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Rodriguez v. The Kroger Co.

Supreme Court of Utah

June 12, 2018

Gloria Rodriguez, Appellant,
v.
The Kroger Company and J&I Maintenance, Appellees.

          On Direct Appeal Third District, West Jordan The Honorable Judge L. Douglas Hogan No. 130400905

          Daniel F. Bertch, Kevin K. Robson, Salt Lake City, for appellant

          Lloyd R. Jones, Salt Lake City, for appellees

          JUSTICE PEARCE authored the opinion of the Court, in which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE LEE, JUSTICE HIMONAS, and JUSTICE PETERSEN joined.

          OPINION

          PEARCE JUSTICE.

         INTRODUCTION

         ¶1 Gloria Rodriguez arrived at a Smith's grocery store shortly after it opened at 6:00 a.m. to purchase her breakfast. As she walked toward aisle 13, she slipped on a puddle of soapy water. Rodriguez fell, injuring her head, neck, and shoulders. Rodriguez sued The Kroger Company and Smith's Food & Drugs Centers, Inc. (collectively, Smith's), the janitorial company Smith's contracted with to clean the floors, and the independent contractor the janitorial company hired to do the work. Rodriguez settled with the independent contractor before trial. At trial, a jury apportioned 5 percent of the fault to Smith's, none of the fault to the janitorial company, 75 percent of the fault to the independent contractor, and 20 percent of the fault to Rodriguez herself. After trial, Rodriguez argued that Smith's and the janitorial company were liable for the independent contractor's share of the damages. The district court disagreed and entered judgment based on the jury's allocation of fault. The district court also awarded Rodriguez 5 percent of her costs. Rodriguez appealed.

         ¶2 Rodriguez challenges the district court's final judgment. Rodriguez contends that because Smith's was charged with a nondelegable duty to keep its premises safe, the court should have required Smith's to pay damages for the independent contractor's negligence in addition to its own. Rodriguez also claims that the nondelegable duty doctrine mandated that the district court enter judgment against the janitorial company for the damages flowing from the independent contractor's negligence.

         ¶3 We conclude that Smith's is liable for the damages the independent contractor caused. But because Rodriguez did not demonstrate that the janitorial company also assumed Smith's nondelegable duty, we conclude that the district court did not err by refusing to enter judgment against the janitorial company for the independent contractor's negligence. Additionally, we conclude that costs need not be allocated in proportion to a party's fault under the Liability Reform Act, and remand for a redetermination of costs. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the district court in part, affirm in part, and remand.[1]

         BACKGROUND

         ¶4 Smith's contracted with J&I Maintenance to clean its floors. In turn, J&I contracted with Benigno Galeno to perform the cleaning services.[2] While cleaning the store one night, Galeno left a puddle of water at the end of aisle 13.

         ¶5 Shortly after the store opened, Rodriguez arrived at a Smith's grocery store to purchase her breakfast. Rodriguez walked through the front doors and headed for aisle 13. Rodriguez "suddenly and unexpectedly slipped on a puddle of water . . . ." Rodriguez fell, injuring her head, neck, and shoulders.

         ¶6 Rodriguez sued Smith's, J&I, and Galeno. Before trial, Rodriguez settled with Galeno.[3] Shortly before the case went to the jury, the parties agreed to this jury instruction:

The parties have stipulated that J&I Maintenance, Inc. was the independent contractor of [Smith's] to, among other things, clean its floors. The parties have also stipulated that [Benigno Galeno] . . . was the independent contractor of J&I Maintenance, Inc. to clean [Smith's] floors. Usually, [Smith's] would not be liable for the negligence of an independent contractor. However, [Smith's] has a nondelegable duty to keep its premises reasonably safe for invitees, and the law imposes liability for physical harm caused by a breach of the nondelegable duty to keep its premises reasonably safe for invitees even though [Smith's] may have contracted with others who performed the work which caused the injury.

         The jury allocated 5 percent of the fault to Smith's, none to J&I, 75 percent to Galeno, and 20 percent to Rodriguez.

         ¶7 Rodriguez filed a proposed judgment and argued that because Smith's owed a nondelegable duty to keep its store reasonably safe for its customers, the court should enter judgment against Smith's for 80 percent of Rodriguez's damages: 5 percent attributable to the fault allocated to Smith's and 75 percent attributable to the fault allocated to Galeno. Additionally, Rodriguez argued that because J&I and Galeno assumed Smith's nondelegable duty, the court should enter judgment against J&I for 75 percent of Rodriguez's damages, attributable to 75 percent of the fault allocated to Galeno.

         ¶8 Smith's and J&I opposed Rodriguez's proposed judgment. They argued that such a rejiggering of liability would run afoul of Utah's Liability Reform Act (LRA). Smith's and J&I reasoned that under the LRA, no defendant can be liable to any person seeking recovery for any amount in excess of the proportion of fault attributed to that defendant, and that Rodriguez's proposed judgment would do precisely that. (Citing Utah Code § 78B-5-818(3)).

         ¶9 The district court agreed with Smith's and J&I's reading of the LRA. The court entered judgment against Smith's for 5 percent of Rodriguez's damages. The court also awarded Rodriguez 5 percent of her costs. Rodriguez appeals.

         ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         ¶10 Rodriguez raises two issues on appeal. First, Rodriguez contends that the district court erred by declining to enter judgment against Smith's and J&I for the portion of damages Galeno's negligence caused.[4] Rodriguez argues that under the nondelegable duty doctrine, both Smith's and J&I are liable for the 75 percent of the fault allocated to Galeno. "The question of whether a duty exists is a question of law. . . . [R]esolution of this issue begins with an examination of the legal relationships between the parties, followed by an analysis of the duties created by these relationships." Yazd v. Woodside Homes Corp., 2006 UT 47, ¶ 15, 143 P.3d 283 (citation omitted). Smith's and J&I argue that the LRA prevents the court from shifting Galeno's portion of the damages to them. "The application of the LRA in apportioning fault is a legal question of statutory construction, which we review for correctness." Bishop v. GenTec Inc., 2002 UT 36, ¶ 8, 48 P.3d 218.

         ¶11 Second, Rodriguez contends that the trial court erred when it awarded her only 5 percent of her costs. "A trial court's decision to award the prevailing party its costs is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard." Coleman ex rel. Schefski v. Stevens, 2000 UT 98, ¶ 10, 17 P.3d 1122. However, whether the district court applied the appropriate standard to determine those costs presents a legal question that we review for correctness. Lyon v. Burton, 2000 UT 55, ¶ 76, 5 P.3d 616 (holding that when the reasons for the trial court's decisions to award costs involve legal determinations, we review the court's decision for correctness); cf. Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 201 ...


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