July 10, 2008

The Shocking Loss Of A Gritty Banana Peel

Chris Slottee, my esteemed colleague here at Atkinson, Conway & Gagnon, has already reported on the Alaska Supreme Court’s recent decision in Edenshaw v. Safeway, Inc. Chris’ blog post calmly notes that the decision may impose greater liability on property owners than was previously the case. I think that Chris has vastly understated the significance of the decision. This new decision totally knocks out one of the bulwarks of established tort law. I mean, what the heck happened to the Gritty Banana Peel Doctrine?

When I was in law school (back in the far, far recesses of the last century), they taught us fledgling lawyers that negligence was not the equivalent of strict liability. To be negligent and liable for someone’s injuries, you had to do something wrong. More specifically, you had fail to act in the manner that a reasonable person would have acted. Negligence law, good old Professor Dente said, accounted for the fact that BAD STUFF HAPPENS. Sometimes, its nobody’s fault and the plaintiff just has to take it in the shorts. (I'm paraphrasing the professor's comments here.)

falling_man.jpgThis principle of negligence law meant that just because a guy injures himself by falling down in a grocery store does not mean the store owner is liable. If the guy slipped on a banana peel, the store owner is not responsible unless the owner should have cleaned the thing up. So if the banana peel is a fresh one that was not previously tromped upon, it indicates the damn thing just fell on the floor and the store owner can’t be expected to have known about it or to have picked it up. But if the banana peel is all nasty from being on the floor for awhile this demonstrates a reasonable property owner had time to discover the peel and pick it up. This is the Gritty Banana Peel Doctrine.

You probably think I’m making this up. I'm not. In my first-year casebook on Torts from 1977, there were two cases on banana peels. In Anjou v. Boston Elevated Ry. Co., 94 N.E. 386 (Mass. 1911) the plaintiff won because she provided proof of negligence. The banana peel she slipped on “felt dry, gritty, as if there were dirt upon it,” and it was “black, flattened out and gritty.” But in Joye v. Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co., 405 F.2d 464 (4th Cir. 1968) the plaintiff lost because there was no proof of negligence. “Plaintiff offered no direct evidence below as to how long the banana had been on the floor before the accident . . . the jury could not tell whether the banana had been on defendant’s floor for 30 seconds or 3 days.” (My Torts book also had a case about pizza on the floor, but to avoid confusing myself or anyone else I want to stick to one kind of food.)

The Alaska Supreme Court in Edenshaw threw the Gritty Banana Peel Doctrine into the dumpster. The Court said a plaintiff can maintain a negligence action without specific evidence showing that the property owner knew or should have known of the dangerous condition. The Court also did not pin the property owner's liability to him doing anything else in particular wrong (like stacking up the bananas in a faulty manner in the first place). In essence, the Court decided to entirely punt the question of sufficient proof of negligence to the jury. The plaintiff does not have to show the property owner did anything specifically wrong in order to roll the dice with the jury.

Under Edenshaw, it presumably will be enough for the plaintiff to show that he went into the defendant’s store, encountered a patch of gravity there, fell down and hurt himself. The poor trial court judge can only shrug her shoulders, hand the thing off to the jurors, and let them retreat to the back room to make sausage with it.

Many years ago the Alaska Supreme Court eliminated the old common law rules that had been developed in so-called premises liability cases. Those old rules had different standards depending on whether the plaintiff was classified as a trespasser, or a licensee, or an invitee. Since it was often hard to tell who was exactly what type of person, and since feudal law designed to protect landowners at all costs had fallen out of fashion, the Court chucked out these rules in favor of a plain reasonable care standard that applied to everyone. This change in the old rules was brilliant, visionary, super keen. It made life easier for everyone. But junking the Gritty Banana Peel Doctrine and cutting these cases free from any sort of objective proof standard? That’s just goofy.

I predict that Edenshaw will be distinguished into near oblivion as future cases are decided.

The Court's Edenshaw decision only makes sense if you assume they really meant to say advance notice of a dangerous condition is not the only way to prove negligence; a myriad of other ways are permitted. Nevertheless, some sort of minimally adequate proof of negligence still has to be provided to get to the jury (reasonable minds differing and all that). The trial judge can be asked to verify this through a summary judgment or directed verdict motion. I have to admit, though, that the Edenshaw opinion does not come close to expressly stating this. But in my view this is what the opinion should have said.

July 7, 2008

Weekly Summary of Alaska Supreme Court Opinions

Well, after a few months of having other things to occupy my time, namely these darling three month olds (Isaac & Aaden), IMG_0527.jpg it is time for me to renew Atkinson Conway & Gagnon’s attempt to, ahem, timely summarize the Alaska Supreme Court decisions of the week.

First up is Pebble Limited Partnership v. Parnell, S-13059/S-13060, in which the Alaska Supreme Court rejected an attempt to remove an initiative from the November ballot that will impose new requirements on mining in Alaska. The opinion has no real reasoning, as it’s actually an order with an opinion to follow, issued so that the State has time to print ballots for the election this fall. I won’t go into the arguments regarding the merits of the underlying mining initiative, but if you listen to the radio or watch TV for five minutes, you are almost sure to see ads from both sides of the issue.

The only other opinion of real interest is Edenshaw v. Safeway, Inc., S-12583, in which the Alaska Supreme Court held that to prevail on a premises liability claim in Alaska, a plaintiff does not need to show that the business owner had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition. Instead, the Court held there was only a basic reasonableness test, in which the business owner’s notice of a dangerous condition was a factor to consider, but not a dispositive or required one. This case is a departure from prior cases in which the Alaska Supreme Court held that the State of Alaska had to have actual or constructive knowledge of a defect in a highway to be liable if that defect caused an injury. In Edenshaw, the Court distinguished these prior cases by noting that a grocery store (which was where the injury occurred in Edenshaw) is a much more tightly controlled area, and thus it was more reasonable to impose a general duty of care on the business owner regardless of whether the business owner had actual or constructive knowledge of a dangerous condition on the property.

This opinion will have a significant effect in future litigation, as business owner now can be exposed to liability for injuries caused by dangerous conditions of which they were both not aware and had no reason to be aware. It is also certain to make premises liability cases more expensive and difficult to defend, as the question of the reasonableness of an owner’s actions will almost always be a fact question. Consequently, now that a business owner cannot rely on a lack of notice, constructive or actual, to avoid liability as a matter of law, it will be very difficult to obtain summary judgment or resolution of a premises liability case short of actual trial.

July 1, 2008

A Secret Rule of Law

Let me tell you a secret. The secret is that there is an undisclosed rule of law that governs all of the big civil lawsuits. Lawyers know about this rule. But they either avoid speaking of it all (just like Lord Voldemort), or they talk of it only in guarded tones among themselves. Judges often apply the rule. But the judges will never, ever acknowledge that they are actually doing so. Instead, they will go out of their way to avoid disclosing the existence of the rule at all, writing at length about all kinds of legal esoterica to disguise what is really going on.

This secret rule is generally known by its initials. Those initials are: TFM. TFM stands for TOO FRIGGING MUCH. Actually, I’m fibbing about the "frigging." The “F” in TFM stands for a harsher word than “frigging.” But you get the idea.

TFM is not a new rule of law. It goes way back. But the U.S. Supreme Court just issued what has to be the quintessential decision invoking TFM. I speak, of course, about Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker. This tarball has blackened all who have touched it. It was released from the hold of the Exxon Valdez just after midnight on March 24, 1989. It rolled around spoiling the most beautiful place on the face the Earth (Prince William Sound), ruined the lives of all sorts of sea creatures (humans among them), and was flushed out down the Alaska coastline all the way to the Aleutians. Then it landed with a plop in federal court in Anchorage, until it was picked up by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals used it in a super slo-mo game of ping pong that left a black smear across the federal judiciary. The U.S. Supreme Court finally picked up the dripping mess and dunked it in a vat of WD-40 in an effort to mostly dissolve the damn thing.

court.jpg We all knew it was coming. When the Court accepted cert on the case last fall, you could hear the chant in the hills: “TFM . . . TFM . . . TFM.” The public comments of the Governor and others showed that they knew what was going to happen. (A "kick in the gut" was how Gov. Palin characterized the Court's decision to take the case.) The Supremes did not take the case to just say: “Ditto, Ninth Circuit!” They were going to change the outcome in some way. The oral argument was another sign of things to come. In commenting on why the Supremes took the case, Justice Scalia joked that there was an interesting legal point or two in the case and some “2.5 billion other reasons.”

Still, you wanted to hope that there was at least some chance the large verdict would be upheld. Pristine Alaska wilderness wrecked. A thriving fishing economy ruined. The largest (and most profitable) oil company was responsible for the stupid debacle. A jury of 12 upstanding PFD recipients delivered a deservedly stiff rebuke. A conscientious trial judge carefully controlled the whole thing. If you couldn’t whack Exxon for a few billion dollars out of its petty cash fund in this instance, then when can you whack someone?

But the unspoken rule, TFM, says you can’t whack anybody this hard. Not even Exxon, I guess. Justice Souter wrote a 42 page opinion to explain the reasoning in creating a federal common law rule to limit punitive damages. He needn’t have gone to such lengths. He could just as easily said, “We just had to chop this thing down to something most of us could stomach.” That would have been a more honest assessment, but it would have required an express acknowledgement of the TFM rule.

One can legitimately debate the reasoning used in its decision. If the purpose of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer and deter others, then why tie punitives to a rigid 1:1 ratio with compensatory damages? It is not hard to think of cases where really bad conduct could cause only minimal compensatory losses. The need to punish the bad actor and put a damper on other miscreants should dictate that no rigid 1:1 formula should be followed. And, are the compensatory damages the fisherfolk suffered in the case ($507.5 million) really a good measure for puntives? Exxon trumpeted the fact that it spent some $2.1 billion in an effort to clean up the spill. Wouldn’t tying the punitives to these expenses (or these expenses plus the fisherpeople's compensatories) have been a better measure of the proper amount? After all, aren’t these clean-up expenses part of overall compensation due for the spill even though they were not directly paid to the plaintiffs?

And, gosh, why adopt this as a rule of federal common law just applicable to maritime cases? This sidesteps the more important question of whether due process requires this same ratio as matter of constitutional law. Does the Constitution allow a greater ratio of punitives to compensatories to be employed? If so, why not go to the full limit the Constitution allows in this ugly case? At least why not explain the reasons for not going to the full constitutional limit for this awful and wholly avoidable disaster?

But this sort of quibbling is all very much beside the point. The whole case turned on the unspoken TFM rule. From Alaska's standpoint, its sad to say that $2.5 billion for despoiling the most fabulous place on Earth and groin-punching the citizenry who live and work there was just TOO FRIGGING MUCH.