PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Legal Newsline) – The Rhode Island Supreme Court has affirmed in part and vacated in part the Superior Court’s judgment in a slip-and-fall lawsuit against PriceRite.
In a 4-1 opinion filed May 22, the state Supreme Court found that the lower court judge's decision to dismiss the claim was based on his opinion, which isn't permitted in the summary judgment stage. The Supreme Court also found that a jury had enough evidence to deliberate the case.
The court vacated the summary judgment ruling in favor of PriceRite and affirmed the dismissal of the remaining counts of the plaintiff's complaint.
Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg wrote the opinion, which was supported by Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell, Justice Francis X. Flaherty and Justice Gilbert V. Indeglia. Justice William P. Robinson III wrote a dissenting opinion.
The decision came after Karen Dent appealed a final judgment granting PriceRite's motion for summary judgment on her negligence claim. She also appealed the decision to grant the company’s motion to dismiss the four remaining counts.
The case stems from an August 2012 incident at a PriceRite store in Providence. Dent reportedly slipped on a “brownish oily substance” and became “immobilized,” the opinion states.
The five-judge panel noted that the “sole issue before the trial justice” was whether PriceRite noticed the spill before Kent’s fall.
“It was not the function of the trial justice to decide those issues or comment on the probative value of the evidence,” the opinion said. “...It is the function of the jury to determine the significance and weight of the evidences that relates to the claim of negligence...”
The court cited the trial judge’s statement that Dent failed to show PriceRite was notified of the spill before her fall. Referring to a video recorded the day of the incident, the judge noted that people who were walking down the aisle didn’t appear to notice the spill.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that the substance wasn’t there,” the judge said. “It just means that obviously it wasn’t so obvious that it would call attention to somebody. It appears that once she fell, obviously the porter came and started mopping.”
The Supreme Court found that those statements reflected “opinion-based credibility and factual evaluations of the evidence,” which it described as “an impermissible function at the summary-judgment stage.”
In his dissent, Robinson said he believed “Dent failed to produce competent evidence to survive summary judgment” and that he believed the trial court's granting of summary judgment was appropriate.
“It is my position that Karen Dent failed to point to any evidence, direct and/or circumstantial, on the basis of which one could infer that PRRC Inc., d/b/a Price Rite (Price Rite), had actual or constructive knowledge of the spill, which purportedly caused her to fall and sustain an injury,” he said.