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.)
This 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.