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Huegel v. Target Corp.

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

February 27, 2017

ERICA HUEGEL and DAVID HUEGEL, JR., Plaintiffs,
v.
TARGET CORPORATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          ALETA A. TRAUGER United States District Judge.

         Pending before the court is a Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 24) filed by the defendant, Target Corporation (“Target”), to which the plaintiffs have filed a Response (Docket No. 27), and Target has filed a Reply (Docket No. 30). For the following reasons, the Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied.

         FACTS[1]

         This is a premises liability case arising from injuries sustained by one of the plaintiffs, Erica Huegel, after she slipped in a store owned and operated by the defendant, Target. On April 17, 2014, Mrs. Huegel was shopping at a Target store in Franklin, Tennessee with her young daughter, her cousin, Shelby Vineyard, and Ms. Vineyard's young son. At some point in their shopping, the two women entered the grocery section of the store, and they eventually turned down the aisle where Target stocks applesauce. As they looked for packets of squeezable applesauce on the shelves, Ms. Vineyard pushed a shopping cart down the aisle and Mrs. Huegel followed behind. (Docket No. 24-1 (Dep. E. Huegel), 30:3-21, 34:11-13.) As they progressed down the aisle, neither Mrs. Huegel nor Ms. Vineyard noticed that a puddle of applesauce approximately twelve inches wide and an inch or two thick sat on the floor in the aisle. According to Mrs. Huegel, the applesauce “wasn't noticeable” because it was a color similar to that of the floor and, therefore, “blended in” with the floor.[2] (Id. at 30:22-31:3, 33:3-6.) Mrs. Huegel slipped in this applesauce and fell, [3] allegedly causing serious injury to her hips that ultimately required two surgeries and prolonged rehabilitation. (Docket No. 27, p. 2.) Mrs. Huegel and her husband, David Huegel, Jr., now seek to recover from Target for her injuries and an associated loss of consortium.

         The applesauce on which Mrs. Huegel slipped was determined to have come from a 46 ounce jar that was found in the vicinity of the spill. Both Mrs. Huegel and Ms. Vineyard have admitted that they do not know how the applesauce came to be on the floor or how long it had been there. (Docket No. 28 ¶¶ 6-7, 16-18.) They further admit that the Target employee working in the general area of the store in which they were shopping - Debra Scobey - did not know how the applesauce came to be on the floor or how long it had been there. (Id. ¶¶ 26, 28.) Mrs. Huegel contends, however, that at least one Target employee was aware of the spilled applesauce before she slipped, as evidenced by the fact that, “within seconds” of the incident, a female Target employee (most likely Ms. Scobey[4]) “[came] down the aisle with a mop.” (Docket No. 24-1, 37:4-10; accord Docket No. 24-2 (Huegel Statement), pp. 3-5.) Moreover, Mrs. Huegel testified that she had been in the “vicinity” of the applesauce aisle for “10 to 20 minutes” prior to her fall and, during that time, did not see any Target employee in the area or hear a jar of applesauce “breaking or dropping.” (Docket No. 24-1, 75:5-11, 77:4-11.)

         Target's standard policies contain a number of directives aimed at reducing the hazard posed by spills and debris throughout the store. Pursuant to these policies, employees are trained to “routinely and regularly” walk the store, in addition to their assigned work areas, while scanning for hazards. (Docket No. 28 ¶ 8.) Target admits to being aware that the Franklin store “was a ‘very busy store' and that someone should be inspecting the floor at least every fifteen minutes.” (Docket No. 31 ¶ 13 (quoting Docket No. 24-5 (Dep. C. Wilhoyte), 20:23-21:18).) Moreover, if an employee discovers a spill, the employee is supposed to remain in the area of the spill so that it does not stand unguarded, warn customers of the hazard, contact additional employees to retrieve the tools necessary to clean the area, and assist in cleaning the spill.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On April 8, 2015, Mr. and Mrs. Huegel filed an action against Target in the Circuit Court for Williamson County, Tennessee, alleging that Target acted negligently when it breached its duty to maintain its property in a safe condition or warn Mrs. Huegel of an unsafe condition, resulting in Mrs. Huegel's injuries. (Docket No. 1-1 ¶¶ 5.1-7.5.) Mr. and Mrs. Huegel seek compensation for pain and suffering, loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life, medical costs, lost future earnings, and loss of consortium. (Id. at pp. 5-6.) A month after the Complaint was filed, Target removed the action to this court under the court's diversity jurisdiction, because Mrs. Huegel is a citizen of Tennessee and Target is a Minnesota corporation with its principal place of business in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Docket No. 1 ¶¶ 5-6.) On June 19, 2015, Target filed an Answer, denying that it breached any duty to Mrs. Huegel and asserting that Mrs. Huegel failed to use reasonable care for her own safety in light of an “obvious” risk, making her at fault for her own injuries. (Docket No. 5, pp. 5-6.) To the extent that Mrs. Huegel is determined to be more than fifty percent at fault for her injuries, Target argues that she and her husband are barred from recovery for their injuries by principles of comparative fault under Tennessee law. (Id.)

         On December 22, 2016, Target filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 24), accompanied by a Memorandum (Docket No. 25), a Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (Docket No. 26), and transcripts of the depositions of Mrs. Huegel and various Target employees (Docket Nos. 24-1-24-5). In the Motion, Target argues that in cannot be held liable for Mrs. Huegel's injuries because no evidence demonstrates that it or its employees spilled the applesauce in which Mrs. Huegel slipped or that they had actual or constructive notice of the spill. (Docket No. 25, p. 7.) To support this argument, Target notes that Mrs. Huegel admitted in her deposition that she did not know how the applesauce came to be on the floor, who had put it there, how long it had been there, or whether anyone at Target knew of the spill prior to the incident. (Id.) Target further argues that Mrs. Huegel herself was the “sole proximate cause” of her injuries, because the spill on the floor was an “open and obvious” hazard, and Mrs. Huegel's slipping in the applesauce was due to her own inattentiveness. (Id. at pp. 13-17.) According to Target, Mrs. Huegel's negligence was at least equal to its own, if any, and she and her husband are thereby precluded from recovering for her injuries by principles of comparative fault. (Id. at p. 18.)

         On January 11, 2017, Mrs. Huegel filed a Response in Opposition to Target's motion (Docket No. 27), accompanied by a Response to Target's Statement of Undisputed Facts (Docket No. 28), a Statement of Additional Facts in dispute (Docket No. 29), and excerpts from the transcript of the deposition of Steven Maurer, the “leader on duty” on April 17, 2014 (Docket No. 27-1). In her Response, Mrs. Huegel concedes that she has no evidence demonstrating that Target or its employees created the spill, but she argues that genuine disputes of fact support her contention that Target had actual or constructive notice of the hazard. (Docket No. 27, p. 2.) According to Mrs. Huegel, her testimony regarding the Target employee who arrived in the aisle with a mop within seconds of her slipping in the applesauce supports the reasonable inference that, at the time that Mrs. Huegel slipped, the employee had already noticed the puddle of applesauce and gone to retrieve the mop. (Id. at p. 9 (citing Docket No. 24-1, 37:1-5).) Moreover, Mrs. Huegel argues that Target had constructive notice of the spill, because she was in the vicinity of the applesauce aisle for ten to twenty minutes prior to the incident and never heard the sound of a jar falling or breaking, indicating that the spill had been present for at least that amount of time. (Id. at pp. 10-12 (citing Docket No. 24-1, 75:7-11, 76:20-77:11).) Finally, Mrs. Huegel argues that Target has the burden of proving, as an affirmative defense, that she was comparatively more at fault for her injuries than it was. (Id. at pp. 15-19.) According to Mrs. Huegel, Target cannot meet this burden, because the foreseeability and gravity of the risk posed by the spill outweighed the small burden on Target to maintain a safe store and thereby prevent such hazards. (Id.)

         On January 17, 2017, Target filed a Reply in support of its motion (Docket No. 30) and a Response to Mrs. Huegel's Statement of Additional Facts (Docket No. 31). In the Reply, Target argues that Mrs. Huegel's alleged evidence of actual or constructive notice of the spill is nothing more than “conjecture and inference, ” which does not allow her to survive summary judgment. (Docket No. 30, pp. 2-3.) Target further argues that the deposition testimony of Mrs. Huegel and Ms. Vineyard establishes that the applesauce on the floor was “easily noticeable” and, therefore, an open and obvious risk that Mrs. Huegel failed to reasonably avoid. (Id. at pp. 4-5.) Target then reiterates its position that Mrs. Huegel's negligence in failing to avoid the danger posed by the spill is at least equal to its own, and she and her husband are thereby precluded from recovering for her injuries.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 requires the court to grant a motion for summary judgment if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). If a moving defendant shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact as to at least one essential element of the plaintiff's claim, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to provide evidence beyond the pleadings, “set[ting] forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Moldowan v. City of Warren, 578 F.3d 351, 374 (6th Cir. 2009); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). Conversely, a moving party bearing the burden of proof on a claim must show that the non-moving party cannot raise a genuine issue of fact regarding any element of the relevant claims. In both instances, “[i]n evaluating the evidence, the court must draw all inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Moldowan, 578 F.3d at 374 (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)).

         At this stage, “‘the judge's function is not . . . to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986)). But “[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [non-moving party's] position will be insufficient, ” and the party's proof must be more than “merely colorable.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. An issue of fact is ...


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