McCarty v. Hillstone Restaurant Group, Inc., No. 16-11519 (5th Cir. 2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Plaintiffs, Pamela and Nick McCarty, filed suit against Hillstone, alleging a premises liability claim after Pamela slipped and fell at one of defendant's restaurants. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment dismissal and held that plaintiffs failed to identify evidence from which a jury could, under any of the three methods of proof outlined in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Reece, 81 S.W.3d 12, 814–15 (Tex. 2002), conclude that Hillstone had actual or constructive knowledge of the restaurant floor's allegedly dangerous condition.

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Case: 16-11519 Document: 00514077577 Page: 1 Date Filed: 07/18/2017 IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT United States Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit No. 16-11519 PAMELA MCCARTY; NICK MCCARTY, FILED July 18, 2017 Lyle W. Cayce Clerk Plaintiffs - Appellants v. HILLSTONE RESTAURANT GROUP, INCORPORATED, doing business as Houston’s Restaurant, Defendant - Appellee Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas Before JOLLY, SMITH, and GRAVES, Circuit Judges. JAMES E. GRAVES, JR., Circuit Judge: In this appeal, Pamela and Nick McCarty contend the district court erred by granting summary judgment in favor of Hillstone Restaurant Group, Inc. (“Hillstone”). We AFFIRM. FACTUAL BACKGROUND On February 16, 2014, the McCartys and another couple went to dinner at Houston’s Restaurant (“Houston’s”), a business operated by Hillstone. Mrs. McCarty fell while walking to the restrooms, which required her to pass the restaurant’s kitchen. At the time, Mrs. McCarty was using crutches due to a recent surgery on her heel. The McCartys allege some substance on the floor Case: 16-11519 Document: 00514077577 Page: 2 Date Filed: 07/18/2017 No. 16-11519 outside the restaurant’s kitchen and restrooms caused Mrs. McCarty’s crutch to slip from underneath her. JURISDICTION Federal subject matter jurisdiction exists based upon diversity of citizenship. The McCartys are Texas citizens, while Hillstone is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Atlanta, Georgia. This court has appellate jurisdiction over the McCartys’ appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. STANDARD OF REVIEW “[This court] review[s] ‘a grant of summary judgment . . . de novo, applying the same standard on appeal that is applied by the district court.’” Ocwen Loan Servicing, L.L.C. v. Berry, 852 F.3d 469 (5th Cir. 2017) (quoting Tiblier v. Dlabal, 743 F.3d 1004, 1007 (5th Cir. 2014)) (bracket omitted). “Summary judgment is appropriate ‘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.’” Id. (quoting FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a)). “[This court] also review[s] ‘a district court’s determinations of state law de novo.’” Id. (quoting Lozovyy v. Kurtz, 813 F.3d 576, 580 (5th Cir. 2015)). “Once the moving party has demonstrated the absence of a material fact issue, the non-moving party must ‘go beyond the pleadings and designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.’” Boudreaux v. Swift Transp. Co., 402 F.3d 536, 540 (5th Cir. 2005) (quoting Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc)). “This burden will not be satisfied by ‘some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, by conclusory allegations, by unsubstantiated assertions, or by only a scintilla of evidence.’” Id. (quoting Little, 37 F.3d at 1075). “Rather, the non-moving party must ‘set forth specific facts showing the existence of a “genuine” issue concerning every essential component of its case.’” Id. (quoting Morris v. Covan World Wide 2 Case: 16-11519 Document: 00514077577 Page: 3 Date Filed: 07/18/2017 No. 16-11519 Moving, Inc., 144 F.3d 377, 380 (5th Cir. 1998)). “A dispute as to a material fact is ‘genuine’ if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. “When considering summary judgment evidence, [this court] must view ‘all facts and inferences . . . in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.’” Id. (quoting Armstrong v. Am. Home Shield Corp., 333 F.3d 566, 568 (5th Cir. 2003)). “[This court] must ‘not weigh the evidence or evaluate the credibility of witnesses.’” Id. (quoting Morris, 144 F.3d at 380). “[This court] resolve[s] factual controversies in favor of the nonmoving party, but only where there is an actual controversy, that is, when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.” Id. (quoting Little, 37 F.3d at 1075). “[This court] will not assume ‘in the absence of any proof . . . that the nonmoving party could or would prove the necessary facts,’ and will grant summary judgment ‘in any case where critical evidence is so weak or tenuous on an essential fact that it could not support a judgment in favor of the nonmovant.’” Id. (quoting Little, 37 F.3d at 1075). ANALYSIS The McCartys assert a premises liability claim. Under Texas law, “[g]enerally, premises owners . . . have a duty to protect invitees from, or warn them of, conditions posing unreasonable risks of harm if the owners knew of the conditions or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of them.” Henkel v. Norman, 441 S.W.3d 249, 251 (Tex. 2014). “To prevail on a premises liability claim against a property owner, an injured invitee must establish four elements: (1) the property owner had actual or constructive knowledge of the condition causing the injury; (2) the condition posed an unreasonable risk of harm; (3) the property owner failed to take reasonable care to reduce or eliminate the risk; and 3 Case: 16-11519 Document: 00514077577 Page: 4 Date Filed: 07/18/2017 No. 16-11519 (4) the property owner’s failure to use reasonable care to reduce or eliminate the risk was the proximate cause of injuries to the invitee.” Id. at 251–52. This case turns on the knowledge element. The Supreme Court of Texas has identified three methods by which a plaintiff may satisfy the knowledge element in a slip-and-fall case. See Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Reece, 81 S.W.3d 812, 814–15 (Tex. 2002). 1 First, a plaintiff may “establish[ ] that . . . the defendant placed the substance on the floor.” Id. at 814. Second, a plaintiff may “establish[ ] that . . . the defendant actually knew that the substance was on the floor.” Id. at 814. Third, a plaintiff may “establish[ ] that . . . it is more likely than not that the condition existed long enough to give the premises owner a reasonable opportunity to discover it.” Id. at 814. Plaintiffs may rely upon both direct and circumstantial evidence of a defendant’s knowledge. See Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Gonzalez, 968 S.W.2d 934, 935–36 (Tex. 1998). Circumstantial evidence must “either directly or by reasonable inference” support the conclusion that the defendant had knowledge of the alleged risk. See Sampson v. Univ. of Tex. at Austin, 500 S.W.3d 380, 394 (Tex. 2016) (quoting Suarez v. City of Tex. City, 465 S.W.3d 623, 634 (Tex. 2015)). “An inference is not reasonable if premised on mere suspicion—‘some suspicion linked to other suspicion produces only more suspicion, which is not the same as some evidence.’” Id. (quoting Suarez, 465 S.W.3d at 634). As discussed below, the McCartys have not identified evidence from which a jury could, under any of the three methods of proof outlined in Reece, The Reece court described the first element as the “notice element” rather than the “knowledge” element, but the court’s discussion suggests no meaningful distinction between “notice” and “knowledge.” See Reece, 81 S.W.3d at 814 (“To prevail, Reece had to prove, among other things, that Wal-Mart had actual or constructive notice of the spill.”). 1 4 Case: 16-11519 Document: 00514077577 Page: 5 Date Filed: 07/18/2017 No. 16-11519 conclude Hillstone had actual or constructive knowledge of the restaurant floor’s allegedly dangerous condition. The district court’s summary judgment dismissal was therefore proper. A. Evidence that Hillstone placed a substance on the floor Even assuming that Mrs. McCarty slipped on a foreign substance, the summary judgment record does not contain sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude Hillstone placed the substance. What evidence the record does contain about how a foreign substance might have gotten onto the floor is simply too speculative. For example, a restaurant manager acknowledged it is “possible” that employees tracked food or water from the restaurant’s kitchen floor or spilled liquid from drinks in the area where Mrs. McCarty fell. Restaurant employees also testified that, while moving between the kitchen and seating areas, the wait staff frequently traversed the same area. At best, this evidence raises a mere suspicion that restaurant employees might have tracked or spilled a foreign substance where the fall occurred. Mere suspicion is insufficient to carry the McCartys’ burden of establishing a genuine issue for trial. See Sampson, 500 S.W.3d at 394. B. Evidence that Hillstone actually knew a substance was on the floor Similarly, the summary judgment record is devoid of any evidence that any Hillstone employee actually knew a foreign substance was on the floor where Mrs. McCarty fell. The McCartys rely upon the initial version of a written statement prepared by a Hillstone employee who saw Mrs. McCarty fall. In that statement, the employee wrote, “I did see any food/debris, any water, moist[ure], or other obstacle in which she could have slipped or tripped on in the area in which she was walking and eventually fell.” Before his deposition, however, the employee revised the statement to indicate that he 5 Case: 16-11519 Document: 00514077577 Page: 6 Date Filed: 07/18/2017 No. 16-11519 “did not see” (emphasis added) any such substances or obstacles. We share the district court’s conclusion that the employee simply corrected a typographical error. C. Evidence that a substance was on the floor long enough to give Hillstone a reasonable opportunity to discover it The McCartys acknowledge that, even assuming a foreign substance was on the floor where Mrs. McCarty fell, no evidence tends to establish how long the substance was there. Without such evidence, the McCartys cannot establish Hillstone’s constructive knowledge of the alleged dangerous condition. “Constructive knowledge is a substitute in the law for actual knowledge.” CMH Homes, Inc. v. Daenen, 15 S.W.3d 97, 102 (Tex. 2000). “In premises cases constructive knowledge can be established by showing that the condition had existed long enough for the owner or occupier to have discovered it upon reasonable inspection.” Id. at 102–03. “What constitutes a reasonable time for a premises owner to discover a dangerous condition will, of course, vary depending upon the facts and circumstances presented.” Reece, 81 S.W.3d at 816. In all cases, however, “there must be some proof of how long the hazard was there before liability can be imposed on the premises owner for failing to discover and rectify, or warn of, the dangerous condition.” Id. (emphasis added). “Otherwise, owners would face strict liability for any dangerous condition on their premises, an approach [the Texas Supreme Court has] clearly rejected.” Id. Moreover, “when circumstantial evidence is relied upon to prove constructive notice, the evidence must establish that it is more likely than not that the dangerous condition existed long enough to give the proprietor a reasonable opportunity to discover the condition.” Gonzalez, 968 S.W.2d at 936. If circumstantial evidence “supports only the possibility that 6 Case: 16-11519 Document: 00514077577 Page: 7 Date Filed: 07/18/2017 No. 16-11519 the dangerous condition existed long enough to give [the premises owner] a reasonable opportunity to discover it,” the premises owner cannot be charged with constructive notice. Id. The McCartys’ reliance upon Beach Bait & Tackle v. Bull is unavailing. See 82 S.W.3d 663 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2002). In Beach Bait & Tackle, the court held a jury could infer the premises owner knew “there would be water on the floor . . . after it rained” due to undisputed evidence that “water seeped under the back wall” of the premises after hard rains. Id. at 666. The Beach Bait & Tackle court’s analysis of this issue relied upon City of San Antonio v. Rodriguez, 931 S.W.2d 535 (Tex. 1996) and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Tinsley, 998 S.W.2d 664 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 1999, pet. denied). Id. The evidence in each of these cases provided context for how long the hazardous condition had existed, in the form of either a discrete and readily documented antecedent event (e.g., a rainfall) or an attribute of the hazard (e.g., a puddle’s size, from which the jury could reasonably infer how long the puddle had been growing). 2 In this case, by contrast, no evidence would permit the jury to trace the alleged slip risk to a particular antecedent event. Nor could a jury infer from any attributes of the alleged hazard that it had been growing over any length of time. At oral argument, the McCartys candidly admitted that no evidence gives any temporal context to the alleged dangerous condition. As they In City of San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the Texas Supreme Court held a jury could infer “the person in charge of [a] recreation center . . . knew that there would be water on the floor . . . [when] there was evidence that the person in charge . . . knew of the leaks in the roof and knew that it had been raining.” 931 S.W.2d at 537. In Tinsley, the Court of Appeals held that the large size of a puddle inside the premises, coupled with the lack of evidence that “any leak [from the ceiling] was sudden or of a large quantity at any time,” provided a sufficient basis for the jury to deem it more likely than not that water had dripped from the ceiling “over an extended period of time.” See 998 S.W.2d at 669. 2 7 Case: 16-11519 Document: 00514077577 Page: 8 Date Filed: 07/18/2017 No. 16-11519 acknowledged, no evidence in the summary judgment record addresses the question of whether the alleged condition existed for mere seconds or several hours. Given the absence of any temporal context for the alleged hazard, Hillstone may not be charged with constructive knowledge of the alleged slip risk. CONCLUSION For the foregoing reasons, we AFFIRM. 8