Valerie Smith v. Wells Fargo Bank, NA: Whether a patron’s heftiness can create an open and obvious danger and whether a property owner’s knowledge of an allegedly defective chair are questions for the jury.
On March 12, 2013, Valerie Smith went to Wells Fargo with her mother to have a document notarized. The bank manager invited them to come into his office. Upon entering the office, Smith sat in a chair. Significant to these events is that Smith is “a heavy person.” Smith claimed that she had not even put her full weight into the chair when she heard “a loud, cracking noise” and the chair fell apart and collapsed. Smith attempted unsuccessfully to catch herself and was deposited onto the floor. She injured her knee and back. Smith testified that she sat gently into the chair and did not “flop” herself into it. Prior to the fall, Wells Fargo was unaware of any problems with the chair
Smith sued Wells Fargo on February 13, 2015, alleging various premises liability claims, including negligent/wanton failure to maintain the premises in a safe condition, and negligent/wanton hiring, training, and supervision. Eleven months later, Well Fargo filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the weight capacity of the chair constituted an open and obvious danger to Smith in relation to her size, and Wells Fargo was unaware that the chair constituted a danger on the premises. On March 2, 2016, the trial court granted Wells Fargo’s motion for summary judgment as to all counts in Smith’s Complaint. Smith appealed. Valerie Smith v. Wells Fargo Bank, NA [Ms. 2150715], — So.3d — (Ala.Civ.App. Nov. 4, 2016).
Licensee or Invitee
The trial court did not make a determination whether Smith was a licensee or invitee on the premises. The greater duty is owed to an invitee, for whom the premises owner owes a duty to keep the premises reasonably safe and warn of any hazards. Rather Wells Fargo, while not conceding Smith’s status as an invitee, presented its legal arguments as though Smith were an invitee.
Open and Obvious Danger
Smith argued that the trial court’s finding that Smith recognized and anticipated that the chair constituted an open and obvious danger resulting from her size was erroneous. Were Smith an invitee, Wells Fargo would owe no duty to warn her of open and obvious dangers. A danger is open and obvious if it should have been perceived in the exercise of reasonable care.
Smith testified that as a heavy person with wide hips, she tries not to sit all the way back into any chair, especially a chair with armrests. She also testified that she had not put her weight into the subject chair when it collapsed. She stated the chair fell apart when she put her hand onto it.
The Alabama Supreme Court has previously held that generally, questions of openness and obviousness and of the invitee’s knowledge are not to be resolved on summary judgment. It has also indicated that even when a hazard is open and obvious, an injured invitee may not be barred from recovery when she was acting reasonably and did not appreciate the danger.
Therefore, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals found in the instant case that the entry of summary judgment by the trial court was inappropriate because genuine issues of material fact remained as to whether the chair presented an open and obvious defect and whether Smith appreciated the danger.
Knowledge of the Defect
Wells Fargo further argued at summary judgment that it had no knowledge of the defect and did not breach any duty to Smith. Wells Fargo presented evidence that there had been no other incidences of chairs collapsing. Both Smith and her mother were likewise unaware of any other chairs collapsing at the bank. Smith was unable to impute either actual or constructive knowledge of the defective chair to Wells Fargo.
Smith presented an argument citing cases that proposed res ipsa loqitor-esque arguments – the fact that the chair collapsed could allow the fact-finder to draw and inference that there was a hazard that the premises owner should have been aware of. Specifically, in Isbell v. Aztecas Mexican Grill, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals held that because a booth seat that collapsed under a patron was a fixture on the premises, the issue of whether the restaurant had actual or constructive notice of the defect in the booth seat was a jury question, regardless of whether the patron made a prima facie showing of notice.
Applying the principle in Isbell to the instant case, the appellate court found no evidence in the record that Wells Fargo argued the subject chair was not defective. Rather, Wells Fargo argued that the chair presented an open and obvious danger and that it had no knowledge (whether actual or constructive) of the danger. Because of Wells Fargo’s reliance on the notice argument, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, relying on Isbell, determined that the notice question was for the jury to determine.
Because the appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment, it remanded the case for further proceedings.
 See Ex parte Kraatz, 775 So.2d 801, 805 (Ala. 2000).
 See e.g., Gasser Chair Co. v. Nordengreen, 991 N.E.2d 122 (Ind.Ct.App. 2013); Winn Dixie Montgomery, Inc. v. Weeks, 504 So.2d 1210 (Ala. 1987); Mims v. Jack’s Restaurant, 565 So.2d 609 (Ala. 1990); Isbell v. Aztecas Mexican Grill, 78 So.3d 420 (Ala.Civ.App. 2011).
 Isbell, 78 So.3d 420.
Photo by Rupert Taylor-Price.