Case of local Giant Eagle customer injured in scooter accident heads to Ohio Supreme Court
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The Ohio Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it will hear grocery store chain Giant Eagle’s appeal in a case where a Cuyahoga County jury awarded $1.3 million to a customer struck by a motorized scooter.
The court accepted the Pittsburgh-based grocer’s challenge to a lower court’s ruling finding the company was negligent in its response to more than 100 scooter-related accidents at its stores in the years before Barbara Rieger was injured at the company’s Brook Park store in 2012.
The case could have major implications for retailers that let disabled, injured and elderly customers use the scooters to move around the stores, according to a friend-of-the-court brief filed by several industry groups representing retail and grocery store agencies.
The 8th District Court of Appeals earlier this year upheld the jury’s finding and in doing so created a “new legal standard” that would hold defendants in tort lawsuits responsible for injuries in even the most improbable of circumstances, the store argued in its appeal of the case.
“The Eighth District has created a new standard for malice that makes the mere possibility of harm from the underlying tortious conduct – no matter how improbable – sufficient for an award of punitive damages,” Giant Eagle lawyers argued in court filings.
The Food Marketing Institute, The Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, The Ohio Grocer’s Association, The Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice and The National Grocers Association all signed on to a brief in support of Giant Eagle’s argument.
“When faced with these new realities, Ohio retail stores will have no choice but to reconsider their decision to provide motorized shopping carts to people with disabilities,” the brief said.
Lawyers who represented Rieger, John Wargo and Thomas Wilson, called Giant Eagle’s arguments “dramatizations” that are “nothing more than a smoke screen which Giant Eagle hopes will distract this Court from Giant Eagle’s own failures at trial.”
Rieger was pushing her shopping cart around the company’s Brooklyn store in December 2012 when Ruth Kutka lost control of a motorized cart and struck Rieger’s cart. The impact knocked the cart into Rieger, who had her back turned, and knocked Rieger several feet into a shelf.
Rieger suffered a cut and some bumps and bruises. Her lawyers filed a lawsuit in 2014, accusing Giant Eagle of creating the risk by letting customers drive motorized carts without adequate supervision or training.
A jury awarded Rieger $121,000 in actual damages, and more than $1.1 million in punitive damages after her lawyers presented evidence that there had been 119 incidents involving motorized carts at Giant Eagle stores across the country in the decade before her incident.
The company therefore knew the scooters could be dangerous but did nothing to ensure its customers were not injured, Rieger’s lawyers argued.
Giant Eagle appealed to the 8th District Court of Appeals, which upheld the jury’s findings that the company was liable for Rieger’s injuries. The appeals court reduced the punitive damages to just over $240,000, citing an Ohio law that caps punitive damages in most tort claims to twice the amount of actual damages.
The company appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the 8th District Court of Appeals relied upon too lax of legal standards to find it acted with malice and committed negligence.
The company’s lawyers claim that only a handful of the scooter accidents cited at trial resulted in injuries. They also say that 119 incidents spread out over 10 years and thousands of stores means that its customers would be more likely to win the lottery or be bitten by a shark than to be injured by a scooter.
The company noted a 2002 decision involving Walmart where a court rejected negligence claims by a customer hurt on a scooter.