United States: Seventh Circuit Rules Parents, Not Starbucks, Have Duty Of Care To Protect Child From Harm While Playing Inside Store

(January 8, 2019)  - In Roh v. Starbucks Corp., 881 F.3d 969 (7th Cir. 2018), a federal appeals court dismissed a negligence lawsuit brought by parents against Starbucks, holding Starbucks was not responsible for injuries that led to the amputation of a 3-year old child's finger who was playing in the store, because the child's parents bore the duty of protecting the child from any harm arising from his play.

Background

According to court records, in December 2012, Starbucks opened a new store in downtown Chicago at the busy intersection of Oak and Rush Streets. Inside this Starbucks were custom metal stanchions placed throughout the store. The stanchions were freestanding and not affixed to the floor. However, the stanchions were built on a heavy concrete base in the event that Starbucks would want to permanently affix the stanchions to the floor. The various stanchions were connected to each other with ropes, which also controlled the flow of customer traffic.

In February 2013, parents Lucas and Beebe Roh took their two boys, Alexander and Marcus, then ages 5 and 3, to the Oak and Rush Streets Starbucks. Upon arriving at the store, Lucas and Beebe walked with the boys and ordered coffee. After receiving their coffee, the family went to the second floor to use the restrooms. When they returned to the main level and were exiting the store, Lucas heard a loud noise and both Lucas and Beebe saw that a heavy metal stanchion had toppled over and mangled Marcus's fingers. The family rushed Marcus to a nearby hospital, where hospital doctors surgically amputated Marcus's left middle finger, which was damaged by the stanchion.

Although neither Lucas nor Beebe saw what caused the stanchion to fall on Marcus, store witnesses stated that Marcus and his brother were playing on the stanchions, climbing their concrete bases, and swinging on the ropes that connected the stanchions to each other.

The Trial

Beebe Roh filed a lawsuit against Starbucks on behalf of her son, Marcus, alleging that Starbucks was negligent by failing to: safely maintain its premises; adequately secure the stanchions; properly inspect the stanchions to ensure their stability; warn patrons of the potential danger posed by the stanchions; or realize that small children would not appreciate the risk posed by the store's unsecured stanchions. 

A lower district court granted summary judgment in favor of Starbucks and the Seventh Circuit affirmed, determining that any duty Starbucks may have owed the child was abrogated by his parents' presence with him in Starbucks at the time of the accident.

The court noted that the boys were playing on the rope and stanchions. Thus, the boys' parents had a duty to protect them from the obvious danger posed by playing on the unsecured stanchions, even if the parents were unable to foresee the particular injury that resulted to Marcus.

The court remarked, "The fact that Marcus tragically sustained a life-altering injury does not change the fact that his parents, not Starbucks, bore the duty of protecting him from harm arising from playing on the stanchions, which they admit having seen when they first entered [Starbucks'] premises."

Analysis

Based on previous decisions in cases with a similar fact pattern, it is likely that this case would not have been dismissed had it been decided by a Cook County state court judge. Thus, removing cases to federal court can oftentimes be the best decision for Cook County defendants.

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