You Be the Judge: The Case of the Falling Filmgoer

Should a movie theater pay when a patron takes a spill?

By Vicki Glembocki
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine March 2014

high heel illustrationNoma Bar for Reader’s Digest

On Christmas Day in 2003, Nancy Sue Brown took her daughter and grandchildren to see the film Cheaper by the Dozen at an AMC movie theater in a Georgia mall. The theater was packed. When the film was over, Brown, then 63, followed the large crowd through the lobby toward the exit. As she passed the concession stand, she suddenly tripped, then tumbled to the ground.

About ten minutes earlier, an AMC employee had mopped up a spilled drink in the area and placed a sign saying Wet Floor over the spot. It was an A-frame sign—the kind used by businesses everywhere—made of bright yellow plastic, with CAUTION in red capital letters across the top.

The sign had fallen over—probably trampled by the crowd—and Brown hadn’t seen it lying flat on the floor. “There [were] people all around me,” she explained. “If I had been looking down … I probably would have run into them.”

Her left foot caught in the handle of the sign, and she fell forward, hitting her head on the carpeted floor. An ambulance rushed her to the hospital. She had no serious head injuries, but doctors told her that she had broken several bones in her left foot. She wore a cast for four months. Two years later, Brown had back surgery to address injuries she believed she’d sustained in the fall.

A month after the surgery, in December 2005, Brown and her husband sued AMC, claiming the movie-theater chain was negligent for placing a “tripping hazard” in an area they knew would be “trafficked by hordes of customers.” The Browns demanded $383,000 to cover pain and suffering and medical expenses. AMC’s attorney, Christopher Ziegler, wondered, “Where else would you put a Wet Floor sign than where people are walking?”

Was AMC responsible for a filmgoer’s tripping over a sign that had been knocked down? You be the judge.

Next: The Verdict

Become more interesting every week!

Get our Read Up newsletter

Sending Message
how we use your e-mail

  • Your Comments

    • Doober

      At least this time, the jury had more sense than the Georgia Supreme Court.

    • Monique Knox

      This Verdict was not Just! As a Business, it is AMC’s duty to provide a safe environment to its customers. If the sign wasnt visible its the same as not being up. As a “victim”(yeah i said it!) of a recent Slip and Fall accident,I know firsthand how totally helpless and disreguarded one can feel to be surprised with falling on a hard, wet floor.There are different degrees of moisture, wet,damp,partially damp its all the same if you SLIP on it!How many of you X-men can see water on a shiny, half dry floor? I’ll wait… abut seeing beforehand that you are in danger of slipping because there wasn’t a sign that is VISIBLE? I fell and it took me by Surprise because It was a backward fall and I have to deal with the pain. Nancy Sue Brown was in Georgia,Clayton County,(no wonder that judge kept dismissing the case)for 4 years….really? There are some hateful people in this world and its evident that they were against seeing this helpless woman compensated for being injured due to a company’s laziness and subtle greed……i hope she came back to haunt the hell out of that sexist judge…..i’m just saying…..Business owners, be like Publix Supermarket, who will not only put a Caution sign down, they will watch the are til the floor dries. Now thats what I call Customer Care!!!

    • Cognitogrrl

      I say AMC was liable for three reasons. #1 The sign was supposedly in place for 10 minutes. How long does it take to dry? The sign should have been removed before it then became a hazard. #2 The theater manager should have had at least one employee stationed to guide patrons around the area. One knee-high plastic sign is invisible when a crowd walks through. #3 When you rent a video, you never have the possibility of this happening. Is that what AMC wants? They should have paid the minuscule $380,000 to this woman to show they care about theater patrons.

    • megan

      the verdict is proper.

      • scoop

        what’s not mentioned is the lady had a history of similar law suits. Always looking for a free handout…

        • Donald

          I have been looking for a reference to similar lawsuits. Where do you
          see that? The several broken bones and four months in a cast do not
          suggest it was frivolous.

    • Jim

      The theater is to blame. They had time to clean the spill and leave the area they should have spent more time and dried the area. Knowing a crowd would soon be walking through there.

    • Judy

      Placing a warning is useless if it can’t be seen under normal circumstances. Crowds of people existing a theater through the hallways and lobby is normal. The theater should have cordoned off the area with poles and ropes like you see sometime where people queue up in lines. And, just to be safe, until the area was safe again an employee should have been stationed in the there to be sure people were aware of the danger.

      • Sultry_Clue

        So where does one draw the line, especially in a crowded place? What if this lady had tripped over the foot of the employee standing there at the wet spot, and sued because the employee tripped her even if it wasn’t purposeful? Seriously. Where do we stop and begin to take responsibility for ourselves, our actions and safety?

    • go sue yourself

      i don’t feel that the verdict was in error. regardless of society’s skewing toward blaming companies or anyone but an injured individual, (who end up being referred to as a victim,) i believe that a person should be responsible for themselves and their actions. in this case, most would like to blame the company and see the sympathetic victim receive relief. to those, i would ask a simple question; what if the sign were a toddler walking with its mother? what if the toddler’s foot were stepped on, it fell down, then had neck problems months or years later? who should be sued, the mother for having brought the toddler to the movies, or the person that stepped on its foot?
      people should consider watching where they are going and ponder taking responsibility for themselves, knowing that accidents happen.

      • Donald

        The verdict was definitely in error. In a case of a toddler who gets stepped on, the theater would have absolutely no liability, and any suing would be between the patrons, as patrons stepping on each other is not under the control of the theater. In the case of a sign placed by the theater to warn of a danger that itself becomes a danger, then that is under the control of the theater and the fault is strictly of the theater. Instead of placing the sign they should just make sure that the floor is dry so that no sign is needed. Also, in a crowded area, which is the norm for movie theaters, it can be impossible for a patron to see what is on the floor, and it should not be incumbent of the patron in that setting to be looking for obstacles on the floor.

        • Bill

          You say it can be Impossible for a patron to see what’s on the floor. Only when one walks that close behind others. Moving within a thick crowd is a choice that brings this risk; a choice. Avoiding that risk is as utterly simple as waiting until the crowd has thinned out. She didn’t. Whose fault is that? If it is not incumbent on us to take any personal precautions at all, we as a society have lost our minds.

          • Donald

            So you have a crowd of people coming out of a theatre, closely crowded together, as is often the case, then everyone waiting until the crowd thins out so they can look for obstructions on the floor, in a place intended for crowd use and not normally, and which should not be, a place where obstructions are present.

            • Bill

              Well, too much caution would be better than not enough, especially for older folks. The ironic thing is that the sign was really necessary because of other lawsuits that claimed just that – and won. Only in America.

            • Donald

              No argument about being cautious – and I don’t doubt the other lawsuits. But this whole issue would go away if whenever there is a spill the responsible people would put their attention to making sure the area is completely dry, rather than leaving a wet area that could be dangerous and compounding it by placing a sign that can also be dangerous.

            • ichigorobei

              I have to agree with Donald here — how much harder would it have been for the theater staff to dry the floor after cleaning up the spill? No wet floor means no wet floor hazard and thus, no sign needed; no sign means no tripping hazard created by the sign. The current “standard of care” for spills should be clean it up so that the surface is dry. This is hardly an unreasonable burden.

    • scorpgal

      “Wet Floor” signs are outdated. Any business in a country where paper towels exist should dry the floor after an unintended spill. Large areas should be mopped when the business is not open to the public. Hospitals may be an exception, as they must stay open 24 hours a day and meet sanitary standards. However, they should be able to afford microfiber mops that will do the job with faster dryng times.

    • Donald

      This case is all wrong. Instead of concentrating on the sign, they should
      fault the theater for not cleaning up right away, rather than placing a sign that
      itself can be a hazard. If they have time to place a sign to say that the floor
      is wet, they have time to call a cleaning person to properly dry the floor so
      that it is not a hazard. If they have to wait for the cleaning person, they
      should position an employee at the spot to keep people from walking there. The
      sign itself can be, and was, more of a hazard than the wet floor could have
      been. The theater and/or AMC ought to have been found liable for negligence, if
      it had been presented in that way from the start.

      • Rita

        Read again. They did clean the spill AND placed the sign!

        • Donald

          I see that, but if they cleaned the spill properly, the floor would be dry and there would be no need for a sign.

        • ichigorobei

          They cleaned the spill but created another hazard, which the woman tripped over. They placed the sign, as you say, but made it a hazard by not placing it in such a manner that it would not become a hazard. After cleaning the spill itself, they created the hazard of the wet floor. They could have dried the floor properly, as “Donald” has commented, and they would have eliminated the wet floor hazard and not have needed to use the sign which created the tripping hazard. Believe me, I hate these kinds of lawsuits, as many of them inappropriately target worthwhile businesses, but in this case the business, by acting differently, could have easily prevented their own liability.

    • Refuse to sue

      The verdict is proper. As a nation we have come to think every misfortune has to be someone’s fault,and we are due compensation. So many fail to accept responsibility for themselves. And there are plenty of lawyers who have learned to make a good living out of this situation.