Court: Empty Dolly May Create Unsafe Condition When Left Unattended in Store Aisle

In Russo v Home Goods, Inc. the defendant Home Goods, Inc. was accused of creating a tripping hazard by leaving an empty dolly, otherwise known as a “pallet jack” in the aisle of its store. The Appellate Division, Second Department reversed the Supreme Court’s finding of summary judgment for the defendant, ruling that a triable issue of fact existed as to whether the defendants had created the unsafe condition.

aisle.jpgDorothy Russo, the plaintiff, was shopping in one of the defendant’s Home Goods, Inc. stores when she tripped over the pallet jack. The pallet jack had a shelf on top of it so it could be used to move furniture and other goods around the store. Russo was looking up at lamps on a high shelf when she entered the aisle containing the pallet jack. Several steps into the aisle she tripped over the pallet jack and landed face down on top of it. She testified at her deposition that while she did not know the exact height of the pallet jack it was bellow her knees and close to the ground.

Storeowners have a duty to their customers to maintain their stores in a reasonably safe condition for the benefit of their customers. In order to be entitled to summary judgment the moving party must prove that there are no issues of fact that need to be decided by the jury. When deciding to grant summary judgment, the court must look at the evidence in the light that is most favorable to the non-moving party. In this case the court was required to look at the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as Home Goods, Inc., the defendant, was moving for summary judgment. The Supreme Court found that because the pallet jack was an open and obvious condition, and not inherently dangerous. Due to this, no triable issue of fact existed to be decided by the jury.

However, the Appellate Court reversed the Supreme Court’s ruling because they found that there was an issue as to whether leaving the pallet jack in an aisle where it could easily be tripped over was inherently dangerous. An issue existed as to whether the store had been maintained in a reasonably safe condition. In making this determination, the Court considered that the store had a policy of not leaving pallet jacks unattended in the aisles because of safety concerns. Employees of Home Goods, Inc. had been instructed not to leave pallet jacks unattended and to immediately return them to the storeroom after they had been used. The defendants’ manager admitted that the pallet jacks were off limits to customers and that employees had been instructed to keep them in the storeroom specifically because they were a known tripping hazard. The court found when looking to the totality of the circumstances, including the fact that the pallet jack was empty and lay close to the ground, that a jury could find that leaving the pallet jack unattended at the entrance to an aisle could be considered an unsafe condition.

The Court went on to say that just because the dangerous condition created by the pallet jack was open and notorious does not mean that an unsafe condition was not created. The fact that the pallet jack was in plain site in the aisle of the store may mean that the store’s financial liability is reduced, but it does not eliminate the store’s responsibility to create a reasonably safe environment for shoppers. The Court underlines the fact that the determination of what is a reasonably safe condition is fact specific and cannot be divorced from the circumstances of the event and the specific facts of the case.

Therefore, because the Court found that there was an issue of fact to be decided by the jury, it reversed the summary judgment ruling of the lower court.

Russo v Home Goods, Inc., 2014 NY Slip Op 05529

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