INDIANAPOLIS – When David Branscomb went to the Huntington Walmart on Easter Sunday in 2019, he tripped and fell over a wood pallet left in the garden center.
That slip-and-fall has now landed before the Indiana Supreme Court as the five members decide whether a store manager can be sued when not directly involved in an incident.
The case was argued Thursday and a ruling will be issued in the coming months.
The lawsuit was originally filed in Huntington County against both Walmart and the manager James Clark. But Walmart successfully moved it to federal court.
Because the legal question is a first, the federal judge certified it to the Indiana Supreme Court to see if a plaintiff can bring a claim of negligence against a store manager based on an owner's duty toward customers.
Attorney Kevin Smith – who represents the victim – said his client can sue whomever he wants, especially since the manager controls the property on a daily basis through training, hiring, firing and setting protocols.
“Indiana and most other states allow negligence claims against agents to proceed,” he said. “Now whether a plaintiff will ultimately prove his case will be determined through discovery and trial.”
But attorney Robert Keen, representing Walmart, said adding the store manager as a defendant is simply a maneuver to keep the case in state court rather than federal.
“It doesn't advance the interests of the plaintiffs in any way in helping them win their lawsuit or recover damages,” he said. “Instead it is simply a game.”
Keen did concede that federal trial rules are more advantageous to Walmart than state rules. And if the case went to trial the jury pool would be more diverse and would have less likelihood of knowing the manager or victim.
Smith said the manager was named to “secure all possible funding sources for recompense of the plaintiff” in case new information comes to light later in the case.
Justice Mark Massa scoffed, saying “you are suing one of the largest corporations in the world for a slip-and-fall case and alleging you need to sue the store manager to secure potential recovery. A store manager who wasn't there.”