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Burden of Proof Hurdle Too High in Mississippi

A Mississippi Appeals court recently affirmed a trial court decision to throw out a Wal-Mart premise liability case involving a damaged container and corrosive burns. Instead of letting the events (and the injuries) speak for themselves, the court places an extremely high evidentiary expectation that was out of the plaintiff’s grasp. Should courts be allowing corporations to escape liability just because the plaintiff is unable to show every single detail of the accident when he is clearly injured? It is a challenge courts have wrestled with for hundreds of years.

What happened? A patron visited a Mississippi Wal-Mart in the fall of 2010. While perusing the aisles, he selected a bottle of bleach to put in his basket. After leaving the checkout counter, the patron realized he accidentally forgot to purchase the bleach and placed the bottle on his lap to return to the cashier. Unfortunately, this bottle of bleach was leaking and spilled its contents on his legs and thighs. Because of a prior injury, the man had been paralyzed from the waist down since 1967 and he did not become aware of the spilled bleach until the cashier noticed the leaking bottle. The bleach caused chemical burns on his thigh and knee, and he brought suit against the Wal-Mart Corporation.

The patron filed a premise liability claim that alleged Wal-Mart was negligent and had knowledge of a dangerous condition. Wal-Mart made a motion for summary judgment, and the trial court dismissed the case, saying that the patron failed to prove Wal-Mart’s negligent act. The Mississippi Appeals Court affirmed the lower court’s decision.

Mississippi uses a three step process to determine whether a premise liability claim has merit. They must first determine if the injured was an invitee (business dealings), licensee (personal matters), or a trespasser at the time of injury. Next, there must be a duty owed to the injured. And finally, that duty must have been breached.

The plaintiff, as a patron of Wal-Mart, is an invitee and the store has a responsibility to keep him safe when he’s on their property. However, his case ran into trouble when he needed to show the corporation’s breach of duty.

The plaintiff had three options: Show How Wal-Mart’s actions were negligent, show that Wal-Mart had actual knowledge of the leaky bottle, or that the leaky bottle was there long enough to create constructive knowledge. The plaintiff did not have any evidence to show how the bottle sprung a leak, or that the employees knew about the leak (only that they became aware after he had spilled it on himself). He also did not present specific proof for the actual length of time.

Holes in bottles containing dangerous corrosive chemicals are certainly the type of negligence that Wal-Mart should be held liable for. Unfortunately, due to lack of evidence, the injured plaintiff was unable to clearly show who was responsible for the leak.

This is why strict liability rules were invented — to make the burden of proof for plaintiffs easier in cases where marshaling the evidence would be very difficult. But that claim was not available under these facts, which made the hill plaintiff had to climb simply too high.