Business

She slipped on a puddle in a Boise Walmart. Her lawsuit reached the Supreme Court.

The Walmart on Overland Road in Boise.
The Walmart on Overland Road in Boise. npoppino@idahostatesman.com

Diane Brooks stopped at the Walmart store on Overland Road in Boise one day in July 2013 to pick up bags of wood chips for her yard. As she walked through the store en route to the garden section, she slipped and fell in a puddle of water.

The accident hurt her left knee so badly that she needed surgery.

Almost five years later, her slip-and-fall lawsuit against Walmart made it to the Idaho Supreme Court. Justices ruled in her favor on Thursday to have the case reviewed again by a lower court.

Who's to blame for a puddle?

Walmart signed a deal in 2011 with the company Rug Doctor to put its carpet-cleaner rental kiosks in Walmart stores, including nine in the Treasure Valley. (It still offers rentals at the Overland Walmart, according to its website.) But the deal had a condition. Walmart's own employees wouldn't run the kiosks or help customers use them; the kiosks would be totally self-serve.

The puddle that hurt Brooks? It was near one of the unsupervised Rug Doctor kiosks.

Surveillance video showed what happened. About seven minutes before Brooks slipped and fell, a Walmart customer rented a Rug Doctor machine — tilting it back and forth as they lifted it into their shopping cart.

Brooks sued in November 2014, about 16 months after the incident. She claimed that Walmart was negligent. The following year, she added Rug Doctor to the lawsuit, accusing that company of negligence as well.

The companies asked the court to dismiss the lawsuits, saying the allegations were based on speculation, not evidence. The court decided that Rug Doctor wasn't off the hook; its machines could leak or spill water, and the question was whether the company should have done something to prevent causing a hazard. But the court sided with Walmart, dismissing Brooks' case against the retail giant.

Brooks fought the ruling to the Idaho Supreme Court. Four of the five justices sided with Brooks, saying there were enough questions about what happened and whether Walmart was to blame that the lower court must reconsider the case.

"Wal-Mart ignored the fact that carpet cleaning machines are not like Red Box DVD kiosks, which can be left alone and ignored," the panel wrote in its opinion. "These machines can leak or spill, or come back with water still in them."

Justice Warren Jones, who recently retired from the court, disagreed with his fellow justices. Anything in a store can be considered "self-service," he wrote, and stores are constantly full of people who might spill things or leave hazards around. "The majority’s holding ... imposes a new standard for the duty of care owed by landowners that elect to offer self-service operations on their premises."

Audrey Dutton is an investigative reporter for the Statesman. Contact her at 208-377-6448, adutton@idahostatesman.com or on Twitter at @audreydutton.

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