Justices: Menards not at fault for customer’s injury caused by defective box

A home improvement retailer wasn’t at fault when a sink fell out of a defective box and injured a customer inside one if its stores, the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled.

In 2015, Candus Griffin and Walter Griffin Jr. were shopping inside a Menards in Elkhart for a new sink.

When the Griffins found one they liked, Walter grabbed a box from the shelf. While lifting the sink, the bottom of the box opened and the product fell on Walter, causing injuries.

The Griffins sued Menards for damages, alleging premises liability and loss of consortium. Menards brought in the manufacturer of the sink, Briggs Plumbing Products LLC, as a third party.

Menards filed a motion for summary judgment alleging it had no actual or constructive knowledge of any issues with the box, but the Griffins contended there was an issue of material fact regarding Menards’ knowledge and made a res ipsa loquitur claim.

 The Elkhart Superior Court entered summary judgment for the store, but the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded, finding there were issues of material fact precluding summary judgment on the knowledge as well as the res ipsa issues.

In the Tuesday opinion written by Justice Steven David, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

The justices pointed to Burrell v. Meads, 569 N.E.2d 637 (Ind. 1991), in the failure of the Griffins to prove Menards had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition of the defective box.

“The Court of Appeals held that there was an issue of material fact here and we disagree,” David wrote. “Menard set forth evidence, through the affidavit of its store manager and Walter’s deposition testimony, that there was an absence of genuine material fact as to its actual or constructive knowledge that the box was defective. The burden then shifted to Plaintiffs to come forward with evidence that creates an issue of material fact.

“… Although Plaintiffs designated evidence that Menard had no records of when it last inspected the boxes or how long the box was on the shelf, and Plaintiffs are critical of the same, this doesn’t create an issue of material fact with regard to Menard’s actual or constructive knowledge,” David continued.  “… Indeed, Plaintiffs do not argue that Menard had any duty to have certain policies, conduct certain inspections, or keep records of the same. We decline to impose such duties. We also reject any implication that a premises owner may avoid an inference of constructive notice by failing to enact or follow safety policies.”

In addition, the justices wrote Walter revealed he didn’t see any dangerous condition with the box when he inspected it before picking it up.

The justices also dismissed the res ipsa loquitur claim.

“… (D)etermining the res ipsa issue is necessarily dependent on whether a defendant can be liable under premises liability in the first place,” David wrote. “Thus, Plaintiff’s res ipsa claim alone does not preclude summary judgment for Menard.

“Additionally, even assuming res ipsa applies here, the doctrine requires that the injuring instrumentality was within the exclusive management and control of the defendant. That just isn’t the case here because customers had access to the sink box.”

However, the Supreme Court didn’t reject that res ipsa could apply to a premises-liability case in the future.

“If an injury results from a fixture or other component that customers did not or could not disturb — such as a chandelier suspended from the ceiling, or a set of shelves bolted to the wall — and the incident would not normally occur absent negligence, res ipsa could be appropriate,” the justices opined.

 Chief Justice Loretta Rush and justices Mark Massa and Geoffrey Slaughter all concurred while Justice Christopher Goff dissented with a separate opinion.

In Goff’s six-page dissent, he wrote that while he takes no issue with concluding res ipsa doesn’t apply to the case, he disagreed with the court in its decision that the Grifins failed to meet their burden on their premises-liability claim.

“Contrary to this conclusion, the record here, in my view, sufficiently presents a genuine issue of material fact of whether Menard had constructive knowledge of the faulty box for liability to attach,” Goff wrote. “And even if the Griffins appear unlikely to prevail at trial, that’s a question for the jury — not for this Court — to decide.

“… Because the trial court, in my view, improperly granted summary judgment and deprived the Griffins of their constitutional right to a jury trial, I would reverse and remand for reconsideration of their premises-liability claim,” the dissent concluded.

The case is Walter Griffin, Jr. and Candus Griffin v. Menard Inc. and Briggs Plumbing Products, LLC, 21S-CT-119.

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