Many retailers provide motorized carts as a courtesy for their customers with mobility disabilities. Unfortunately, such mobility devices can sometimes lead to claims against the retailer for injuries sustained in connection with these devices. Recently, the Supreme Court of Ohio took a much needed step toward protecting retailers from motorized cart claims by holding that retailers are not liable for motorized shopping cart accidents in the absence of actual negligence.
Barbara Rieger v. Giant Eagle, Inc., 2019-Ohio-3745, involves a claim by Barbara Rieger who was injured at Giant Eagle by a motorized cart operated by another customer, Ruth Kurka. After the incident, Ms. Rieger filed a lawsuit against Giant Eagle and Ms. Kurka. As to Giant Eagle, Ms. Rieger alleged negligence, negligent entrustment and punitive damages. She claimed that Giant Eagle failed to properly instruct Ms. Kurka on how to safely operate the motorized cart and failed to ascertain whether Ms. Kurka was mentally capable of operating the cart. Ms. Rieger also introduced evidence of other motorized cart accidents occurring at other Giant Eagle locations to support her claims. At trial the jury awarded $121,000 in compensatory damages and $1,198,000 in punitive damages. Post trial, the court reduced the compensatory award to $112,500, but allowed the punitive damage award to stand.
On appeal, the appellate court reduced the punitive damages award from $1,198,000 to $242,000 but affirmed the compensatory damages award, finding that reasonable minds could have found in Ms. Rieger’s favor at trial.
Upon review, the Supreme Court of Ohio confirmed that, in order to prove her negligence claim, Ms. Rieger had a duty to provide evidence that an act or failure to act by Giant Eagle caused her accident. This element of causation is established by using a “but for” test. This means that the injuries suffered by Ms. Rieger would not have occurred “but for” Giant Eagle’s action or failure to act. And without some evidence of causation, the case should not have gone to the jury.
In examining the evidence of other motorized cart accidents at Giant Eagle over the years, the Court noted that Ms. Rieger failed to demonstrate that these other incidents occurred because of lack of instruction and training on how to operate the carts. As such, this evidence did not support her claim that Giant Eagle was responsible for her injuries.
The court also rejected the argument that Giant Eagle had a duty to train its customers on the proper use of motorized carts or screen its customers to determine if they are physically and/or mentally competent to use the carts because Ms. Rieger did not present any evidence that training or screening would have prevented Ms. Rieger’s fall. In particular, the Court noted that Ms. Kurka used motorized carts on a regular basis without causing injury and there were no facts presented at trial that Giant Eagle either knew or should have known that Ms. Kurka was incompetent or that her dementia somehow contributed to the accident.
The Rieger decision is noteworthy because it rejects the notion that retailers have an affirmative duty to warn customers of the dangers inherent in using motorized carts. As with non-motorized carts, the risks of collision are not hidden. Likewise, it is unreasonable to expect retailers to warn cart drivers to refrain from running into other customers or their carts because any sensible customer would understand this reality without having to be instructed.
If you have any questions regarding this decision and the impact it has on Ohio retail and hospitality providers, please contact any member of our Retail, Hospitality and Entertainment Facilities Practice Group.
This has been prepared for informational purposes only. It does not contain legal advice or legal opinion and should not be relied upon for individual situations. Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship between the Reader and Reminger. The information in this document is subject to change and the Reader should not rely on the statements in this document without first consulting legal counsel.
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