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Sojourner v. AutoZone Stores LLC

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

November 20, 2018




         The following matter is before the court on defendant CPTPNGUIN LLC's (“CPTPNGUIN”) motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 60, and defendant AutoZone Stores LLC's (“AutoZone”) motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 61. For the reasons set forth below, the court grants the motions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This is a premises liability case, and the material facts are uncontroverted. On September 2, 2015, plaintiff Victoria Sojourner (“Sojourner”) was walking from a bus stop to work and cut through the lawn on AutoZone's property. AutoZone's property is located on the corner of an intersection, and instead of walking along the sidewalk, she walked across the lawn. Sojourner had no plans to go into AutoZone's store or conduct any sort of business with AutoZone. While walking through AutoZone's property, Sojourner stepped in a hole that was covered by grass and injured her leg.

         AutoZone's store manager Michael Pounds (“Pounds”) testified that he conducts daily inspections of AutoZone's property for dangerous conditions, including a visual inspection of the lawn. He explained that AutoZone contracted with Magic Touch Lawn Care Service Company (“Magic Touch Lawn Care”) to maintain the lawn, and that AutoZone did not know the hole existed until Sojourner stepped in it. Moreover, Pounds stated that the lawn was not intended to be a walkway, and he had never seen anyone walk through the lawn.

         Sojourner brought suit on November 28, 2016 against AutoZone and CPTPNGUIN, the owner and lessor of the property. In her amended complaint, Sojourner alleges that AutoZone and CPTPNGUIN (collectively, “defendants”) were “negligent, grossly negligent, negligent per se, willful, wanton, and reckless” by failing to maintain the property in a safe condition and by creating a dangerous condition, among other allegations. ECF No. 9 at 2. Discovery was completed on August 24, 2018, and on September 7, 2018, defendants filed their respective motions for summary judgment, ECF Nos. 60 and 61. Sojourner responded to the motions on September 21, 2018, ECF No. 64, and defendants individually replied on September 28, 2018, ECF Nos. 65 and 68. The motions are ripe for review.

         II. STANDARD

         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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires that the district court enter judgment against a party who, ‘after adequate time for discovery . . . fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.'” Stone v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 105 F.3d 188, 190 (4th Cir. 1997) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). Any reasonable inferences are to be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. See Webster v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 685 F.3d 411, 421 (4th Cir. 2012). However, to defeat summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify an error of law or a genuine issue of disputed material fact. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986); see also Bouchat v. Balt. Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003).

         Although the court must draw all justifiable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, the nonmoving party must rely on more than conclusory allegations, mere speculation, the building of one inference upon another, or the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252; Stone, 105 F.3d at 191. Rather, “a party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment . . . must ‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Bouchat, 346 F.3d at 522 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e) (2002) (amended 2010)). If the adverse party fails to provide evidence establishing that the factfinder could reasonably decide in his favor, then summary judgment shall be entered “regardless of ‘[a]ny proof or evidentiary requirements imposed by the substantive law.'” Id. (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).


         First, AutoZone argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and that regardless of Sojourner's status and the duty owed to her, AutoZone did not breach its duty. CPTPNGUIN incorporates all of AutoZone's arguments into its motion for summary judgment and raises an additional argument that there is simply no evidence that CPTPNGUIN was negligent. Finally, in her response to defendants' motions, Sojourner requests additional time to complete discovery.

         A. Duty and Breach

         The key issues here are what duty defendants owed to Sojourner and whether they breached it. Sojourner argues that she was an invitee on defendants' property and that defendants breached their duty to warn of and remove unsafe conditions. Defendants argue that Sojourner's claim fails for two reasons. First, defendants argue that, assuming Sojourner was an invitee, Sojourner has presented no evidence that defendants had actual or constructive notice of the hole, which Sojourner must show in order to prove that defendants breached their duty to her. Second, defendants contend that Sojourner was actually a licensee, not an invitee, and therefore defendants owed her no duty to discover hidden dangers.

         A federal court sitting in diversity jurisdiction applies the law of the state in which it sits. Stahle v. CTS Corp., 817 F.3d 96, 99-100 (4th Cir. 2016). In South Carolina, to bring a successful negligence claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that (1) the defendant owed her a duty of care; (2) the defendant breached this duty; (3) the breach proximately caused the plaintiff's injuries; and (4) the plaintiff suffered an injury. Dorrell v. S.C. Dep't of Transp., 605 S.E.2d 12, 15 (S.C. 2004). One specific theory of negligence is premises liability, which “establishes the duty owed to someone injured on a landowner's property as a result of conditions or activities on the land.” Callum v. CVS Health Corp., 137 F.Supp.3d 817, 858 (D.S.C. 2015) (citing Singleton v. Sherer, 659 S.E.2d 196, 204 (S.C. Ct. App. 2008)). While a landowner owes a ‚Äúduty to exercise ordinary care to keep the premises in a ...

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