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Premises owner has a legal duty to make its premises reasonably safe for its customers. It is not required to patrol the aisles continuously, but only at reasonable intervals.
In 1993 Delores Howard, age 65, slipped and fell in a puddle of liquid soap that someone--no one knows who--had spilled on the floor of the aisle in a Wal-Mart store in Cahokia Illinois. She was injured, and brought suit against Wal-Mart in an Illinois state court; the defendant removed the case to federal district court. At the time the suit was brought and removed, there was enough possibility that Howard's injury was severe (the injured leg had become infected) to lift the case just over the then-$ 5,000 threshold for a diversity suit. But later she recovered and at trial asked for only $ 25,000 in damages. The jury awarded her $ 18,750. Wal-Mart has appealed out of fear (its lawyer explained to us at argument) of the precedential effect in future slip-and-fall cases of the judge's refusal to grant judgment for Wal-mart as a matter of law.
Was there enough evidence of liability to allow the case to go to a jury?
The court rejected store's claim that there was insufficient evidence of liability to have allowed the case to go to a jury. Specifically, store claimed that there was not enough evidence that an employee rather than a customer spilled the soap. There was no evidence with regard to how much time had elapsed between the spill and the fall; thus, plaintiff could only have prevailed if there was enough evidence that an employee spilled the soap. The accident occurred in the morning when store's employees stocked the shelves. There was a large puddle of soap on the floor, but no container. In light of plaintiff's not implausible contention that a customer who came across a damaged container or had damaged it would be unlikely to have purchased it or put it in her shopping cart, the court could not say that the jury was irrational in finding that the balance of probabilities tipped in plaintiff's favor by a hair's breadth. Such a hair's breadth was enough. There was no reason to suspect plaintiff was holding back unfavorable evidence and it would have been unreasonable, given the minimal stakes, to have expected her to conduct a more thorough investigation.