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Rushton v. United States

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Aiken Division

November 27, 2017

Linda K. Rushton and Kenneth Rushton, Plaintiffs,
v.
United States of America and Cintas Corporation Nos. 2, Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         Plaintiffs Linda K. Rushton (“Ms. Rushton”) and her husband Kenneth Rushton filed this action seeking damages from Defendants the United States of America (“United States”) and Cintas Corporation No. 2 (“Cintas”) (collectively “Defendants”) for injuries Ms. Rushton suffered on April 15, 2013, from an alleged slip and fall in the United States Post Office in Wagener, South Carolina. (ECF No. 23 at 2 ¶ 8-9.) Ms. Rushton allegedly tripped on a “ripple” in a mat when she entered the Post Office, and then fell resulting in “severe and permanent injuries.” (Id. at ¶ 9.) Plaintiff Kenneth Rushton brings a claim for loss of consortium with his wife as a result of her injuries. (Id. at ¶ 14.) Plaintiffs allege that the United States was negligent in “failing to remove the ripple from the mat after it had actual or constructive notice; failing to warn; using a defective mat which would develop ripples in it; and continuing to use a defective mat after notice that it was defective[.]” (Id. at 2 ¶ 12.)

         Plaintiffs filed their initial Complaint on March 26, 2015 (ECF No. 1) against the United States, pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), and subsequently filed an Amended Complaint on March 30, 2016 adding Cintas Corporation as a defendant. (ECF No. 23.)[1]

         This matter is before the court on the United States' Motion for Summary Judgment as to Plaintiff's claim for negligence against it. (ECF No. 51.) Plaintiffs responded to the Motion, and the United States replied. (ECF Nos. 60, 62.) For the reasons stated below, the court GRANTS the United States' Motion.[2]

         I. JURISDICTION

         The court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1) because the United States is a defendant. Plaintiffs bring their claims against the United States pursuant to the FTCA, 28 U.S.C. § 2671, et seq.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment should be granted “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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if proof of its existence or non-existence would affect the disposition of the case under the applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact exists where, after reviewing the record as a whole, the court finds that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id.

         In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Perini Corp. v. Perini Constr., Inc., 915 F.2d 121, 124 (4th Cir. 1990) (citing Pignons S.A. De Mecanique v. Polaroid Corp., 657 F.2d 482, 486 (1st Cir. 1981)). The non-moving party may not oppose a motion for summary judgment with mere allegations or denials of the movant's pleading, but instead must set forth specific facts demonstrating a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 324 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986); Shealy v. Winston, 929 F.2d 1009, 1012 (4th Cir. 1991). All that is required is that “sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249 (citing First National Bank of Arizona v. Cities Service Co., 391 U.S. 253, 288-89 (1968)). “Mere unsupported speculation . . . is not enough to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ennis v. Nat'l Ass'n of Bus. & Educ. Radio, Inc., 53 F.3d 55, 62 (4th Cir. 1995) (citing Felty v. Graves-Humphreys Co., 818 F.2d 1126, 1128 (4th Cir. 1987)). “[T]he burden [to show no genuine issue of material fact] on the moving party may be discharged by ‘showing'-that is, pointing out to the district court-that there is an absence of evidence to support the non[-]moving party's case.” Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 325.

         “In [ ] a situation [where a party fails to make a showing sufficient to establish an essential element of their case, on which they will bear the burden of proof at trial], there can be ‘no genuine issue as to any material fact, ' since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the non[-]moving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial. The moving party is ‘entitled to a judgment as a matter of law' because the non[-]moving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof.” Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322-23.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Pursuant to the FTCA, “[t]he United States shall be liable, respecting the provisions of this title relating to tort claims, in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances, but shall not be liable for interest prior to judgment or for punitive damages[.]” 28 U.S.C. § 2674. The FTCA incorporates the law of the state under which the “act or omission complained of occurred.” Id.; see also Corrigan v. United States, 815 F.2d 954, 955 (4th Cir. 1987). In this case, South Carolina law will govern.

         Plaintiffs bring a negligence claim against the United States, thus in order to prove their claim under South Carolina law, they must show evidence that “. . . (1) defendant owed [Ms. Rushton] a duty of care; (2) defendant breached this duty by a negligent act or omission; (3) defendant's breach was the proximate cause of [Ms. Rushton's] injuries; and (4) [Ms. Rushton] suffered injury or damages.” Dorrell v. S.C. DOT, 605 S.E.2d 12, 15 (S.C. 2004) (citation omitted).

         Ms. Rushton was an “invitee” under South Carolina law, and with this designation, the Post Office only owed her a “duty of exercising ordinary care to keep the premises in reasonably safe condition.” Milligan v. Winn-Dixie Raleigh, Inc., 254 S.E.2d 798, 799 (S.C. 1979)[3]; see also Sims v. Giles, 541 S.E.2d 857, 861 (S.C. Ct. App. 2001) (an invitee is a business guest); (ECF No. 23 at 2 ¶ 8.) The Post office has a duty to invitees to “warn [them] of latent or hidden dangers of which [the Post Office] has knowledge or should have knowledge.” Larimore v. Carolina Power & Light, 531 S.E.2d 535, 538 (S.C. Ct. App. 2000) (citing Callander v. Charleston Doughnut Corp., 406 S.E.2d 361 (S.C. 1991)). The Post Office does not have a duty to warn for “open and obvious dangers” unless the Post Office “. . . should anticipate the harm despite such knowledge or obviousness.” Callander, 406 S.E.2d at 362 (alteration in the original) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343(A) cmt. f (1965)). This duty also includes the Post Office taking “reasonable steps to protect an invitee, ‘if the possessor has reason to expect that the invitee's attention may be distracted, so that he will not discover what is obvious, . . . or fail to protect himself against it.'” Id.

         As to the Post Office's duty to keep the premises in reasonably safe condition, “[in order] [t]o recover damages for injuries caused by a dangerous or defective condition on a storekeeper's premises, the plaintiff must show either (1) that the injury was caused by a specific act of the defendant which created the dangerous condition; or (2) that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition and failed to remedy it.” Wintersteen v. Food Lion, Inc., 542 S.E.2d 728, 729 (S.C. 2001) (citing Anderson v. Racetrac Petroleum Inc., 371 S.E.2d 530, 531 (S.C. 1988)). This ...


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