Can you Sue a Manager of a Big Box Store for a Fall?
Indiana Northern District Judge Holly Brady brought a negligence question to the state justices on September 30, 2020: May a plaintiff bring a claim in negligence against a store manager, not directly involved in the plaintiff’s accident, based on a delegation of the premises owner’s duties toward invitees, Indiana agency law, or any other legal principle? If so, what is the scope of that duty?
“In your average slip-and-fall case, which is almost always the context in which the issue arises, naming a store manager who had no actual involvement with the accident or injury confers no non-jurisdictional benefit on the plaintiff,” Brady wrote in David Branscomb, et al. v. Wal-Mart Stores East, LP, et al., 1:20-cv-213.
“The corporate defendants are collectible regardless of the judgment amount, either through their corporate coffers or their insurers. Moreover, there is no imaginable legal scenario where only the individual defendant, acting in the scope of their employment, would be liable to the plaintiff while his employer skated.
The case brought forth was a fact pattern the judge said is “neither complicated nor unique.” Plaintiff David Branscomb tripped and fell over a wood pallet at a Huntington Walmart store, then filed a negligence complaint in Huntington Circuit Court against Wal-Mart and store manager James Clark, who was not at the store at the time of the accident.
There are currently two possible ways to hold a store manager liable in a negligence case: if the manager were an “officer of a corporation,” or if the duty of the store was delegated to the manager.
But both of these fail to pass muster. Brady first wrote that a Walmart store manager cannot be a “corporate officer” based on the company bylaws and on the law in Delaware, where the company is based. And on the question of delegation, she noted that “(f)or more than a century, Indiana’s courts have held that an employer ‘cannot escape liability by delegating … to an agent’ the duty to maintain a safe workplace.”
“But more to the point, the concept of delegation of duty makes little sense when talking about an employer delegating to an employee,” she continued. “The reason for the delegation of duty is that it permits the delegator to avoid liability. … But that will never be the case in the employer-employee context; an employer will always be liable for the act of an employee performed in the course and scope of employment.”
Finally, Brady said she found no basis for store manager liability under the Restatement (Second) of Agency § 352. Under the comments of that section, she said any duty a store manager has to maintain a safe sales floor would be to his employer, not the customer.
“This situation has existed for more than a decade and is problematic,” Brady wrote. “The jurisdiction of a court should not vary based on the presiding judge. This is particularly true where, as here, an answer exists: a store manager either owes a duty to customers to prevent slip-and-fall accidents or he does not.
“This Court respectfully requests that the Indiana Supreme Court provide that answer,” she concluded. “The answer is potentially dispositive in this case and will provide a definitive answer going forward for dealing with an increasingly common jurisdictional issue.”
All briefing on the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case are stayed pending the outcome of Brady’s jurisdictional question.