On February 1, 2022, the Court of Special Appeals issued an opinion in Cador v. YES Organic Market Hyattsville, Inc. The trial court had dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, holding that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent and assumed the risk of injury and therefore should not be permitted to go to trial. The Court of Special Appeals held that the plaintiff was entitled to a trial.
Assumption of risk and contributory negligence are defenses to a negligence claim in Maryland. Essentially this means that if the defendant can point to something that the plaintiff did that contributed to her injury or show that the plaintiff made a knowing choice to encounter a potential danger, that the plaintiff cannot recover damages no matter how bad the defendant’s conduct.
In Cador, the court said that the plaintiff was entitled to be able to present her case and have the jury decide whether her conduct contributed to her injury.
Ms. Cador slipped and fell on a freshly mopped floor at Yes Organic Market. The defendant argued that there were signs warning the public that the plaintiff should have seen and thus she should have been aware of the wet floor. In assessing the plaintiff’s conduct, the court must measure it against what an “ordinarily prudent person” in her shoes would do.
Ms. Cador’s fall occurred some distance from where the wet floor signs had been set up. The court stated that a wet floor sign in the checkout area was insufficient warning of a dangerous condition throughout the entire market. The defendant argued that the presence of a yellow mop bucket near where the plaintiff fell served as additional warning.
The appeal court held that many inferences could be drawn from the yellow mop bucket. The court held that it was the jury’s job to weigh the respective likelihood of what those inferences were. The court held that for the defendant to prevail on summary judgment, it had to establish that the plaintiff actually saw the yellow mop bucket. The plaintiff had testified that she did not see it. Even if the undisputed facts established that the bucket was there to be seen, there was still a disputed fact as to whether it was in fact seen.
Next, the Market argued that the permitted inference from the mop bucket was that the floor was wet. The court held that if a different inference could be drawn, that summary judgment was inappropriate.
On appeal, the court refused to find as a matter of undisputed fact that the plaintiff saw the mop bucket. The court noted that in a store, merchandise is designed to catch the eye of the shopper. Previous decisions have held that shoppers are not negligent as a matter of law for failing to notice an obstruction on the floor as they are looking over merchandise.
The appellate court also rejected the inference that Ms. Cador “must have seen” the mop bucket. The court held that in order for the issue of contributory negligence to be taken from the jury, the evidence “…must demonstrate a prominent and decisive act or omission of the plaintiff about which reasonable minds would not differ.” Basically, the appellate court held that the jury and not the judge should determine what was reasonable – for Ms. Cador to be looking at the ground or for her to be looking toward where she was going.
The Court of Special Appeals further stated that even if Ms. Cador saw the mop bucket, she was not necessarily negligent. It raised the question of what message the yellow bucket was intended to send. The Appeals Court held that an abandoned mop bucket by itself did not necessarily send any message to the customer.
Also, the court held that the specific area that the wet floor signs were designed to warn the customer about was a factual question for the jury, not a legal issue for the court. The court noted that contradictory inferences might be drawn from the same set of facts, such as the placement of the mop bucket. The court held that someone might infer that the floor is dry because mopping had not yet been started, or that someone else might infer a wet floor from mopping that was recently completed. Where the same set of facts can lead to different inferences, the jury gets to decide what inferences area reasonable under the circumstances.
In deciding whether to dismiss the plaintiff’s case without a trial, the trial court was required to resolve those inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Here the Court of Special Appeals found that the trial court did not do that. It found that the most favorable inferences were that the wet floor signs were a localized message, that there was no necessary link to the mop bucket and that plaintiff never saw the mop bucket in any event. Even if the plaintiff saw the yellow mop bucket, the Appeals court held that the jury could have concluded the bucket unattended because the employee who was scheduled to do the mopping had not yet arrived rather than placed in its location as a warning of a specific danger.
While it is possible that all of these facts could preclude the plaintiff from ultimately winning her case, the court found that she was entitled to the benefit of the doubt at the summary judgment stage and that she should have the opportunity to present her case to the jury.