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Napier v. Louis Dreyfus Co. LDAI Holdings, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

October 15, 2018

KEN NAPIER, Plaintiff,
v.
LOUIS DREYFUS COMPANY LDAI HOLDINGS, LLC, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PHILIP P. SIMON, JUDGE

         This is a slip and fall case. Defendant Louis Dreyfus Company LDAI Holdings has moved for summary judgment. [DE 26.] It does so on a narrow basis. Its sole argument is that plaintiff Ken Napier has failed to provide any evidence that Louis Dreyfus had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazardous conditions which allegedly caused Napier to slip and fall while on Louis Dreyfus's property. But in opposition, Napier has offered just enough evidence to create a triable issue of material fact as to whether Louis Dreyfus had notice of the hazardous condition (biodeisel fuel on the ground). Accordingly, I will deny the motion.

         Background

          At the time of the accident, Napier was working as truck driver, transporting biodeisel for a company called SJA Transportation. He would pick up his truck in the morning, drive to Louis Dreyfus's property (a biodeisel terminal or storage facility it seems), fill his tanker, and then deliver the biodeisel to filling stations near the Ohio/Indiana border. [DE 40-1 (Deposition of K. Napier) at 14:11-18:4.] He did this approximately three times a day, five days a week, over the course of several months in 2015. [Id.]

         On the morning of November 9, 2015, Napier was engaged in his regular work routine when he slipped and fell while on Louis Dreyfus's property. According to Napier, he did not see biodiesel on the ground when he exited his truck, but as he walked towards the back of the tanker, he stepped on the liquid and slipped. [Id. at 36:5-37:14.] He fell between the curb and his truck and landed on his backside, hitting his head against the cub. [Id. at 39:24-40:8.] Napier further testified at his deposition that while he personally did not see the spill prior to his fall, he was told by an employee of Louis Dreyfus at the “guard shack” near the loading area that there had been a spill the day before and that it had not been cleaned up. [Id. at 50:1-51:6.] As a result of the fall, Napier suffered personal injuries and has claimed other damages, the extent of which are not relevant for purposes of the present motion.[1]

         Discussion

         I. Governing Law

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 governs a motion for summary judgment. Summary judgment will be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). To prevail, a party can either point to undisputed facts supported by evidence or point to an absence of evidence as to some element of the other party's claim or affirmative defense. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (holding that summary judgment is appropriate “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”). Louis Dreyfus has moved under the latter approach.

         When deciding a motion for summary judgment, I must review the evidence presented and construe all facts and draw all inferences from those facts “in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Zuppardi v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 770 F.3d 644, 649 (7th Cir. 2014). In order for the non-moving party to prevail, “all that is required is that sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” First Nat. Bank of Ariz. v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 288-89 (1968).

         A slip and fall case is a type of negligence suit. “The tort of negligence has three elements: (1) a duty owned by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) a breach of that duty; and (3) injury to the plaintiff resulting from the defendant's breach.” Christmas v. Kindred Nursing Ctrs. Ltd. P'ship, 952 N.E.2d 827, 878 (Ind.Ct.App. 2011). Under Indiana law, the scope of the duty owed in a premises liability case is dictated by the status of the individual who is on the property. There are three status groups: trespassers, licensees, and invitees. Burrell v. Meads, 569 N.E.2d 637, 639 (Ind. 1991). Here, the parties agree that because Napier was on Louis Dreyfus's land in connection with business and was duly authorized to be there, he has the status of an invitee.

         “[A] landowner owes the highest duty to an invitee: a duty to exercise reasonable care for his protection while he is on the landowner's premises.” Burrell, 569 at 639 (citing Hammond v. Allegretti, 311 N.E. 821 (Ind. 1974)). The duty to an invitee is breached by a condition on the land when the landowner “(a) knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees, and (b) should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and (c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger.” Id. at 640 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343 (1965)).

         What this all means is that, when considering a summary judgment motion in a premises liability case, the defendant need not present evidence affirmatively showing a lack of notice of the dangerous condition. Instead, the burden is on the plaintiff to present evidence that shows that the defendant was aware of the dangerous condition. And as noted above, evidence of either actual notice or constructive notice will do. Failure by the plaintiff to point to evidence of the property owner's actual or constructive knowledge of an unreasonable dangerous condition will result in a grant of summary judgment in favor of the property owner. Austin v. Walgreen Co., 885 F.3d 1085, 1089 (7th Cir. 2018).

         II. Evidence of Louis Dreyfus's Constructive or Actual Knowledge

         Having distilled the legal framework governing the claim, it's time to assess the facts. The key piece of evidence is Napier's deposition testimony. Napier testified that on the morning of the accident, an employee of Louis Dreyfus (whose name Napier did not recall) told him that there had been a biodiesel spill the day before. [DE 40-1 at 48:18-19.] Thus, according to Napier, the spill was present for several hours and was known by at least one of Louis Dreyfus's employees at the time Napier entered the property. [Id. at 50:10-24.] Napier says ...


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