Banana-Peel Lawsuits: Beyond Slapstick ; Slippery Fruit Is No Laughing Matter as Florida Court Takes Up Supermarket Cases

Article excerpt

There is something about a banana that makes us laugh.

For generations this delicious tropical produce has been at the center of one joke after another. From Charlie Chaplin to the Three Stooges to Woody Allen, bananas have propelled comedians into head- over-heels antics and won guaranteed guffaws.

But, alas, there is a dark side to the yellow fruit.

Just ask the seven justices of the Florida Supreme Court, who are mulling the case of two different women in two different grocery stores who fell victim - quite literally - to bananas.

It is a legal dispute that gives new meaning to the phrase "building a case on appeal."

Of course, for lawyers and clients involved in what are called slip-and-fall cases, this is no laughing matter. Serious injuries can result. Big money is potentially at stake. And the two cases could rewrite this state's rules on when judges should allow juries to decide difficult cases that hinge on little more than the color of a banana peel.

The basic facts are not in dispute. During a 1992 excursion to a U-Save Supermarket in Palm Beach County, Elvia Soriano slipped and fell on what she described as a brown, rotten banana peel. She sued the grocery store chain, claiming that the store was responsible for a substantial injury to her knee because it had failed to quickly clean the banana off the floor.

In the second case, Evelyn Owens was shopping in 1995 at a Publix Supermarket in St. Cloud, Fla., when she slipped and fell on what she described as a small piece of slightly discolored banana. She was treated and released from a local hospital but missed several weeks of work. She sued Publix, claiming that the store had allowed the banana to remain on the floor rather than promptly cleaning it up.

It's all in the timing

The critical issue in both cases is how long the banana was on the floor.

If it was on the floor for only a few minutes, it would be unreasonable to expect store employees to have immediately located it and cleaned it up. But if it was on the floor for a half hour, or several hours, or even days, that would suggest that perhaps the store was negligent in maintaining a safe shopping environment for its customers.

The law in Florida is clear that storekeepers must provide a safe place to shop. But the law is also clear that if a hazard arises, a shopkeeper must be allowed a reasonable amount of time to notice it and take action to remove it or warn shoppers.

That's where the color of the banana comes in. Lawyers for both Ms. Soriano and Ms. Owens argue that because the banana and peel were brown, it suggests that they had been on the floor for as long as two days.

Lawyers for the stores say there is no proof that the bananas became brown during an extended period of time on the floor. …


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