In December of 2012, Barbara Rieger was standing at the bakery counter of a Giant Eagle Store in Brook Park, Ohio, when her shopping cart was hit by one of Giant Eagle’s motorized carts, driven by Ruth Kurka. Rieger was knocked to the ground, injured, and taken to the hospital where she incurred $11,511 in medical expenses.
There were no operational instructions for the carts, and no training or screening for those who drove them. Kurka had been diagnosed with early stage dementia by the time of this accident.
Rieger sued Kurka and Giant Eagle for negligence and negligent entrustment. Negligent entrustment is when the owner of a vehicle entrusts it to someone incompetent to drive it and the owner knows it (like giving the keys to your car to a friend you know is clearly drunk). As evidence against Giant Eagle, Rieger introduced 117 other incidents involving these carts at Giant Eagle stores from 2004-2012.
Kurka died before the trial, and her estate settled with Rieger for $8,500. Rieger’s case proceeded to trial. The jury found Giant Eagle liable and awarded Rieger compensatory damages of $121,000 (which was reduced by the $8,500 settlement with the Kurka estate to $112,500) and punitive damages of $1,198,000. Punitive damages are only awarded in tort cases to punish a defendant for particularly egregious conduct.
Ohio now has a statute capping punitive damages at two times the amount of compensatory damages, so the punitive damages were reduced by the appeals court in the case to $242,000.
Giant Eagle took this case to the Supreme Court of Ohio and argued that no damages should have been awarded against the store because the case never should have even gone to the jury. In a unanimous decision just handed down, the Supreme Court of Ohio agreed.
A tort (which is the field I taught as a professor at University of Cincinnati Law) is an injury caused by the negligence of another. To win a negligence claim, the injured party (the plaintiff) must prove there was a duty owed to her, a breach of that duty, causation, and damages.
During the oral argument of this case, Rieger’s lawyer was never satisfactorily able to explain exactly what it was that Giant Eagle should have done here. Have a driver’s test? Require a license? Test a person’s mental ability? During the argument, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor asked whether it wasn’t a fact that everyone who goes to a grocery store these days already knows that these motorized carts exist for those who need them, and just get out of the way of them when shopping.
But even if Rieger had somehow established a duty here (and I personally never thought that she did) Rieger still had to prove that the store’s failure to provide Kurka with instruction or training on how to use the carts caused Rieger’s injuries. That is the causation element of a tort claim, and ultimately that was the basis of the court’s decision – that Rieger failed to provide evidence of causation. There was just no evidence that Rieger would not have been injured anyway if Giant Eagle had somehow trained Kurka to operate the motorized cart. In a tort claim, you must prove all four of the necessary elements, or you lose. Rieger never proved causation.
Rieger’s negligent entrustment claim suffered the same fate. To establish such a claim, the plaintiff must show that the motorized cart was operated with the owner’s permission, the driver was incompetent to operate it, the owner knew it, and the owner’s negligence in this regard caused the plaintiff’s injury. Even though Giant Eagle did not provide training for customers who use the motorized cars, there is no evidence training would have prevented this accident. In fact, the evidence was that Kurka had driven the carts for well over a year without incident. Nor did Rieger present any evidence that Kurka’s dementia had any causal relationship to the accident. So, again, no causation, and no need to analyze the other elements.
Ultimately the court determined that Giant Eagle should have been granted a directed verdict, meaning it have won the case as a matter of law and the case should never have gone to the jury. So, all the damages, both compensatory and punitive, were taken away in the case, and the store walked away the winner.
There were many amici, meaning friends of the court, in support of Giant Eagle in this case, including the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, the Ohio Grocers Association the National Grocers Association, and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. They argued mobility devices contribute significantly to the independence and quality of life of disabled persons and also help to alleviate the burdens and responsibilities of caretakers. Recognizing the societal benefit which mobility devices offer, retailers choose to offer them as a courtesy to their customers. So, the amici undoubtedly heaved a sigh of relief when this opinion came out.
I am usually on the side of the injured plaintiff in torts cases, but I think this was the right decision in this one. It was Kurka who caused Rieger’s injury, not the store.