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Causation Required for Compensation in Negligence Claims – Schwartz v. Wal-Mart

pumpkinUnfortunately, accidents in stores happen all the time in the state of Florida and across the United States. Stores and other commercial places of business have a legal obligation to ensure that the premises are safe for their customers to enter. If the store fails to keep the property in reasonably safe condition, and a customer is injured on the premises, the owner may be liable for any resulting harm. However, premises liability cases are extremely fact-intensive, and the outcome of the case will depend on the specific circumstances of that particular incident.

In Schwartz v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the Fifth District Court of Appeals denied a plaintiff’s motion for a new trial after a zero-damages jury verdict. The facts of the case are as follows. The plaintiff was shopping at Wal-Mart when she was hit in the back by an ornamental pumpkin. According to court documents, the pumpkin in question weighed approximately 8.5 ounces and was “squishy.” Even before trial, Wal-Mart conceded that the plaintiff was struck by the ornamental pumpkin due to an employee’s negligent behavior. Wal-Mart, however, contested the issues of causation and damages, which are necessary elements of negligence.

Negligence is the failure to take proper care when doing something. Put another way, negligence is the failure to take reasonable care in one’s actions or omissions. Reasonable care is defined as how a prudent person would behave in the same or similar circumstances. In order to prevail on a negligence claim, the plaintiff has to establish the following elements:  1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care; 2) the defendant breached the duty of care owed to the plaintiff; 3) the defendant’s breach caused the accident; and 4) the plaintiff suffered quantifiable damages as a result. All four elements have to be met in order to win on a negligence claim.

Here, the jury returned a zero-damages verdict, stating that Wal-Mart’s negligence was not the cause of the plaintiff’s harm. Wal-Mart had presented significant evidence, including expert witnesses who gave their opinions about how the degree of force with which the pumpkin struck the plaintiff was “well below” what would be necessary to cause an injury.

The trial court, however, granted the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial solely for the purpose of determining damages for the initial medical diagnostic costs she incurred after the incident. The trial was to address nothing more. Both sides appealed. The plaintiff wanted to seek more than just medical diagnostic expenses. Wal-Mart claimed that the trial court should not have granted the motion for a new trial.

The appellate court agreed with Wal-Mart and denied the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial on the grounds that the plaintiff had failed to show that her injury was a result of the pumpkin hitting her in the back. The plaintiff argued that she should have at least been awarded medical expenses that she incurred after the incident to ascertain whether the occurrence had caused the injuries. While it was undoubted that the plaintiff had sought medical treatment immediately after the incident, the court said this case fell within an exception to the general allowance because of the expert testimony that stated the plaintiff’s injury could not have been caused by the incident. Thus, jurors were permitted to arrive at a zero-damages verdict even in light of medical diagnostic expenses that provided evidence as to causation.

Robert Dixon is a Miami premises liability lawyer who has helped countless South Florida clients resolve their accident claims. At our firm, we understand the nuances of injury law and can help you gain an understanding of your legal rights and options. To learn more, do not hesitate to reach out to us. You can contact us online or call us today at 1-877-499-HURT (4878) for a free, confidential consultation.

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Federal Court Permits Untimely Expert Testimony in Florida Case Involving Bad Faith, South Florida Injury Lawyer Blawg, February 9, 2015

Florida Court Makes Distinction Between Negligence and Products Liability Claims, South Florida Injury Lawyer Blawg, February 9, 2015

Insurance Coverage Issues in Florida Child Drowning Case, South Florida Injury Lawyer Blawg, January 23, 2015