Indiana Supreme Court Rules Store Managers Cannot be Held Negligent for Accidents in Which They Played no Part

In a case of first impression, the Indiana Supreme Court recently ruled that a store manager in a premises liability case cannot be held personally liable for negligence for an accident in which he was not directly involved.

In Branscomb v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P. and James Clark, the Supreme Court rejected the plaintiff’s allegations of independent liability against store managers  in premises liability litigation finding for the first time that a store manager who does not possess the land and who was not delegated sufficient control over the premises does not owe a duty of care to invitees. 

A customer at Wall-Mart, Branscomb (not an Indiana resident) fell while shopping. He brought a claim against the store and its manager Jim Clark ( a Indiana resident) , including claims for failure to properly hire, train and supervise employees, failure to have and/or implement proper safety policies and procedures, and failure to properly inspect and maintain the property in a safe condition. 

Walmart sought to remove the case to federal court, alleging a fraudulent joinder in that Clark, “was added solely to defeat federal diversity jurisdiction.” Wal-Mart argued Clark was not working or physically present at the store on the day of the accident, and that he did not have the individual discretion to determine safety policies or procedures for the store, but follows Wal-Mart policy.

Finding no clear precedent on the issue, Judge Holly Brady of the Indiana Northern District issued an order seeking the Indiana Supreme Court’s guidance on whether Clark could be liable as a defendant when he was not directly involved in Branscomb’s injuries. After accepting the certified question, Justice Steven David wrote for the unanimous court that the Branscomb cannot recover on any of their claims against Clark.

Justice David noted first that the tort of negligent hiring, training and supervision should be pled against an employer not an employee and dismissed this claim. Justice David also indicated recent case law holds the tort does not apply when the tortfeasor is acting within the scope of his employment. But the “meat and potatoes” of the case, David wrote, was the claim against Clark for failure to inspect and maintain the property. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in Clark’s favor, finding that under the Restatement (Second) of Torts, Clark did not possess the land and was not “delegated sufficient control over the premises as to owe them a duty of care … .”

“The record before us does not reflect that Clark took over control of the Wal-Mart premises nor does it reflect that anyone, including Branscomb, relied specifically on him to ensure the store was safe. Also, Clark’s position as store manager cannot, without more, subject him to liability,” the Supreme Court held.“… While Clark maintaining the store for the benefit of Walmart may also benefit store patrons, Clark owed the duty to Wal-Mart, not store patrons, absent more.

On this record, there is nothing more to make Clark liable to the plaintiffs.

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