You Be the Judge: The Case of the Falling Filmgoer

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

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Noma 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

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Noma Bar for Reader’s Digest

The Verdict

It took three courts four years to make a final decision in the case. In 2005, a state judge in Clayton County, Georgia, threw out the case, ruling that AMC had “properly positioned” the sign. The judge based his dismissal on a similar case that he said had set a precedent in trip-and-fall cases. In that 2002 case, the judge had found that a bakery wasn’t liable for a woman’s injuries because the Wet Floor sign she had tripped over hadn’t been down long enough for an employee to notice.

The Browns appealed, arguing that their case deserved to be heard because AMC had placed the sign in the path of a herd of people and should have known the sign would become a hazard.

In 2008, the Court of Appeals of Georgia agreed with the Browns and ordered a trial by jury. AMC appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia. “If a business fails to put a sign over a spill, they can be sued. If they do, they can be sued. What are they supposed to do?” Ziegler asked during the case. But the Supreme Court ruling went in favor of the Browns. AMC didn’t fulfill “its legal duty to avoid creating an unreasonable risk of foreseeable harm to the public,” wrote the court.

In 2009, the case went to trial in Clayton County, in front of the same judge who had reviewed it four years earlier. The jury deliberated for less than 30 minutes and then ruled that AMC was not liable and that Brown, who passed away in August 2012, would not receive any compensation.

Was justice served? Is the theater liable for Brown’s fall? Tell us what you think in the comments.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest