by Michael Blahy
In December 2012, Barbara Rieger and Ruth Kurka were shopping at a Giant Eagle grocery store in Brook Park Ohio. Ruth Kurka was using a motorized cart, and while driving by the bakery counter, she collided with Barbara Rieger’s push cart which knocked her to the ground causing injuries. Barbara Rieger incurred $11,511 in medical bills.
Barbara Rieger sued both Ruth Kurka and Giant Eagle. Ruth Kurka passed away prior to the trial, and her estate settled for $8,500.
In October, 2016, the case of negligence and negligent entrustment continued against Giant Eagle with a jury trial. They heard deposition testimony of a Giant Eagle corporate representative confirming:
Giant Eagle provides motorized carts for customers with mobility limitations
there are no operational instructions on the carts
Giant Eagle assumes that all individuals who use the carts know how to drive them
the warnings posted on the carts are for the cart operators.
The jury also heard deposition testimony of Ruth Kurka’s husband, George, who said at the time of the accident, his wife had been diagnosed with dementia. He also confirmed that she was never trained in the proper operation of the motorized cart.
Rieger testified that the incident was not an isolated occurrence by presenting evidence of motor cart incidents at Giant Eagle stores, between 2004 and 2012, totaling 117.
Giant Eagle suggested that the evidence presented did not satisfy requirements for a finding of guilt and moved for a directed verdict. The trial court denied Giant Eagle’s requests.
Giant Eagle was found negligent, which caused Rieger’s injuries. Rieger was awarded compensatory damages of $121,000, which was to be reduced by the previous settlement of $8,500. She was also awarded $1,198,000 in punitive damages.
Ohio has regulations which limit punitive damages to two times the amount of compensatory damages, so Rieger filed a motion that in her case, those regulations are unconstitutional. Giant Eagle opposed the motion, but the trial court found in Rieger’s favour.
Giant Eagle appealed to the court of appeals, which agreed with the lower court denial of a directed verdict, but reversed the judgement on punitive damages and reduced the award to $242,000.
Giant Eagle with support from Food Marketing Institute, Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, Ohio Grocers Association, Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice, National Grocers Association, and Ohio Chamber of Commerce, appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio saying that this case is precedent setting:
Proposition of Law I: For stores that provide motorized carts to disabled shoppers, the Eighth District created entirely new tort duties owed by them—a duty to warn the user about the obvious danger of a pedestrian-cart collision, a duty to train disabled customers how to operate a simple motorized cart, and a duty to interrogate customers to determine whether their disability disqualifies them from operating a cart.
Proposition of Law II: The Eighth District has created a new standard for malice that makes the mere possibility of harm from the underlying tortious conduct—no matter how improbable— sufficient for an award of punitive damages.
Proposition of Law III: For accidents involving motorized shopping carts, the Eighth District created a new strict liability standard for stores by (a) eliminating the need to prove that the store’s negligence caused the accident and (b) basing that liability solely on dissimilar motorized shopping cart accidents thereby rendering the store an insurer for such accidents.
The Supreme Court of Ohio reviewed the negligence claim, looking to see if the jury had sufficient evidence to satisfy the three required elements of such a claim:
the existence of a duty
a breach of that duty
an injury that was proximately caused by the breach
In order for a personal-injury action to be submitted to a jury, a plaintiff must produce some evidence for each element essential to establish liability.
They took into consideration rulings at previous negligence cases where the failure to act was alleged to be the cause of an injury. There must be evidence of causation before the plaintiff’s negligence claim may be submitted to the jury. Speculation is not sufficient.
In a similar case involving Wal-Mart, [t]he Second District Court of Appeals held that Wal-Mart’s lack of training its customers on the operation of its carts was insufficient as a matter of law to establish that the lack of training was causally related to the plaintiff’s injury. Accordingly, the court held that there was no genuine issue of material fact on the element of causation to send to the jury.
In this case there may have been enough evidence to establish the existence of a duty, Giant Eagle’s knowledge of the prior 117 incidents involving motorized carts, but there was no evidence that the lack of training in the use of the carts caused the 117 accidents. Rieger also did not provide evidence that lack of training and instruction caused Kurka to collide her cart.
As for the negligent-entrustment claim, Rieger was to show that Kurka had permission by Giant Eagle to use the motorized cart, that she was incompetent to use it and that Giant Eagle knew of the incompetence.
Mr. Kurka did testify that his wife was diagnosed with dementia, no evidence was provided showing that her condition was obvious, or that it contributed to the accident. In fact, evidence was entered that Mrs. Kurka had been driving motorized carts on a regular basis for over a year, without incident.
The Supreme Court of Ohio concluded:
Upon review, we hold that there is insufficient evidence of causation as a matter of law to support the claims of negligence and negligent entrustment against Giant Eagle. The trial court should have granted Giant Eagle’s motion for a directed verdict, and the court of appeals should not have affirmed the trial court’s judgment. Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals’ judgment and enter judgment in favor of Giant Eagle.
(Rieger v. Giant Eagle, Inc. (Supreme Court of Ohio, Docket: 2018-0883))
Decided: October, 2019
Published: October, 2019
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