Personal Injury Case Arising From Hot Tea and Wobbly Table Dismissed Against Starbucks; Continues Against Barnes & Noble

In Hassan v. Barnes & Noble and Starbucks, plaintiffs sought to recover damages for personal injuries suffered from spilling hot tea in a Barnes & Noble. They alleged that Barnes & Noble was negligent by serving tea in a cup with an unsecured lid, and in allowing the use of an “uneven” and “wobbly” table that caused the liquid to spill and burn the infant plaintiff.

Barnes & Noble

The court explained the legal standard for negligence in the premises context:

Generally, the elements of a negligence claim are the existence of a duty, a breach of that duty, and damages proximately caused by the breach of duty.  Furthermore, under New York common law a landowner has a duty to maintain his or her premises in a reasonably safe condition, taking into account all the circumstances, including the likelihood of injury to others, the seriousness of the injury, and the burden of avoiding the risk. Thus, liability for a dangerous or defective condition on real property is generally predicated on ownership, occupancy, control or special use of the property

Since it was undisputed that ” Barnes & Noble was leasing and operating a business at the subject premise at the time of the injured infant’s accident,” it “had an affirmative duty to maintain the subject premises in a reasonably safe condition and the burden of avoiding the risk of foreseeable injury to the plaintiffs.”

The court cited the well-established law that “where the product has an inherently dangerous attribute, the law imposes liability only when the product’s danger is not reasonably contemplated by the consumer and the product is unreasonably dangerous for its intended use.”  

Barnes & Noble argued that on the date of the accident the tea served to plaintiffs was not unreasonably hot, and that it neither caused and created, nor had actual or constructive notice of, the allegedly defective table.

The court held that Barnes & Noble failed to meet its summary judgment burden as to notice:

On its motion for summary judgment, the defendant is required to make a prima facie showing affirmatively establishing that the defendant neither created nor had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition that caused the plaintiff’s accident. A defendant has constructive notice of a defect when it is visible and apparent, and has existed for a sufficient length of time before the accident that it could have been discovered and corrected.

In order to disprove constructive notice of a defective condition on its premises, a defendant must offer some evidence as to when the area in question was last cleaned or inspected relative to the time of the occurrence. Barnes & Noble offered no evidence as to when the table in question was last cleaned or inspected relative to the time of the plaintiffs accident. It therefore failed to meet its prima facie showing of lack of notice of the dangerous or defective condition.

Starbucks

Starbucks sought dismissal on the basis of “their lack of occupancy, ownership, control or special use of the subject premises.”

The court agreed, citing documents showing that Starbucks owed no duty to plaintiffs:

The lease agreement demonstrates that the Starbucks defendants do not own, occupy or lease the subject premises. The Supply Agreement demonstrates that the Starbucks defendants are vendors who supply some of its products to Barnes & Noble. It also demonstrates that the Starbucks defendants are contractually responsible for the costs of providing a trainer and training booklet for the Starbucks Training Program to advise on the method for serving Starbuck’s products. Further, the O’Neil affidavit avers from personal knowledge that the trainers supplied by the Starbucks defendants do not conduct their training at the Barnes & Noble cafes. Doheney’s deposition testimony avers, among other things, that Barnes & Noble does not serve or carry any teas from the Starbucks defendants.

In sum, the defendants have submitted evidence in admissible form establishing the following facts: the Starbucks defendants do not own, occupy or control the subject premise; they have no supervisory control over the manner or method that Barnes & Noble employees serve their tea products; they do not supply and have no supervisory control over the purchase or maintenance of the tables and other furniture used in the subject premise; they conduct limited training of Barnes & Noble employees on the manner of serving the Starbucks defendants’ products and that training was not conducted on the subject premises; Barnes & Noble does offers some products obtained from the Starbucks defendants and does post signs containing the Starbucks logo. However, those products do not include tea.

On these facts the court concluded that “defendants have made a prima facie showing that the Starbucks defendants are not liable in negligence because they owe no duty to the plaintiffs.”  In opposition, plaintiffs failed to raise a triable issue of fact.

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