According to various news reports, several (as many as eight) people were injured yesterday when shelving at a Bronx Dollar Store collapsed in a “thunderous roar”, causing objects (including cans and dishes) to fall. As this just happened and details are still emerging, it is far too early to determine whether, and to what extent, the store will be liable for damages.
If litigation is commenced, however, the tort law doctrine of “res ipsa loquitur” may come into play. Res ipsa loquitur – which is Latin for “the thing itself speaks” – permits a jury to infer negligence, based on circumstantial evidence, simply from the fact that an event happened.
In the relatively recent case of Pannell v. Target Corp., which likewise arose from injuries sustained from falling objects in a retail store, the court applied the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to deny summary judgment to defendant Target. In that case,
Tracy Pannell took her daughter, Epiphany Pannell, shopping at the Target store located at 40 West 225th Street in the Bronx, New York. As Plaintiff and her mother were walking down an aisle in the furniture section, they paused to examine a shelf of children’s furniture. The shelf was approximately five feet high, and supported six boxes containing bookcases that weighed approximately forty five pounds each. A few minutes after they entered the aisle, without warning, boxes from the shelf fell and struck Epiphany on the head.
The court explained the legal standard for res ipsa loquitur:
A plaintiff to whom a duty of care is owed may rely on the doctrine to establish a prima facie case without proving each of the elements of a traditional negligence claim. In New York, a res ipsa inference requires three elements: (1) the event was of a kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence; (2) it was caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant; and (3) it was not due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff.
The first and third elements were not at issue. Rather, Target argued that it did not have “exclusive control” over the injury-causing instrument. The court disagreed, reasoning that such “argument would permit Target to insulate itself from its responsibilities as a shop keeper and transfer responsibilities to unknown third parties.”
It also rejected Target’s argument that the element of causation was lacking, because plaintiff could not explain exactly what happened to her:
Target claims that Plaintiff cannot prove “what caused what to happen first”: the collapse of the shelf or the tumbling of the boxes. Why a five year old child and her mother need explain this chicken and egg situation is unexplained. They know only that while walking down the aisle in a Target store, Epiphany was hit by boxes which fell from a shelf. This is precisely why we have res ipsa—to address situations in which plaintiffs cannot explain the exact cause of the accident, but the circumstances are such that the defendant’s negligence can be inferred. …
Target’s liability does not depend on Plaintiff’s ability to detail the mechanics of a shelf which she likely knows nothing about. Target had the responsibility for checking the stability of shelves that were located in its store, not Plaintiff, who was a customer and business invitee. Surely, as between Plaintiff and Target, Target has a greater capacity … to explain what actually happened. Tracy Pannell testified that after the accident, she observed “the bracket out of the hole and wobbling” and an employee who responded to the accident replaced the loose bracket. Ordinary experience would suggest that the boxes fell when an unsecured shelf gave way. To the extent that Target posits an alternative theory that insulates it from liability, it may proffer facts and make its case for a different inference before a jury. (Emphasis added.)
While this decision does not resolve the ultimate issue of liability – it merely determined that there exist issues of fact to be resolved at trial – it is nonetheless instructive as to how similar issues may be addressed in connection with any litigation arising from the Dollar Store collapse.