Fourth Circuit Finds Jury Can Speculate About Negligent Cleaning

If you practice law long enough, you will find that theories of negligence have no bounds. Regardless of how cautious one may be, a clever lawyer can always argue that a person breached some duty of care. For example, in Adams v. Kroger Ltd. Partnership, No. 12-1499 (4th Cir. June 12, 2013), the Fourth Circuit held that a company can be held liable for negligent cleaning. Yes, negligent cleaning. The facts of the case are as follows: A sales representative for a wine vendor dropped a bottle while he was stocking the shelves at a Kroger store in Virginia. Following the accident, the sales rep blocked off one side of the spill, swept and mopped the area, and put up a warning cone. Thereafter, the plaintiff entered the area, slipped ,and fell. The plaintiff injured the retina in her left eye, leaving her legally blind. As a result, the plaintiff filed suit against Kroger and the wine distributor, seeking $1 million in damages.

At trial, the district court granted the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law. The district court, finding that there was no evidence from which a jury could find the defendants breached a duty of care, stated:

When [the sales representative] accidentally dropped the bottle, he secured the area with boxes. He swept up the broken glass, obtained a mop and bucket and mopped the floor. Afterwards, he put a yellow caution cone in the area. All of these beg the question: what else was [the sales rep] supposed to do given what he had done? There is no evidence in the record, expert or otherwise, that establishes that [the sales rep] breached his duty of care.

The Fourth Circuit took it as a challenge. According to the Court, there was evidence that the sales representative used a hand-sanitizer-like product to clean the floor and, thus, the jury could find that act to be unreasonable. Likewise, the Court noted that the jury could have also found that it was unreasonable that the sales rep didn’t dry the floor. As such, the Court vacated the judgment and remanded the case. It will be interesting to see what the jury will do when given the opportunity to ponder the evidence in this matter. We don’t disagree with the Fourth Circuit that cleaning could be performed negligently. If the sales rep had dropped a pallet of wine and “cleaned” the spill by dropping a single paper towel into the area, then, sure, find him negligent. But, this is not the case. Here, the Court vacated the judgment, not based on the evidence of what the sales rep did, but on speculation about what he could have done. A jury could always think of something extra the sales rep could have done. For example, the jury could determine the sales rep should have re-tiled the floor to make sure no remnants of wine remained. But, no one would find him negligent for not doing so.

Even the wildest theories should be based on the evidence. In this case, the evidence showed that the sales rep took appropriate steps to clean the floor. There was no evidence that she fell because of the product used to clean the floor. The jury is to consider the evidence – not every wild theory based on what it is not.

[Hat Tip: Libation Law Blog]

Lawyer Advertising Rules Update

Late last month, the South Carolina Supreme Court amended its Rules of Professional Conduct to address several lingering issues related to lawyer advertising. The amended Rules are meant to be consistent with the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct.  You can read them here. The amendments delete the previous ban on testimonials, eliminate a mandatory solicitation filing requirement and fee, and add requirements for electronic solicitations.

Specifically, advertisements for legal services can now include testimonials IF the ad specifically identifies that the statement is a testimonial, discloses whether or not it was paid for by the lawyer or law firm, and if it was made by an actual client.  Most importantly,  the ad must “clearly and conspicuously” state that the any result achieved in one case “does not necessarily indicate similar results” in another.   Sounds like a really long commercial.  Right?

For a full summary of the new rules, check out blogger Greg Forman’s recent post on the subject here.  He does a great job of laying it out for us.

In the meantime, here is a brief update on what is happening in other states on similar issues:

Florida -  On May 27, 2011, the Florida Bar proposed new rules for attorney advertising which would also allow for the use of some testimonials. See here.

Virginia – Virginia State Bar’s Standing Committee on Legal Ethics has issued proposed amendments to their Rules of Professional Conduct and seeks comments by September 14, 2011.  That’s next week! For a summary of those changes, click here.

Michigan – On July 19, 2011, the Michigan Supreme Court rescinded its previous order that amended that state’s Rules of Professional Conduct and proffered these new amendments. They also provide for a comment period which ends November 1, 2011.

Here’s the deal: the rules have not changed THAT much.  Things have just been clarified a little and updated to include web advertisements and electronic communication.  The same rules of thumb still hold true.  If a statement is a lie, or even stretching the truth, you probably shouldn’t put it in an advertisement pushing your legal services.  You also shouldn’t make any promises or guarantees.  Oh, and keep it classy.  Like this.

 

Botox Maker Hit with $200 Million Punitives Award, But Award Subject to State’s Cap

A federal court jury in Richmond, Virginia, recently ordered drugmaker Allergan, Inc. to pay a staggering $212 million to a 67-year old man who said he suffered brain damage as a result of receiving Botox injections to treat cramps and tremors in his hand in 2007. Ray v. Allergan, Inc., 3:10-cv-00136 (E.D. Va. April 28, 2011). The plaintiff reportedly alleged in his suit that Allergan failed to warn him that Botox injections could trigger an autoimmune reaction that could cause brain damage. He alleged that the injections caused severe medical complications which resulted in total disability and $643,800 in medical costs. He reportedly alleged in his complaint that the drug left him “frequently confused or disoriented,” and that Allergan did not sufficiently warn doctors or patients of the possibility over fear of losing sales.

Bloomberg.com reports that the jury’s award includes $12 million in compensatory damages, and an additional $200 million in punitive damages. Botox is Allergan’s top-selling drug, accounting for $1.42 billion in sales last year alone, which was 29 percent of the drugmaker’s revenue. Perhaps the jury thought that such huge numbers in revenue justified a huge punitive award. Interestingly, however, by Virginia statute, the punitive damages award will be capped at $350,000. The statute further provides that although the jury is not to be made aware of the cap, the trial court is to reduce the award in accordance with that law. Allergan’s spokeswoman has said the company has not yet decided whether to appeal the verdict, but if it does, attorneys for the plaintiff plan to “attack the constitutionality of the cap.”

This is not the first big award handed down against drugmaker Allergan. Last May, we reported here on a $15 million verdict in favor of an Oklahoma doctor who similarly alleged she suffered injury from Botox as a result of the maker’s failure to provide sufficient information regarding possible side effects. In that instance, Allergan vowed to appeal the verdict. It remains to be seen whether in this instance Allergan will take the benefit of Virginia’s punitive damages cap and pay, or whether it plans to similarly appeal the most recent verdict.

Lawn Care Can Be Dangerous

At least it was for one Virgina man, Robert Mavity (“Mavity”), who was injured when his riding lawn mower overturned and landed on top of him while he was mowing his lawn on an incline. Mavity v. MTD Products, Inc., No. 1:09 CV 00027, 2010 WL 2169633 (W.D. Va. Jun. 1, 2010). As a result of the accident, Mavity claimed limited mobility due to weakness and neurological problems. Therefore, Mavity filed an action against the manufacturer, MTD Products, Inc. (“MTD”), asserting the that lawn mower was defectively designed, MTD failed to warn of the mower’s dangerous condition, and that MTD breached the implied warranty of merchantability and fitness.

MTD moved for summary judgment on the grounds that there was no evidence that the mower was defective, Mavity unforeseeably misused the product, the hazard was open and obvious, and there was no failure to warn that made the product unreasonably dangerous.

The District Court denied MTD’s motion, first finding that whether the product was defective and whether MTD failed to warn of this dangerous condition were jury issues because Mavity’s expert witness’ opinion — that the mower should have had control level dampers and that these dampers were commonly on mowers — was sufficient to show an unreasonably dangerous condition. The Court also found Mavity’s alleged misuse was a jury question because his expert opined that none of the changes he made to the mower had any effect on the accident. Additionally, the Court found that the question is not whether the defect was open and obvious, but whether the hazard was open and obvious, and Mavity was not aware of the characteristics of the mower that made it more hazardous to accelerate up a slope.

Rulings against MTD kept on coming. Judge Jones granted Mavity’s motion to prevent MTD from offering evidence of the alleged intervening negligence of the doctors that treated Mavity after the accident. The Court reasoned that “the initial medical treatment of Mavity was a reasonably foreseeable result of the initial accident [and any] third-party negligence is thus irrelevant to Mavity’s claim against MTD and must be excluded from the jury.” The Court also rejected MTD’s motion to exclude approximately 500 documents listed as “sources” by Mavity’s expert in evaluating whether the mower was defectively designed. While the Court found that these documents were of limited value, it provided that the parties could challenge trial exhibits at a later time.

Not all was lost for MTD, Judge Jones did rule in its favor on one motion. The Court agreed with MTD and barred Mavity’s expert from offering his future medical cost projections, including a preliminary life care plan, in the absence of proper qualifications of his expert to provide this type of opinion.

With seemingly credible expert testimony on design defect and failure to warn, Mavity was able to get past MTD’s motion for summary judgment and have a jury of his peers decide his case. This case is instructive to defendants that seek summary judgment in the face of expert evidence to the contrary.

What Does Society Demand from a Chicken Sandwich?

In my recollection of first-year Torts, I remember no case in which a chicken sandwich was a dangerous instrumentality. But the law evolves. It changes. The chicken sandwich is not immune to the whims and caprices of history, nor shall it remain untouched by shifts in the jurisprudential landscape. The time of the chicken sandwich is upon us. In Sutton v. Roth, L.L.C., No. 08-1914, 2010 WL 235143 (4th Cir. Jan. 21, 2010) [PDF], a divided panel reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on injuries sustained when a consumer ate a freshly-cooked chicken sandwich. We very briefly noted this opinion in an earlier post, but we did not fully explore the seismic shift in the law that this case affords for the chicken sandwich.

It was August of 2005 when Mr. Sutton’s brush with history occurred. His problems began when he thought it would be a good idea to eat at a Duffield, Virginia gas station at 1:30 a.m. (If that’s not assumption of risk, what is?). Sutton and three others (or the “entourage” as suggested by the Court) noticed the fabled golden arches (a McDonald’s attached to the truck stop) and thereupon entered the “restaurant/convenience store.” Initially, it appeared that the McDonald’s franchise was closed. Not to be deterred, Mr. Sutton scoured the lot and found the McDonald’s employees assembled outside. Surely because the McRib was not in season, Sutton ordered a fried chicken sandwich. If only the McRib had been available; what a cruel mistress is history for denying him the McRib that fateful evening. However, Mr. Sutton, or perhaps the fates themselves on his behalf, chose a chicken sandwich. It was to be his undoing.

When Sutton bit into his sandwich, he immediately regretted his decision, for untold “grease flew all over [his] mouth.” Grease coated his lips and chin, and blisters formed immediately. Mr. Sutton found the McDonald’s employees (who were once again outside, doing whatever restaurant employees do outside their place of employment in the wee hours of the night). One of them attempted to defuse this tense customer relations moment with the following statement: “This is what happens to the sandwiches when they aren’t drained completely.” Id. Momentarily satisfied, Sutton and his “entourage” left the station, “[a]fter they finished eating.” Id. Within the next two days, Sutton realized that his injuries were more serious than he thought and sought out a doctor. Months later, Sutton saw a second doctor who treated him with lip balm. He then filed suit and demanded $2 million in his complaint. (One suspects that some associate somewhere had the unenviable task of drafting a memorandum as to whether properly draining later chicken sandwiches constituted inadmissible subsequent remedial measures.).

The district court granted summary judgment for McDonald’s and judgment as a matter of law to the franchisee. Really, the main issue of the ensuing appeal was the district court’s exclusion of the employee’s statement. The Fourth Circuit reversed the exclusion finding abuse of discretion, and ruled that the statement was admissible as a statement by a party-opponent under Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2)(D). After all, the declarant was wearing a McDonald’s uniform, with other sufficient indicia of agency to bind the employer. Moreover, the appellate court found that the exclusion of the statement was harmful error because it evinced a standard of care. The panel also rejected the district court’s sua sponte act of finding Sutton contributorily negligent for “biting into the hot sandwich.” I would tend to agree with the district court, looking to the surrounding circumstances of voluntarily eating an early morning meal at a gas station as assumption of a known risk. However, the panel reversed the grant of summary judgment and ordered additional discovery.

On a jurisprudential note, it’s interesting how injuries from hot food or drink have entered the realm of compensable injury. Society has apparently come to accept the Goldilocks theory of liability, where all food must be served at the precisely “right” temperature. The hot coffee cases used to be laughable, but not anymore. The next time you find yourself at a restaurant or convenience store well past the witching hour, consider any claims you may have under negligence and the warranty of merchantability. Rest assured, whatever their merits, you may be entitled to a trial. Above all else, though, ensure that your chicken is properly drained.