Case of the Day – Tuesday, February 13, 2018

TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL

This is hardly a law school final exam question: Two parents and a couple of hellion spawn walk into a Starbucks. The kids promptly begin running amok, using the furniture and fixtures like a jungle gym. Specifically, the whelps begin swinging from ropes and climbing stanchions used to mark off the line for coffee. After taking plenty of abuse from the ankle-biters, one of the stanchions falls, injuring one of the kids.

Quick: Who’s liable?

If you said Starbucks, we congratulate you, because you have a wonderful future ahead of you as a plaintiff’s attorney. If you said the parents should be responsible for their offspring’s monkeyshines, you have a future, too… as a judge.

The Roh family, a father and mother, and 3- and 5-year old boys, visited a newly-opened Chicago Starbucks. This one had some fancy line dividers (as the line-divider industry likes to call them), created from some recycled 19th-century ironwork. The dividers were mounted on concrete plugs to prevent tipping.

You’ve probably seen parents like these two, maybe focused on their smartphones, maybe lost in conversation, maybe just tuned out… the kids run wild, and their folks remain oblivious. But when the inevitable disaster befalls, it becomes anyone’s fault except the kid’s. Or the parents’…

But contrary to breathless Internet stories and hand-wringing commentators, America remains a land of individual responsibility. To be sure, a landowner who invites kids onto the premises is liable for dangerous conditions where the risk to the child is reasonably foreseeable. But while this rule applies where a kid is on his or her own. But where the child is with a parent, the landowner may be relieved of his or her duty to the child because parents are primarily responsible for their child’s safety, because it is their “duty… to see that his behavior does not involve danger to himself.”

What a refreshing concept! Parents are responsible for their kids…

Roh v. Starbucks Corporation, Case No. 16-4033 (7th Cir., February 2, 2018): The Roh family was visiting a recently-opened Starbucks store in downtown Chicago, two parents with sons Marcus, age three, and Alexander, age five. The store had custom metal stanchions for placement within the store to direct the flow of customer traffic, salvaged posts made of 1800’s-era iron fences or stair posts. The stanchions were freestanding, but mounted on heavy concrete bases and connected with ropes to control shopper traffic.

As the family was leaving, the parents heard their son Marcus begin crying. The father, who had heard a loud noise immediately preceding Marcus’s cries, saw that one of the stanchions had been knocked to the ground, striking the boy and pinning his hand. Marcus lost his left middle finger and seriously injured his index finger.

Neither parent witnessed what had happened, but the boys admitted to swinging on the ropes, running around the dividers, and climbing the stanchions.

Naturally, the Rohs sued Starbucks, claiming it was negligent by failing to safely maintain the premises, to adequately secure the stanchion, to properly inspect it to ensure its stability, to warn patrons of the potential danger posed by the stanchion, or to realize that minor patrons would not appreciate the risk posed by the unsecured stanchion. The district court granted summary judgment for Starbucks, holding that the boy’s parents, not Starbucks, bore the responsibility to protect Marcus from the obvious danger posed by playing on the unsecured stanchions.

The Rohs appealed.

Held: The Rohs collect nothing, because any duty owed Marcus by Starbucks was abrogated by his parents’ presence with him in the store that day.

Whether a duty exists in a given case turns on the foreseeability and likelihood of the injury, the difficulty of guarding against it, and the consequences of laying the burden to guard against the danger on the defendant.

Generally, landowners or occupiers in Illinois owe no greater duty to small children than the duty owed to adults. In premises-liability cases involving injury to a child, “the true basis of liability [is] the foreseeability of harm to the child.” The Court said that a child’s injury will be deemed foreseeable to the landowner if (1) the owner or occupier knows or should know that children habitually frequent the property; (2) a defective structure or dangerous condition is present on the property; (3) the defective structure or dangerous condition is likely to injure children because they are incapable, due to their age and immaturity, of appreciating the risk involved; and (4) the expense and inconvenience of remedying the defective structure or dangerous condition is slight when compared to the risk to children.

Things change, however, when the child is accompanied by his or her parents. This is because “the responsibility for a child’s safety lies primarily with its parents, whose duty it is to see that his behavior does not involve danger to himself.” A landowner’s duty to a child is abrogated if “the child was injured due to an obvious danger while under the supervision of his or her parent, ‘or when the parents knew of the existence of the dangerous condition that caused the child’s injury’.”

Both parents admitted they saw the heavy stanchions. The Court stated the obvious, that “it is a matter of common sense that serious injury could result from climbing on the stanchions and swinging from the ropes connecting them together.” Maybe the parents did not foresee that Marcus would get his finger crushed, but they don’t have to foresee the particular injury. It is enough that the Rohs saw the stanchions, which were plainly very heavy. Any parent could foresee that a child hanging from the rope connecting the stanchions or otherwise playing on and around them could be injured, the Court said, and that is “sufficient to support the conclusion that Starbucks did not breach any duty to Marcus, who was engaged in an activity while under his parents’ supervision that could obviously lead to injury of some kind.”

What the Court was saying was they should have known better. “It was plainly evident to the Rohs that the heavy stanchions were intended to control traffic flow in the store; their failure to prevent their sons from climbing and playing on them led to Marcus’s injury, not the breach of any duty on Starbucks’ part.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

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