On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-9642-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Fisher and Espinosa.
Plaintiff filed this lawsuit, alleging that she was injured in a slip and fall incident in the defendant supermarket. She appeals from an order granting summary judgment to defendant, dismissing her complaint. We reverse.
The facts, viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiff, can be summarized as follows.
Plaintiff was pushing her shopping cart in the aisle between the bakery and the deli in defendant's supermarket when she slid and fell on November 21, 2007. She held onto the cart as she fell into a split, one leg going to the left and the other going to the right. She landed on her buttocks on the floor. She pulled herself up approximately forty seconds later and then observed "a mess of pumpkin or squash or sweet potato filling, or something of that sort" the size of a round plate on the floor. Although she was able to see the floor prior to her fall, she did not notice the orangey-brown substance until she was pulling herself up.
Plaintiff went to the deli department, told two employees what had occurred and showed them what was on the floor. She stated that the employees came around the counter, took a look at the substance and then one of them returned to the counter to get plastic gloves to scoop up the substance. Plaintiff did not know the names of the deli employees but said both were in their mid-twenties, one an African-American male and the other "Spanish."
Plaintiff went to the courtesy counter, asked to speak to someone in charge and filled out an incident report. She did not know the name of the manager who assisted her but was able to provide a general description and testified that she has seen him at the store since her fall. Although she has returned to the store since her fall, she has not spoken to anyone there about it since then. Neither plaintiff nor defendant has a copy of the incident report that plaintiff says she completed. Defendant has no knowledge of the substance in question or how long it was on the floor prior to plaintiff's fall.
Defendant filed a motion seeking summary judgment on the grounds that plaintiff lacked proof that it had violated any duty to her. The motion was granted and in this appeal, plaintiff argues that summary judgment was inappropriate.
On appeal, a motion for summary judgment is reviewed de novo under the same legal standard applied by the trial court, that is, "whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue[s] in favor of the non-moving party." Spinks v. Twp. of Clinton, 402 N.J. Super. 465, 473 (App. Div. 2008) (quoting Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995)), certif. denied, 197 N.J. 476 (2009). First, we determine whether the moving party has demonstrated that there were no genuine disputes as to material facts, and then we decide whether the motion judge's application of the law was correct. Atl. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Hillside Bottling Co., 387 N.J. Super. 224, 230-31 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 189 N.J. 104 (2006). In so doing, we view the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Brill, supra, 142 N.J. at 523. We accord no deference to the motion judge's conclusions on issues of law, Zabilowicz v. Kelsey, 200 N.J. 507, 512-513 (2009); Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995), which we review de novo. Dep't of Envtl. Prot. v. Kafil, 395 N.J. Super. 597, 601 (App. Div. 2007). To defeat summary judgment, the opposing party must present affirmative evidence that is competent, credible and shows that there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256-57, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2514, 91 L.Ed. 2d 202, 217 (1986).
Business owners owe a duty of reasonable care to provide a safe environment to invitees for doing that which is within the scope of the invitation. Nisivoccia v. Glass Gardens, Inc., 175 N.J. 559, 563 (2003). As a general rule, this duty requires a business owner to "discover and eliminate dangerous conditions, to maintain the premises in safe condition, and to avoid creating conditions that would render the premises unsafe." Bauer v. Nesbitt, 198 N.J. 601, 615 (2009); Jerista v. Murray, 185 N.J. 175, 191 (2005); Nisivoccia, supra, 175 N.J. at 563. To prove a breach of that duty, an injured plaintiff is ordinarily required to prove that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition that caused the accident. E.g., Brown v. Racquet Club of Bricktown, 95 N.J. 280, 291 (1984).
However, the Supreme Court has relieved the plaintiff of proving this element "in circumstances in which, as a matter of probability, a dangerous condition is likely to occur as the result of the nature of the business, the property's condition, or a demonstrable pattern of conduct or incidents." Nisivoccia, supra, 175 N.J. at 563. In such circumstances, the plaintiff is entitled to an inference of negligence and the defendant has the burden of producing "rebutting proof that it had taken prudent and reasonable steps to avoid the potential hazard." Id. at 563-64. Because business owners are considered to be in the best position to control the risk of harm, Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323, 335 (2006), this application is consistent with the Court's earlier observation of "the salutary effect of shifting the risk of loss" and the costs of preventing harm and "other associated costs of a dangerous activity to those who should be able and are best able to bear them." Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426, 447 (1993). See also Nisivoccia, supra, 175 N.J. at 563; Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., LLC, 408 N.J. Super. 435, 446 (App. Div.), certif. granted, 200 N.J. 502 (2009); Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343 (1965).
The Supreme Court has applied this principle to a plaintiff who alleged negligence arising out of a slip and fall in a supermarket. The plaintiff in Nisivoccia slipped and fell on some loose grapes lying about near the checkout lanes of a supermarket. She was unable to prove how long the grapes were on the floor or how they came to be there. The trial court directed a verdict for defendant and this court affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that plaintiff was entitled to an inference of negligence because the store should have anticipated that careless handling of grapes was reasonably likely during customer checkout, creating a hazardous condition. See also Wollerman v. Grand Union Stores, Inc., 47 N.J. 426, 429 (1966) (because defendant's operation allowed customers to serve themselves, it was required to anticipate that produce might fall to the ground due to the carelessness of either customers or employees and was obliged to use reasonable measures promptly to detect and remove such hazards in order to avoid the inference that it was ...