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Spriggins v. Magnolia Hill, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

March 26, 2018




         BEFORE THIS COURT is the plaintiff's Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict or, In the Alternative, New Trial [Docket no. 2');">112]. By her motion, the plaintiff, Bessie Spriggins (hereinafter referred to as “Spriggins”), asks this court to set aside the jury's verdict and either enter judgment in her favor, or order a new trial for two reasons: according to Spriggins, this court improperly allowed the jury to consider comparative negligence; and this court, again according to Spriggins, committed reversible error when it refused to allow Spriggins' expert witness, Dr. Molleston, to testify about Spriggins' need for future surgery.

         The defendant, Magnolia Hill LLC doing business as Riverwalk Casino Hotel, LLC, (hereinafter referred to as “Magnolia Hill”), responds that Spriggins' motion is simply an attempt to relitigate issues already decided by this court and that the jury did not consider comparative negligence nor any question on future surgery because it found Magnolia Hill was not negligent in any respect.

         This court, in agreement with Magnolia Hill's argument, is persuaded that Spriggins' Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict or, In the Alternative, New Trial [Docket no. 2');">112] is not well-taken and due to be DENIED in its entirety for the reasons below discussed.


         Spriggins filed her complaint in this federal forum on February 14, 2014, alleging that complete diversity of citizenship exists between the parties and that the amount in controversy exceeds the sum of $75, 000, exclusive of costs and fees[1].

         The Defendants have not challenged subject matter diversity jurisdiction; nevertheless, this court has an independent obligation to verify that indeed it possesses subject matter jurisdiction.[2" name="FN2" id= "FN2">2]Upon a review of the pleadings of the parties, this court finds it possesses diversity of citizenship subject matter jurisdiction because Spriggins is an adult resident of Hinds County, Mississippi. Magnolia Hill is a foreign corporation[3] licensed to do business in the State of Mississippi. Spriggins claimed damages for multiple surgeries - including a shoulder surgery and future back surgeries - in excess of $75, 000, exclusive of costs and fees.


         As stated supra, Spriggins filed her complaint in this federal forum on February 14, 2014, alleging causes of action against Magnolia Hill for negligence under the theory that Magnolia Hill had failed to maintain its premises in a reasonable condition to prevent injury to business invitees[4]. [Docket no. 1]. Magnolia Hill filed its Answer on April 11, 2014, invoking the affirmative defenses of Spriggins' own negligence as the sole proximate cause of her injuries or, alternatively, that Spriggins had contributed to her injury through her own negligence.

         After many months of discovery and motion practice, the parties were ready for a jury trial of this lawsuit that begun on June 20, 2017. The parties contested their respective positions over five (5) days during which they presented their positions to the jury. After deliberation, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant finding that Spriggins had failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Magnolia Hill had actual or constructive notice of the allegedly dangerous condition that had caused an injury to Spriggins. [Docket no. 102]. Accordingly, this court entered judgment in favor of the defendant on June 27, 2017. [Docket no. 107].

         Aggrieved with the jury's verdict, Spriggins filed her Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict or, In the Alternative, New Trial [Docket no. 2');">112] on July 21, 2017. Magnolia Hill filed its response in opposition on August 4, 2017. [Docket no. 113]. Spriggins filed her reply in support on August 10, 2017. [Docket no. 114].


         The jury trial of this matter lasted for five (5) days during which the plaintiff presented ten (10) witnesses and the defendant presented two (2) witnesses. The parties both submitted various exhibits to the jury as well.

         The trial centered on the date of February 14, 2013, when Spriggins and her friend Larry Harris had been guests at Riverwalk Casino, a hotel and casino located in Vicksburg, Mississippi - owned/operated by Magnolia Hill. Spriggins says that she and Larry Harris, while guests at Riverwalk, visited Riverwalk's buffet.

         According to Spriggins, the buffet was busy and she had to wait about forty-five minutes to be seated. Spriggins' statement that the buffet was “packed” was contested by Ruth Harris, an eyewitness with no alleged affiliation to Magnolia Hill and who is not related to Larry Harris. Testifying during the jury trial via video deposition, she stated: “It wasn't a lot of people-matter of fact, it wasn't anybody at the buffet but she [Spriggins] and I. Wasn't anybody else up. It was just a quiet night. It was really quiet.” After being seated, Spriggins left her chair and approached the buffet tables. She prepared two (2) plates. With the salad bar on her left, Spriggins began the return to her table. Before she could reach the table, says Spriggins, she slipped and struck the floor with her tailbone, and left elbow. She suffered a cut to her thumb, she adds.

         After she fell, says Spriggins, she observed water leaking from under the salad bar, a movable piece of equipment, she contends. Her friend, Larry Harris, said he also witnessed water trickling from under a machine, which created a puddle.

         In contrast, Ruth Harris testified that the buffet area was clean and that she saw no water leaking from the salad bar. Ruth Harris suggests that Spriggins may have slipped on some salad dressing that had been dropped by a patron, or dropped by Spriggins herself. James Abdo (“Abdo”), the Senior Director of Food and Beverage at Riverwalk, also disagreed with Spriggins' testimony. He testified that the salad bar was, and is, fixed to the floor with a concrete base-not moveable as Spriggins had testified-and hard plumbed to the ground. Because of this firm set up, reasoned Abdo, water could not have leaked from the bottom of the salad bar as described by Spriggins. Moreover, Abdo claims that the refrigeration unit has never leaked, nor has it malfunctioned or required repairs.

         Makita Jones (“Jones”), a disgruntled[5] former member of the cleaning crew, though, testified that she had observed a puddle of water shortly before Spriggins' accident, while she was patrolling the casino with her supervisor Marilyn Davis (“Davis”). Jones stated that Davis told her to leave the water on the floor because there was another spill that needed cleaning in a different location in the casino. Davis' testimony, however, did not support that of Jones. Davis denied speaking to Jones about a spill, or entering the buffet prior to Spriggins' fall.

         Jones also stated that she had had to clean this particular area frequently because Riverwalk used ice in its salad bar to keep the vegetables cool, and the melted ice would leak onto the floor.

         According to Spriggins, an African American male employee of Riverwalk came over to help her after she had slipped. Spriggins alleged that the unknown employee told her that they had noticed the spot and failed to clean it up. Spriggins says she does not know the identity of this Riverwalk employee. Regardless, Spriggins alleged that no warning signs were placed around the puddle and she was not warned about the puddle which, she claimed, was neither open nor obvious.

         As a result of the slip-and-fall, Spriggins said she suffered injuries including, but not limited to: a cut thumb; back pain radiating down her legs; neck pain; and a torn rotator cuff in her shoulder. Spriggins' medical evidence was challenged by the defendant.

         The court instructed the jury on all issues, liability and damages, and then submitted the jury verdict form to the jury. After deliberation, the eight (8) person jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Magnolia Hill. On the Verdict Form submitted to the jury, the jury only reached question 1, which asked as follows:

1. Do you find that Plaintiff has proven by a preponderance of the credible evidence that the Defendant had actual or constructive notice, of an unreasonably dangerous condition on its premises at a point in time before the accident such that it could have remedied or warned of the condition? __YES__NO

[Docket no. 102]. The jury answered “No”, thus having no need to reach questions of comparative negligence or damages.


         a. Standard of Review

         Federal District Courts must review a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict under the jurisprudence governed by Rule 50[6] of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

A judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) should be granted by the trial court only when the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of the moving party that reasonable jurors could not arrive at a contrary verdict, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is made, and giving that party the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference which the evidence justifies.
Spuler v. Pickar, 2d 103');">958 F.2d 103, 105 (5th Cir. 1992) (citing Harwood & Assoc., Inc. v. Texas Bank & Trust, 2d 1073');">654 F.2d 1073, 1076 (5th Cir. Unit A Sept. 1981)). When considering a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the Court must consider all of the evidence contained in the record. Reeves, 530 U.S. at 150.
In doing so, however, the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge. Thus, although the court should review the record as a whole, it must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe. That is, the court should give credence to the evidence favoring the nonmovant as well as that evidence supporting the moving party that is uncontradicted and unimpeached, at least to the extent that that evidence comes from disinterested witnesses.
Id. at 150-51 (citations omitted). This Court “will not disturb the jury's verdict unless, considering the evidence in the light most favorable to [the plaintiff], the facts and inferences point so overwhelmingly to [the defendants] that reasonable jurors could not have arrived at a verdict except in [their] favor.” Streber v. Hunter, 221 F.3d 701');">221 F.3d 701, 721 (5th Cir. 2000) (citing Douglas v. DynMcDermott Petroleum Operations Co., 144 F.3d 364, 369 (5th Cir. 1998)).

Bridges v. Enter. Prods. Co., 2d 549');">551 F.Supp.2d 549, 552-53 (S.D.Miss. 2008).

         By her motion, plaintiff asks this court to set aside the jury's verdict - that which favored the defendant - and either to grant her judgment as a matter of law or, alternatively, a new trial. Plaintiff alleges that this court abused its discretion by instructing the jury on comparative negligence and by excluding part of the expert witness testimony, of Dr. Michael Molleston, proffered by the plaintiff.

         Plaintiff also asks this court, alternatively, to view her request as a motion for a new trial based on the same grounds. Fifth Circuit precedent for granting a new trial is similar to its standard for directed verdict/judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

“[a] trial court should not grant a new trial on evidentiary grounds unless the verdict is against the great weight of the evidence”. Pryor v. Trane Co., 24');">138 F.3d 1024, 1026 (5th Cir. 1998) (quoting Dotson v. Clark Equip. Co., 2d 1225');">805 F.2d 1225, 1227 (5th Cir. 1986)). The district court has “sound discretion” to grant or deny new trial motions; [the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals] will affirm absent “a clear showing that this discretion has been abused”. Pryor, 138 F.3d at 1026; see also Hidden Oaks Ltd. v. City of Austin, 138 F.3d 1036, 1046 (5th Cir. 1998); Bernard v. IBP, Inc., 259');">154 F.3d 259, 264 (5th Cir. 1998).

Whitehead v. Food Max, 265');">163 F.3d 265, 269 (5th Cir. 1998).

         This court is persuaded that plaintiff has not met her burden under either a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or under a motion for new trial. The reasoning of this court is set out below.

         b. Jury Instructions

         Initially, plaintiff complains about the jury instructions this court gave the jury in this lawsuit. This court held a jury instruction conference with the parties after the close of the evidence and formulated, with the parties, the jury instructions it would use to charge the jury.

Regarding jury instructions, the trial court possesses considerable discretion. Bickham v. Grant, 861 So.2d 299, 301 (Miss. 2003) (citing Southland Enters. v. Newton County, 2d 286');">838 So.2d 286, 289 (Miss. 2003) (citing Splain v. Hines, 2d 1234');">609 So.2d 1234, 1239 (Miss. 1992)). A party is entitled to a jury instruction if it concerns a genuine issue of material fact and there is credible evidence to support the instruction. Mariner Health Care, Inc. v. Estate of Edwards, 2d 1138');">964 So.2d 1138, 1156 (Miss. 2007) (citing DeLaughter v. Lawrence County Hosp., 601 So.2d 818, 824 (Miss. 1992)).

Young v. Guild, 251');">7 So.3d 251, 259 (Miss. 2009).

         After the jury instruction conference, this court announced the jury instructions it intended to, and did, charge the jury. Plaintiff objected at that time about the comparative negligence instruction. This court overruled her objection.

         i. Comparative Negligence

         As an initial observation, the jury did not reach the question of comparative negligence in this lawsuit sub judice. The first question submitted to the jury asked if the jury had determined whether the defendant was negligent in any respect, thereby causing plaintiff's alleged injury. The jury answered “No”. Even had this court erred in instructing the jury to consider comparative negligence, the given instruction had no effect upon the jury's verdict finding that defendant had manifested no negligence whatsoever relative to the incident in question.

         Plaintiff cites in support King v. Kroger Co., 2d 677');">787 So.2d 677, 681 (Miss. 2001). The Mississippi Supreme Court, in King, held that the comparative negligence jury instruction, given in that lawsuit, confused the jury. The court's reasoning however, was telling: “there was not a single instance of negligence on the part of [the Plaintiff] which could have supported a comparative negligence finding”. Id. at 681. The King situation is not the factual scenario here.

         The defendant responds, and this court agrees, that the evidence in this lawsuit clearly provided the jury with incidents from which the jury could have found that plaintiff was negligent. Furthermore, says the defendant, plaintiff did not preserve the issue of comparative negligence for either this court or the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to review.

         This court is not persuaded that plaintiff failed to preserve this issue. Plaintiff actually objected to any comparative negligence analysis or presentation of such to the jury. This court recalls that it instructed plaintiff that she had preserved the issue and could stop objecting based on these grounds. Plaintiff nevertheless continued to object. Fifth Circuit precedent is quite clear on this issue, that it “construes rule 50(b) liberally” and that “[t]o demand slavish adherence to the procedural sequence … would be to ‘succumb to a nominalism and rigid ...

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