Reprinted with permission from the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA).

The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment granted to defendants Wal-Mart Stores, a general construction company, and employer electrical company by a lower court ruling in the case of a suit brought by a technician for injuries he sustained while repairing a freezer on the premises of a Wal-Mart Super Center.

Plaintiff, a service technician for a refrigeration, heating, and cooling company, responded to a call to repair a low-temperature floor-to-ceiling freezer at a Wal-Mart Super-Center in Muscle Shoals, Ala. The servicing required him to climb through an opening in the ceiling approximately four feet wide in order to work on the freezer’s condensing unit. The light that came through the opening was the only light in the area around the unit. Plaintiff’s testimony at trial was that although he could not see the edge of a drop ceiling which was adjacent to the freezer, he could feel the edge of the drop ceiling with his foot and prior to his falling through the ceiling, he had once lost his balance and almost fallen earlier. After first using a cigarette lighter to give some light to the area, he determined he would need his flashlight which he had left in his truck, and on his return fell through the ceiling and was injured.

Plaintiff sued defendants for negligence and his wife filed a derivative claim alleging loss of consortium. Specifically, plaintiff’s claim alleged that defendants had violated the Southern Building Code in constructing the area around the condenser unit. Defendants filed answers and motions for summary judgment raising the defenses of contributory negligence and assumption of risk, and the trial court granted defendants motions and dismissed the case, and the Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the trial court’s rulings.

On further appeal the Alabama Supreme Court stated that, “[whereas] partial or poor light….could mislead a reasonably prudent person into thinking that he or she would be able to see and to avoid any hazards”, “[t]otal darkness, possibly concealing an unseen and unknown hazard, presents an open and obvious danger to someone proceeding through unfamiliar surroundings, as a matter of law.” The Court found no genuine issue of material fact and, whether on the basis of contributory negligence or assumption of risk, the case was properly dismissed on the lower court levels and defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

In re: Schaeffel v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Company, and Irons Electric Company, 2003 Ala. LEXIS 182 (Ala. June 13, 2003).

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Publication date: 07/14/2003