Res Ipsa Loquitur in Florida Personal Injury Cases – Hancock v. Wal-Mart

There ‘s more than one way to prove negligence in a Florida personal injury lawsuit. In Hancock v. Wal-Mart, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals explained one way which comes into play if there is no direct evidence of fault.

Angela Hancock injured her head, shoulder and back in an accident at a Jacksonville Wal-Mart store when three bags of beach toys fell from a display shelf and struck her. She sued Wal-Mart, claiming that the company was negligent because employee Angel Wilhelm improperly stocked the shelf about half an hour before the accident. At trial, Wilhelm testified that Hancock bumped into the shelf with a shopping cart, causing the items to fall off of the shelf. Assistant manager James Brown also testified that Hancock was using a cart at the time, while Hancock denied the allegation.

At the close of the trial, Hancock asked the court to instruct the jury on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (“the thing speaks for itself”). Under this doctrine, a defendant in a negligence action can be found liable without direct evidence of negligence where the instrumentality that caused the injury was under the exclusive control of the defendant at the time of the accident and the injury would not ordinarily occur without negligence. The Court denied Hancock’s request and the jury returned a verdict finding that Wal-Mart was not negligent.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling, finding that Hancock was not entitled to the requested jury instruction. In order to take advantage of the doctrine, a plaintiff must show that there is no direct proof of the defendant’s negligence, according to the Court. In other words, the doctrine is a last resort, available only in the absence of traditional evidence.

In this case, Hancock produced direct evidence that Wilhelm was negligent: Wilhelm stacked the toys roughly 30 minutes before the accident; store policy required her “not overload shelves with merchandise”; and Brown allegedly said “who stacked these baskets this high?” when he arrived at the scene of the accident. As a result, Hancock was not able to rely on res ipsa loquitur in proving her claim.

Despite the ruling, Florida courts generally recognize that property owners are responsible for keeping their property in a reasonably safe condition, especially for known and invited guests such as customers (shoppers who enter a store for the purpose of buying products, for example). When they fail to properly maintain the premises, the owner may be liable for any injuries that happen as a result.

If you were recently injured in an accident at a place of business and are interested in pursuing a claim against the property owner of the premises where you were injured, call the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Anidjar & Levine today. The South Florida personal injury attorneys represent clients throughout the region, including in Hialeah, Coral Springs, Pompano Beach and Hollywood. Anidjar & Levine is happy to discuss your potential claim in a free initial consultation. You can reach the firm’s Ft. Lauderdale offices at 800-747-3733 or fill out an on-line “Contact Us” form.

Related blog posts:

Florida Court Reviews Slip and Fall Claim Against Clothing Store Owner – Barandas v. Ross Dress For Less

Injured on Another Person’s Property? Liability May Depend on the Fine Print – Marler v. U-Store-It Mini Warehouse Co.

Proximate Cause in Florida Personal Injury Cases – Sunbelt Environmental v. Gulf Coast Truck and Equipment Company