Indiana Supreme Court Finds Menards Not Liable as a Matter of Law for Injuries Caused as a Result of Sink Falling on Shopper

In Griffin v. Menard, Inc., Walter Griffin and his wife (the “Griffins”) were shopping for a sink at Menards. When they found a sink they liked, Walter reached for the sink box on the shelf and when he did, the bottom of the box opened and the sink fell on him, resulting in injuries. The Griffins sued Menards for premises liability and loss of consortium. Menards filed a motion for summary judgment arguing it had no actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition of the sink box and therefore was not liable as a matter of law. The trial court granted summary judgment for Menards, and the Griffins appealed. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, finding Menards had failed to show no genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether Menards had actual or constructive knowledge and whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applied.

Indiana law provides that landowners owe the highest duty of care to invitees to exercise reasonable care for their protection while they are on a landowner’s premises. However, landowners are only liable to invitees if they know or should know of an unreasonably dangerous condition, should expect that invitees will not discover the danger or will fail to protect themselves against it, and fail to exercise reasonable care to protect invitees against the danger. Landowners are not insurers of their invitee’s safety. Landowners must have actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition causing injury. Indiana law deems landowners to have constructive knowledge of dangerous conditions on their premises when those conditions have existed for a sufficient period of time that they would have been discovered in the exercise of ordinary care.

Res ispa loquitur means “the thing speaks for itself” and is a rule of evidence allowing an inference of negligence based upon the unusual circumstances of an injury. The main question as to application of the doctrine is whether the injury probably resulted from a defendant’s negligence as opposed to another cause. To obtain an inference of negligence under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, a plaintiff must show (1) the injuring instrumentality was within the exclusive management and control of the defendant, and (2) the incident would not have occurred unless those having exclusive management and control failed to exercise reasonable care.

Here, Walter did not see the loose box staples as he was removing the box from the shelf. Menards presented evidence that Menards had no prior notice of any problem or defect with the sink box, Menards was not aware of any defective boxes received from the manufacturer, and Menards did not make any changes to the sink box after receiving it from the manufacturer. Walter put forth evidence that Menards did not document its compliance with its own policies and procedures as to inspecting and front-facing the box, and it was unclear when the box had last been inspected. There was no video surveillance or evidence as to the shelving of the box or when it occurred.

Based upon these facts, the Indiana Supreme Court found there was no evidence Menards had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition of the sink box. The Court reasoned that even if Menards had inspected and front-faced the sink box according to its policies, the defect was not readily apparent until the box was fully removed from the shelf, and there was no evidence that the defect was such that it would have been discovered while front-facing the box. Therefore, the Court found that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Menards had actual or constructive knowledge of the defect. As to the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, the Court reasoned application of the doctrine is dependent on whether a defendant can be liable under premise liability in the first place, and in any case, the Griffins did not establish that the box was under the exclusive management and control of Menards when the injuring instrumentality, that is, the sink box, was also accessible to customers. As such the Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Justice Goff concurred in part and dissented in part in a separate opinion. He agreed with the Court’s conclusion as to the application of res ipsa loquitur, but he disagreed with the Court on whether the Griffins satisfied their burden establishing a genuine issue of material fact on their premise liability claim. He believed the Court erroneously applied Indiana’s summary judgment standard. While federal practice allows movants to point to the absence of evidence as to an element of a claim, Indiana practice requires a movant to affirmatively negate a plaintiff’s claim. He believed the question of whether the Menards employees inspected the sink box and the unknown time the defective sink box had been on the shelf led to a reasonable inference that Menards had constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition of the sink box.

You can read the full opinion here.

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