We’ve all been there—out in some unfamiliar town or place and suddenly in need of a restroom. And if you gotta go, you gotta GO.
This was the situation for Mrs. Elliott when she was shopping at a Dollar General store in Chattanooga, Tennessee. When nature called, a store employee directed her to the restroom—in the back storage area of an old, rundown building.
The latrine was unlit (probably a good thing under the circumstances), but she noticed an electric light cord hanging down from the ceiling. She couldn’t reach it, so she stepped up on the toilet to pull the cord. That’s when the toilet lid slipped to one side, causing her right foot to plunge into the toilet while her other foot and the rest of her body fell backward onto the floor, resulting in serious injury.
Mrs. Elliott sued Dollar General, claiming the defective seat and lid caused her fall. The store blamed the accident on Mrs. Elliott’s heavy load, not the commode, explaining that the toilet seat was designed to “conform generally to the contours of the human posterior” and in the ordinary course of business, “when the commode seat is in use by a member of the feminine gender that the usual method of approach to it is to draw near, to then turn to face away from it, and to assume a sitting position with a portion of the user’s weight on the user’s feet.”
Dollar General even brought in an expert witness with a mathematical formula to measure what percentage of the user’s weight rested on the posterior as compared to the feet. (There was no calculation for hovering posteriors.)
Mrs. Elliott’s attorney argued that it was common for people to stand on toilets, using personal experience as his No. 1 example. “I weigh 185 pounds, and instead of going to the basement to get a step ladder, I let down the commode seat and the commode lid and step upon it and unscrew the light shade with a screwdriver. I know of my own knowledge that it has never broken or even cracked.”
Mrs. Elliott pleaded the store was negligent in its duty to provide a safe commode, and Dollar General claimed it was Mrs. Elliott’s duty and responsibility to use the toilet properly.
Whose duty was it?
The court found in favor of Dollar General, holding that Mrs. Elliott did not exercise ordinary care for her own safety, and any resulting injury was due to her own negligence.
Nothing in the record shows that the toilet seat or commode was unsafe to sit on or use in the conventional manner, so the court concluded that Mrs. Elliott was putting the toilet to a use that the defendants could not foresee when she took her fateful plunge.
Supreme Court of Tennessee, 1971