Pa. Superior Court reverses plaintiff's verdict in Phila. injury case against Target Corp.

By Jon Campisi | Apr 1, 2013

A Pennsylvania Superior Court panel has reversed a Philadelphia trial court’s judgment

in favor of a plaintiff who launched a premises liability action against retail giant Target Corp.

Makalla Davis sued Target in mid-September 2009 over claims that she sustained “mind-numbing” injuries to her knees after she tripped over beanbag chairs that had been on the store’s floor.

The plaintiff claimed that she was trying to move out of the way of another store customer when she tripped and fell over the hazardous condition.

The case went in front of a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury on Feb. 28, 2011, the record shows, and the jurors ended up determining that Target was negligent, and that the plaintiff was only 10 percent comparatively negligent.

Davis ended up being awarded $150,000, which was molded to $135,000.

Following post-trial motions, the record shows, the trial court ended up granting Davis’s request for delay damages in the amount of $3,189, and the court simultaneously denied Target’s motion for a new trial.

Target eventually appealed to the Superior Court, arguing that it was entitled to a new trial because Davis had failed to establish that the store breached a duty to her.

The defendant argued that Davis admitted to having seen the beanbag chairs before she tripped over them, and that the plaintiff’s knowledge of the defective condition negated Target’s duty to inspect the premises.

The three-judge Superior Court panel agreed with the defendant, writing that while there was evidence that Target’s policy was to have an employee walk the floor to inspect for items that should not be on the floor, the question in this case was whether Davis had actual or constructive notice of the beanbags despite the store’s policy.

“Because Appellee failed to demonstrate that Appellant had actual or constructive notice of the beanbags, Appellant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law,” the Superior Court’s ruling states.

In its second issue on appeal, Target contended that the trial court erroneously precluded the proposed testimony of two police officers that Davis was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the incident, and that she had actually injured her knees when she banged them against the door of her holding cell after being taken into policy custody, according to the appellate court’s non-precedential decision.

Lastly, Target alleged that the jury’s verdict was “manifestly excessive” because it deviated from the trial evidence.

The panel wrote that because it reversed the order denying judgment notwithstanding the verdict, it would not reach the merits of those claims.

The appellate panel ended up remanding the case back to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, instructing the lower court to enter judgment in favor of the defendant and conduct further proceedings as appropriate.

The decision was written by Senior Superior Court Judge James J. Fitzgerald, III. Also participating in the decision were Judges Jacqueline O. Shogan and David N. Wecht.

Wecht, however, filed a 13-page dissent, in which he said the appellate panel’s standard of review mandates that the judges view the evidence through a lens highly deferential to the verdict winner, which in this case was Davis, the plaintiff.

Wecht went on to write that while the evidence regarding notice in this case was “less than overwhelming,” viewing the trial evidence through the lens required by law shows that it was established that Target was on constructive notice of the dangerous condition.

Wecht noted that while no evidence of record suggests that Target had actual notice of the dangerous condition, the appeals panel’s charge had to focus upon whether Target had constructive notice of that condition.

Wecht wrote that viewing the evidence of record in the light most favorable to Davis, the verdict winner, he can discern no abuse of discretion by the trial court.

“While Davis’ evidence is not overwhelming, it nonetheless is quite clear, from the jury’s verdict and from the evidence upon which the jury relied, that reasonable minds could differ as to whether Target had constructive notice of the defective condition in one of its aisles,” Wecht wrote.

Wecht also wrote that while the jury award was larger than what Davis requested in her original complaint, there is clear evidence in the trial record to support the award.

“Accordingly, I find no reason to conclude that the verdict was exorbitant or excessive,” he wrote. “The award certainly was not so excessive as to shock the court’s conscience, or to demonstrate that the jury’s decision was predicated upon or influenced by partiality, prejudice, mistake, or corruption. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Target’s motion for remittitur of the jury’s award.”

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