Mississippi Legal Update Mid-October 2014

Mechanic’s Trip To Parts Store Costs Business An Arm And A Leg.  

Cheeks v. Autozone, Inc., (Supreme Court of Mississippi; No. 2013-CA-00401-SCT; September 25, 2014).

Business owner liable to invitee struck by vehicle when entering store

In Cheeks v. Autozone, Inc., the plaintiff was struck by a vehicle while entering an AutoZone. The AutoZone store entrance was protected on one side by concrete bollards (posts), but not on the side through which the vehicle entered and struck the plaintiff. The jury awarded damages of $2,580,000.00 and found AutoZone to be forty-five percent at fault for the accident. Judgment was entered against AutoZone in the amount of $1,161,000.00. The trial court later reversed the judgment, granting AutoZone’s judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The court reasoned business owners do not owe a duty to erect protective, impregnable barriers around their businesses. The plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Mississippi reversed the trial court’s judgment notwithstanding the verdict and reinstated the jury’s verdict and damages award.   The court reasoned the plaintiff was an invitee and AutoZone owed a duty to keep the premises reasonably safe. The court noted foreseeability of and injury is the touchstone of liability. The Supreme Court determined sufficient evidence existed for a jury to determine the plaintiff’s injuries were foreseeable. Trial testimony indicated AutoZone spent $2,000.00 a week nation-wide in repairs to broken store front glass caused by vehicles striking the front of stores. Further, the design of the bollards in front of the AutoZone left a gap large enough for a vehicle to travel through unimpeded. Sufficient evidence existed for a jury to find this injury was reasonably foreseeable.

Read the full decision.


Employer’s Arbitration Agreement With Employee Does Not “Affront A Sense Of Decency.” 

Smith v. Express Check Advance of Mississippi, LLC, (Supreme Court of Mississippi; No. 2013-CA-00369-SCT; October 2, 2014).

Plaintiff fails to prove arbitration clause in employment agreement is unconscionable.

In Smith, the plaintiff failed to satisfy her burden in showing the arbitration agreement between herself and her employer was unconscionable. The trial court properly compelled arbitration. The plaintiff signed the agreement as part of her employment. She signed the agreement itself and separately initialed an acknowledgement of the arbitration provision as well as an acknowledgement she had read the entire agreement.

After the plaintiff was terminated, she filed suit, alleging she was fired for reporting her supervisor’s illegal acts. Her employer moved to compel arbitration. On appeal the court found the plaintiff failed to meet her burden of proving the contract was substantively unconscionable. Both parties were bound to arbitration with a limited exception for injunctive relief. While one provision did require an employee to pay reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, such terms were limited to enforcement of the arbitration agreement as to injunctive relief only.

The court also found the agreement was not procedurally unconscionable, which is established by showing a lack of knowledge, bargaining power, sophistication, or opportunity to study the contract. Relevant passages regarding arbitration and the agreement to forego a judicial remedy were of the same size font and in some instances bolded and in all capitals. While the plaintiff testified she was not told to read the document, she admitted she could have read it. Furthermore, the law imposes a duty on parties to read the terms of a contract. The plaintiff failed to meet her burden in displaying procedural unconscionability. The trial court properly compelled arbitration.

Read the full decision.


Plaintiff’s Fall Gives New Meaning To “Break A Leg

Calonkey v. Amory School District, (Court of Appeals of Mississippi; No. 2013-CA-01290-COA; September 16, 2014).

A school district is not immune from liability for injuries on the set of a high school play.

In Calonkey, the plaintiff was hired by the Amory School District to assist in the production of a school play. The plaintiff was injured when he tripped and fell threw a trap door of catwalk suspended above the stage. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the school district based on the obvious danger of the open catwalk. The trial judge alternatively reasoned summary judgment was proper on discretionary-function immunity grounds as well.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court noting statutory immunity for governmental entities as it relates to obvious dangers only applies to the entity’s failure to warn of an obviously dangerous condition. The school district was not exempt from liability for causing the dangerous condition through the negligent or willful actions of employees.

With regards to discretionary function immunity, the court cited to a recent shift in the law which occurred after the trial court’s ruling. Courts now focus on the governmental function at issue rather than the specific acts performed to achieve that function. No law addressed how a set for a school play should be constructed. Previously, this would be deemed a discretionary function. However, the court, citing the recent shift in the law, held this act fell within a school’s statutory responsibility to erect, repair, and equip school facilities as well as make improvements. Based on this function of a school district, discretionary-function immunity did insulate the school from liability. Summary judgment in favor of Amory School District was reversed.

Read the full decision.