began after his fall at AutoZone.

Wilson introduced testimony from Thomas Balchak, an AutoZone district manager for the store where Wilson was injured, and Steven Cooper, the store manager on the day in question. Balchak testified that AutoZone's store managers are responsible for ensuring that the interior and exterior of the stores are clean, and that AutoZone has procedures for employees to follow if a spill is brought to their attention. Balchak noted that AutoZone's landlord was responsible under the terms of the lease for maintaining the sidewalks and parking lot, but said that AutoZone nevertheless takes responsibility for making sure the exterior of the store is safe and clean for customers. Cooper testified that as the store manager, he ensured that there was no trash or anything that could cause injury in front of the store, but that he was not responsible for the parking lot, curb or outside areas. He said that there was no policy in place related to cleaning the parking lot, but he did instruct his employees to clean any spills that they noticed. Cooper was not working on the day of Wilson's fall. Balchak and Cooper testified that customers could bring oil to AutoZone in their own containers for the store to dispose of properly.

Dr. Norman Stempler testified as an expert on behalf of Wilson through a video deposition and detailed Wilson's injuries resulting from the accident, his treatment history, and his prognosis for recovery. Dr. Stempler examined Wilson twice for the purposes of his lawsuit. He first examined Wilson approximately three years after his accident and at that time, Wilson was still experiencing pain, loss of motion and difficulty with walking and other movements. He testified that Wilson also had fluid in his knee and it was chronically inflamed. Dr. Stempler testified that Wilson's condition had worsened by 2019, as he had lost more motion in his knee and was continuing to experience pain. Based on this history and Wilson's age, Dr. Stempler opined that his prognosis for a full recovery was poor. He did not believe that Wilson's knee would fully recover and said that Wilson would experience the pain and loss of function for the rest of his life. Dr. Stempler confirmed that Wilson had a history of degenerative joint disease

, but said that before the fall, Wilson did not have problems with his left knee to the extent that he did after. He testified that Wilson had been showing signs of recovery in the months immediately after his surgery, but that it was not uncommon for injuries of this type to decline over time.

In its case-in-chief, AutoZone presented a video deposition of Dr. Craig Israelite, who testified as an expert regarding the cause and extent of Wilson's injuries. Dr. Israelite rendered his opinion based on his review of Wilson's medical records. He agreed that Wilson had suffered a left patellar tendon rupture

but opined that he had recovered from that injury following surgery. He opined that due to his age and weight, Wilson had some degenerative and chronic changes to his knees prior to sustaining his injury. Wilson also had a gout condition prior to the accident that could have contributed to his injury. However, Dr. Israelite found that based on the treating physician's notes, Wilson had recovered to full motion, strength and range of activities by approximately six months after his surgery. He noted that Wilson was discharged from physical therapy after the surgery for noncompliance. He did not believe that any ongoing issues Wilson suffered with his left knee were the result of his fall at AutoZone.

Following reception of the evidence, the jury deliberated and returned a verdict. In its initial verdict sheet, the jury determined that AutoZone was negligent and the factual cause of Wilson's injury. The jury also determined that Wilson was negligent but found that he was not the factual cause of his injury. Because it found that Wilson was not the factual cause of the injury, the verdict form instructed the jury to skip the following question, which asked it to apportion the percentage of negligence between the parties. When the jury initially read its verdict in open court, however, the clerk asked the jury about the apportioned negligence, and the jury responded that AutoZone bore 80% of the negligence and Wilson bore 20%. At that juncture, the trial court realized that the jury had not followed the instructions on the form and sent it back to the deliberation room to correct the form. When the jury reentered the courtroom, it again stated that Wilson was not the factual cause of his own injury and followed the instruction to skip the question regarding apportioning negligence. Finally, the jury awarded Wilson $432,000 in non-economic damages for his injury.

AutoZone filed a timely post-trial motion and brief in support and Wilson filed a response. The trial court denied the motion and AutoZone timely appealed. The trial court and AutoZone have complied with Pa.R.A.P. 1925.

II.

AutoZone first argues that it is entitled to judgment non obstante veredicto (JNOV) 1 ,2 because the danger presented by the oil spill in the parking lot was known and obvious to Wilson before he entered the store, and he voluntarily chose to encounter the known risk once again as he left. AutoZone cites Carrender v. Fitterer , 469 A.2d 120 (Pa. 1983), for the proposition that when a business invitee voluntarily encounters an obvious and avoidable dangerous condition, the possessor of the land is not liable for injuries resulting from that obvious danger and has no duty to warn the invitee of the danger. AutoZone, thus, contends that Wilson assumed the risk of falling in the oil outside of AutoZone because he was aware of the spill and chose to walk through the area when exiting the store.

Wilson and the trial court contend that Carrender is inapposite because Wilson did not see the oil spill in the parking lot on the way into the AutoZone, but rather only noticed an oily substance on his shoe after he entered the store. Wilson also contends that he did not see the oil spill on the curb after he left the store until he had already fallen. Because he was not aware of the exact location of the spill prior to his fall, Wilson and the trial court conclude that AutoZone breached its duty to warn or protect Wilson from the spill.

To prove a claim of negligence, a plaintiff must establish "a duty or obligation recognized by law; breach of that duty by the defendant; causal connection between the defendant's breach of that duty and the resulting injury; and actual loss or damage suffered by the complainant." Reilly v. Tiergarten, Inc. , 633 A.2d 208, 210 (Pa. Super. 1993). A business such as AutoZone owes the highest duty of care to its business invitees, and it "must protect an invitee not only against known dangers, but also against those which might be discovered with reasonable care." Gutteridge v. A.P. Green Servs., Inc. , 804 A.2d 643, 656 (Pa. Super. 2002). AutoZone contends that it is entitled to JNOV because Wilson failed to establish the first element of his claim: that AutoZone had a duty to warn or protect him from the danger presented by the known and obvious oil spill.

Our disposition of this issue depends on a detailed review of Wilson's testimony. Wilson first testified that on the day of his...

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