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Mississippi retailer not liable for injury to a child who rode a bicycle through aisles he found on the store floor.

Attempts by the plaintiff to re-characterize stands and racks did not get past the judge. However, in many cases, the way a plaintiff casts a product can later define how the jury sees the case.

Wilson v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 161 So. 3d 1128; 2015 Miss. App. LEXIS 216

State: Mississippi, Court of Appeals of Mississippi

Plaintiff: Seth Wilson, by and Through His Mother and Next Friend, Suzette Wilson Purser

Defendant: Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Premises Liability

Defendant Defenses: No duty

Holding: For the Defendant Retailer

Year: 2015

This is a screwy little case, but worth the effort. A family, Step-Father, mother and two sons went into a Wal-Mart to buy a basketball. While there, the two sons walked over to the bicycle aisle and proceeded to ride two bicycles they found through the aisles.

One brother, in attempting to put a bicycle back in the rack, slowed down. The other brother was not used to hand breaks, maneuvered around the brother riding into a shelf where he suffered a cut on his leg.

They both got on bicycles that were on the bicycle rack, and started riding up and down the aisles nearby. The bicycle Seth rode was on the ground when he found it, with its front wheel pushed under the rack and its back wheel in the aisle. Seth was following Wyatt on his bicycle when Wyatt slowed down to put the bicycle he was riding away. Seth was forced to go around him because he was “going real fast” and “[could not] figure out how to stop.” He tried to brake using the pedals, but the bicycle only had handbrakes. Unable to stop, Seth ran into a wall and cut his leg on a shelf. The cut was deep and required stitches.

Of note was the statement that the employee assigned to the area was absent and there were no signs posted prohibiting the use of the bicycles.” (So bars now need to put up signs no drinking from the tap without paying for the product first?). The employee assigned to the department was outside at the time of the accident, and no signs were posted prohibiting the use of the bicycles or otherwise warning of any danger.”

The defendant was ten at the time of the injury so whether or not signs were posted probably would not have made a difference. And it seems that allowing children to ride bikes through the aisles at Wal-Mart in Mississippi is a common practice, which sort of blows my mind.

The injured child’s mother filed a lawsuit on his behalf, since he was a minor, and sued Wal-Mart based on a premise’s liability theory. Wal-Mart filed a motion for summary judgment stating there was no genuine issue of material fact showing that there was a dangerous condition that Wal-Mart should have warned about.

The motion was granted, and the plaintiff appealed the decision.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The court first looked at the premises’ liability law that the plaintiff claimed had been breached by Wal-Mart. To prove his case the plaintiff must show that he was an invitee, the duty owed to him based on his status and whether Wal-Mart breached that duty.

Seth’s premises-liability claim, this Court must (1) determine the status of the injured person as either an invitee, licensee, or trespasser, (2) assess, based on the injured party’s status, what duty the landowner or business operator owed to the injured party, and (3) determine whether the landowner or business operator breached the duty owed to the injured. 

Because the plaintiff was there with his parents to purchase a basketball, he was defined as an invitee. As such, the duty of a land owner (or retailer) was to keep the premises reasonably safe and when not reasonably safe, to warn of the hidden dangers. If the peril were in plain and open view, there is no duty to warn of them.

To succeed in a premises-liability action, Seth must prove one of the following: “(1) a negligent act by [Wal-Mart] caused [his] injury; or, (2) that [Wal-Mart] had actual knowledge of a dangerous condition, but failed to warn [him] of the danger; or, (3) the dangerous condition remained long enough to impute constructive knowledge to [Wal-Mart].”

Is a bicycle on display at a retailer a dangerous condition? The plaintiff argued the bicycle should have been locked up so the plaintiff could not ride it. The bicycle was not in a rack at the time the plaintiff found the bike.

He argues that (1) Wal-Mart’s possession of a rack on which to clamp the bicycles, (2) the assignment of an employee to the toy department, and (3) evidence of other children on bicycles in the same aisle at the same Wal-Mart show that unlocked or readily accessible bicycles created a dangerous condition, and that Wal-Mart knew about it and failed to warn its patrons. He cites to no authority to support his position, and nothing in the record supports these allegations.

The plaintiff then characterized the rack that the bike should have been in as a “safety rack.” However, the court caught on to that maneuver and reviewed the operation of the rack and the manufacturer’s description and found the rack was designed only to hold bikes, not to prevent them from being moved.

Seth refers to the rack where the bicycles could be clamped as a safety rack, but there is nothing in the record to indicate that the purpose for the rack was to protect its patrons from the alleged danger posed by unlocked or readily accessible bicycles. The record contains installation instructions for the rack, which were prepared by VIDIR Machine Inc., a vertical storage company, and refers to the rack as a carrier or bike-merchandising system only. The rack does not contain a locking mechanism, and holds bicycles in place utilizing a tire clamp

The plaintiff argued that since the bikes would be difficult to remove from the rack, an employee would need to be there to make sure the bikes were removed properly and only when allowed.

However, the entire argument failed. No employee was stationed at the rack to guard against removing bikes. Other children rode bikes in the aisle without incidence, which indicated there was no real danger and no evidence of a standard was presented indicating a requirement to lock up bikes on the show floor.

Additionally, there is nothing in the record to indicate the assignment of an employee to the toy department was for the purpose of guarding against any known danger; and evidence that other children rode bicycles in the same aisle in the same Wal-Mart without incident does not, in and of itself, tend to show that unlocked or readily accessible bicycles pose a danger. Seth provided no evidence of the industry’s standards, no expert reports, and no evidence of Wal-Mart’s policy regarding who may remove the bicycles from the rack and whether its employees were required to.

The plaintiff then argued a higher duty was owed to the plaintiff because he was a minor. However, the duty owed under a premise’s liability act does not change due to the age of the invitee. The plaintiff also knew how to ride a bicycle and learned at the age of five. The plaintiff had also been involved in numerous bicycle accidents prior to the one that injured him at the retailers’ premises.

An unlocked bicycle was found not to present a dangerous condition such that a warning had to be posted by the retailer about the risk to the consumers.

So Now What?

The first issue which was handled quickly by the court was the attempt by the plaintiff to characterize something as different than it actually was. By calling the bike rack a safety rack the plaintiff could place in the juries mind a requirement that did not exist. It is important that these issues not be allowed to explode and create liability just because thclip_image002_thumb.jpge plaintiff miss-labels part of the case.

Another issue is the fact that parents allow their kids to ride bicycles through the aisles of stores, and the retailer does not put a stop to it. What if the plaintiff had hit another patron rather than a shelf?

As always, the issue of putting warning signs up so people who can’t read, can be protected always makes me wonder. Warning if you are unable to read this sign, please find someone to read it to you. Seriously the entire world is going to be nothing but signs if this continues.

Thankfully, the retailer was not liable for the actions of an inattentive parent for the injuries of their child riding a bike down a store aisle.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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