Settlement cancels bifurcated trial over wet floor at 7-11

By John O'Brien | Dec 5, 2012

MARTINSBURG – After a federal judge found that a wet floor on a rainy day could possibly meet a gross negligence standard, a Jefferson County woman and 7-11 have settled her slip-and-fall case.

U.S. District Judge Gina Groh ruled against 7-11’s motion to dismiss Dana Cline’s request for punitive damages on Nov. 9. Cline alleges she suffered a fracture in her ankle, as well as partial tears of various tendons and ligaments, when she slipped inside a Ranson 7-11 on July 1, 2009.

The two sides argued over whether a wet floor on a rainy day constituted gross negligence.

“Taking the Plaintiff’s allegations as true, however, the Court concludes that the Plaintiff has made sufficient allegations of gross negligence to survive the Defendant’s motion to dismiss,” Groh wrote.

“The Plaintiff has alleged that the Defendant knew or had reason to know that wet floors in its business created dangerous and hazardous conditions, that the Defendant knew or had reason to know that the failure to place mats on the floor to protect customers from slipping when the floor was wet caused dangerous and hazardous conditions, and that the Defendant knew or had reason to know that the failure to place cones or warning signs near the door when the floor was wet caused dangerous and hazardous conditions.

“The difference between ordinary negligence and gross negligence is one of degree and, thus, constitutes a question for the trier-of-fact.”

According to the case’s docket, the case was settled in the weeks after Groh’s ruling. She entered an order dismissing the case on Nov. 26. The settlement amount is not available.

A final pretrial conference was scheduled for Nov. 30.

Groh had granted 7-11’s request to bifurcate the trial. The first phase would have determined if 7-11 was liable to Cline for compensatory damages, the amount of compensatory damages awarded and if the misconduct attributed to 7-11 would have met the threshold for imposition of punitive damages.

If the jury had ruled that it met that threshold, a second phase of the trial to determine the amount of punitive damages would have been ordered.

Cline did not contest 7-11’s desire to bifurcate the trial. If a second phase had happened, the plaintiff could have introduced evidence of 7-11’s financial condition.

Groh wrote that West Virginia law does not require bifurcation, but precedent exists. A 2002 ruling by the state Supreme Court in a case against Wal-Mart upheld a trial court’s bifurcation of a punitive damages issue in an identical manner to 7-11’s request.

7-11 had argued it would be prejudicial to introduce evidence of its assets or net worth unless it was decided its conduct warranted punitive damages.

Groh also denied Cline’s motion for partial summary judgment as to liability on the part of 7-11. She wrote that the motion can be denied because it was untimely filed, but also said it should be denied considering the substance of Cline’s argument.

The two sides disputed whether there was water on the vinyl floor of the store, how much it had rained that day and whether there was a sign warning customers about a slippery floor.

Representing Cline was the Law Office of F. Samuel Byrer in Charles Town.

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