APRIL 12, 1999 VOLUME 6, NUMBER 41
Mattie Meeks lived in her Corpus Christi, Texas apartment, but at eighty-six years of age she needed some help. She hired Maria Rosa to assist her. Ms. Rosa came in regularly to help bathe and dress Ms. Meeks, did some cleaning and occasionally cooked for Ms. Meeks as well.
In January of 1993, Ms. Rosa went to Ms. Meeks’ refrigerator to take out a container of cooked beans. In her testimony later, Ms. Rosa indicated that Ms. Meeks’ refrigerator was full of containers of food; in any event, the beans fell out of the refrigerator and onto the floor and Ms. Rosa’s shoes. When Ms. Rosa turned toward the broom closet to clean up the mess she slipped and fell, seriously injuring her shoulder.
Ms. Rosa sued Ms. Meeks on a “premises liability” claim. She alleged that Ms. Meeks knew (or should have known) that she was maintaining an unsafe condition, that it posed an unreasonable risk of harm to Ms. Rosa, and that Ms. Meeks did not exercise reasonable care to protect Ms. Rosa from injury. At trial, the jury found that Ms. Rosa was liable for thirty percent of the injury, and that Ms. Meeks was responsible for the remaining seventy percent.
Although the jury awarded a judgment to Ms. Rosa, the judge presiding over the trial reviewed the evidence and entered judgment for Ms. Meeks “non obstante verdicto“–an infrequently used ruling which permits the judge to overrule a jury. Ms. Rosa appealed to the Texas Court of Appeals.
Ms. Rosa’s appeal was filed in February, 1996, just over three years after she slipped in Ms. Meeks’ kitchen. The Court of Appeals considered the matter for almost a year and a half before deciding that Ms. Rosa should have prevailed, and the judges reinstated the jury verdict.
Now it was Ms. Meeks’ turn to appeal, this time to the Texas Supreme Court. Briefs were filed, and just short of two years later the justices of that court found in Ms. Meeks’ favor, declaring that Ms. Rosa should receive nothing.
The Supreme Court’s decision rested on two questions: whether Ms. Meeks’ refrigerator was merely full or “overflowing,” and whether there was any indication beans had been on the floor before the beans fell out of the refrigerator. If either had been the case, said the justices, it might be possible to argue that there was an unreasonable risk of harm to Ms. Rosa in Ms. Meeks’ kitchen.Meeks v. Rosa, March 11, 1999.
Since Ms. Meeks had not created or allowed a condition of unreasonable risk to exist, she was not liable for Ms. Rosa’s injuries. Nonetheless, the lawsuit lasted over six years from the day Ms. Rosa slipped and fell.
It is frequently difficult to persuade homebound seniors that they need help with the activities of daily living. A desire for privacy and self-reliance are probably more important reasons for refusing needed care than the prospect of litigation over a “slip and fall” lawsuit. The court record is silent as to whether Ms. Meeks had renters insurance to cover her potential liability. Ms. Meeks died three months before the court verdict in her favor.