Res Ipsa Loquitur and Summary Judgment; Griffin v. Menard, Inc.

Lawyers have long sought to take the Latin out of the legal lexicon. But there are still a few holdouts, such as the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. This case addresses the burden a defendant must meet in order to get summary judgment when that doctrine is at issue.

The Griffins were shopping at Menard one day for a new bathroom vanity sink. Once they found one they liked, Walter reached up to pull the box off the shelf. Walter did not notice that the staples on the bottom of the box were loose, and the bottom of the box opened when he pulled it off the shelf. The sink fell on Walter and injured him.

The Griffins sued Menard, who then filed a third-party complaint against Briggs Plumbing, who manufactured and boxed the sink. Menard moved for summary judgment, introducing testimony from Bahr, its store manager, that (1) it had a policy not to place items on shelves if there was a problem with the box and (2) no one had brought the problem to its attention. The Griffins argued both that Menard had constructive notice (thereby creating a duty) and the doctrine of res ispa loquitur. The trial court granted Menard’s motion, and the Griffins appealed.

The first issue on appeal was whether Menard had negated the duty element of the Griffins’ negligence claim—namely, whether Menard knew that the defectively packaged sink was on its shelf. And the Court found the evidence on that issue conflicting.

Some evidence shows that “[i]t is the policy and practice of Menards that if there is any problem with the box or packaging of any item, they are not to be placed upon the shelves for sale.” But this is contradicted by Bahr’s testimony that Menard does not have a formal policy requiring that employees read the policies. As such, he admitted that Menard employees do not always follow proper procedures. Furthermore, Menard failed to designate evidence showing that this particular box had been inspected. Moreover, in response to the Griffins’ interrogatories, Menard indicated that it had no knowledge regarding when the sink at issue had been received or how long it had been on the shelf. The only designated evidence of investigative measures taken by Menard was that its employees are supposed to inspect all inventory in an entire area every eight days. According to Bahr, he could not verify if, or when, the section where the sink fell on Walter had last been inspected.

Given this evidence, there was a genuine issue regarding whether Menard knew of this issue, and the trial court should not have granted summary judgment on this basis.
The Court then moved onto the res ipsa loquitur argument. Menard argued that res ipsa did not apply in this situation because the Griffins could not prove that Menard was in exclusive control of the defective box at the time of the incident. But again, the Court found a genuine issue of fact on this question.

As the moving party, Menard had the burden to negate the control element. The designated evidence demonstrates that Menard had the management and control of its premises. Moreover, Menard also had the power to control the stocking of the shelves, and the inspection and removal of defective products. These details leave open an issue of material fact as to the element of exclusive control.

Thus, the Court reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded for further proceedings.

It will be interesting to see this case applied to other premises liability cases in the future. The facts the Court relied upon to find a genuine issue of the res ispa loquitur doctrine are the type of facts that may be present in lots of commercial businesses, and this may prevent fewer cases from being resolved via summary judgment.

Lessons:
1. A defendant moving for summary judgment has the burden to negate an element of plaintiff’s claim by establishing that no genuine issues of material fact exist regarding the element.
2. Under res ipsa loquitur, negligence may be inferred where:
o the injuring instrumentality is shown to be under the management or exclusive control of the defendant or his servants; and
o the accident is such that in the ordinary course of things does not happen if those who have management of the injuring instrumentality use proper care.

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