A lawsuit against Wal-Mart and one of its store managers is heading back to state court after a federal judge ruled Nov. 6 that the manager can be held personally and jointly liable with the store for alleged negligence.

Wal-Mart and the manager, Tim Ringer, argued that there is no possibility that plaintiff April Jones can establish a cause of action against Ringer, a non-owner, and that he was fraudulently joined as a “sham” defendant to defeat diversity jurisdiction.

The fraudulent joinder doctrine prohibits a plaintiff from automatically defeating diversity jurisdiction by naming non-diverse defendants, but U.S. District Judge Bryan Harwell wrote in his order remanding the case that complete diversity is lacking because Jones and Ringer are both from South Carolina, and that Ringer is a proper defendant because South Carolina recognizes joint and several liability.

An attorney for Jones, Roy Willey IV of the Anastopoulo Law Firm in Charleston, called the decision a good one, adding that the time Harwell spent analyzing applicable law “demonstrates to corporate defendants going forward that they should not remove a case merely because the in-state individual named as a defendant is a manager or employee of their store.”

Great responsibility

On June 26, 2015, Jones claims that she was shopping at the Florence Wal-Mart when, while walking through an area containing pallets, she stepped on a rusty nail that pierced her shoe and foot. At the hospital, doctors cut a hole around the wound to treat it, but multiple surgical amputations ultimately led to the amputation of her right leg, just above the knee.

At the time, Ringer was the manager on duty and Jones alleges that he was responsible for ensuring a safe, clean environment for shoppers. She sued under a theory of premises liability, seeking to hold Ringer jointly liable.

The defendants argued that Ringer owed no duty because he “was merely a store manager,” and not an owner, but acknowledged that the district court had previously determined that store managers may owe such a duty. In those three cases, one of which featured a Wal-Mart defendant, the court relied on state Supreme Court rulings.

But according to court documents, the defendants then argued that the Supreme Court “never intended to expand premises liability in the manner in which Plaintiff asks the Court to do so in the present action,” under a theory of control.

“In essence, defendants argue [the three district court cases] misinterpreted [the Supreme Court cases] to conclude store managers (and not just owners) can be sued under a theory of premises liability, a result never actually intended by the state supreme court,” Harwell wrote.

“The court disagrees.”
All about control

Harwell reiterated the court’s prior findings that “a store manager can be held personally and jointly liable with the store itself for an alleged act of negligence” under the state’s common law of joint and several liability and the fact that a store manager has a high level of control over the store.

“Moreover, the decisions of the Supreme Court of South Carolina make perfectly plain that in South Carolina, a plaintiff suing a master and servant for injuries which he has sustained as a result of the negligence of the servant, within the scope of his employment, may bring a suit against master and servant, and join them as joint tortfeasors,” Harwell wrote. He added that

although being a manager does not automatically evidence a sufficient level of control, and the facts of each case will determine whether a manager is liable, the court has specifically found a Wal-Mart manager “not to be a sham defendant.”

Too great a burden

So if Ringer, in his capacity as store manager, could be joined with Wal-Mart, the question becomes, can Jones possibly establish a cause of action against Ringer in state court?

The court found that there’s a possibility that she can, so the case must therefore be remanded.

“To establish a negligence claim against Ringer, Plaintiff must show he owed her a legal duty, breached that duty, and proximately caused damages to her as a result of that breach,” Harwell wrote. “Whether the law recognizes a particular duty is a matter of law to be decided by the

Court.”

The court cited Wintersteen v. Food Lion, Inc. in finding that while a merchant is not an insurer of his customers’ safety, he does owe a duty to keep aisles and passageways “in a reasonably safe condition.” Otherwise, according to Richardson v. Piggly Wiggly Cent., Inc., the merchant is liable for any injury resulting from the breach of that duty.

Liability in a situation such as this one, the court held, is determined by control — which triggers a duty to inspect the premises for dangerous conditions — not ownership.

Jones claims that Ringer was responsible for “cleaning, monitoring, and maintaining” the store; that the defendants’ negligence caused her injury; and that the defendants, including Ringer, knew or should have known about the dangerous condition.

With all issues of law resolved in Jones’ favor, the court found that the defendants cannot meet the “heavy burden” of showing that Jones cannot possibly maintain a negligence claim against Ringer.

Attorneys for the defendants, Lee Bagley and Nashiba Boyd of Gaffney Lewis & Edwards in Columbia, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

The 10-page decision is Jones v. Ringer (Lawyers Weekly No. 002-196-17). A digest of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @SCLWHamacher



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