By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.
The mother of a toddler who died from injuries sustained when a cabinet tipped over and fell on him produced substantial evidence to raise a jury question as to whether the seller of the cabinet had been grossly negligent, a federal district court in Florida ruled, denying the seller’s motion for summary judgment on the mother’s claim for punitive damages (White v. American Signature, Inc., January 5, 2016, Bryon, P.).
The 22-month-old toddler passed away from injuries sustained when a Merlot standing cabinet with mirrors, which stood on a 360-degree swiveling base with a full-length mirror on one side and shelves and a drawer on the reverse side, tipped over and fell on him. His mother, who had purchased the cabinet from American Signature Inc., filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging six claims for relief: (1) breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, (2) breach of the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, (3) design defect, (4) failure to warn, (5) negligence, and (6) punitive damages. American Signature moved for summary judgment on the punitive damages claim, arguing that the evidence conclusively established that it was not guilty of gross negligence, the standard of proof required under Florida law.
Seller’s evidence. In support of its motion for summary judgment, the seller introduced evidence showing that it was not the manufacturer or designer of the cabinet, but rather a retailer with no knowledge of the cabinet’s allegedly defective and dangerous condition. The seller also stated that over a five-year period it had sold over 5,400 units of the cabinet, but had never received any complaints or allegations that the cabinet posed a danger of falling or tipping over until it was notified of the events giving rise to the instant lawsuit.
Evidence of gross negligence. The mother’s evidence on the other hand, demonstrated that the cabinet posed an obvious tipping hazard in that it was a tall, skinny, heavy piece of furniture that was unevenly balanced and stood on a 360-degree swiveling base. The mother cited testimony by the seller’s corporate representative and Vice President of Risk Management who indicated at his deposition that it was well-known in the furniture industry that children tend to climb large pieces of furniture and that a primary concern in testing the stability of large pieces of furniture like the cabinet was to protect against the danger of furniture falling on and injuring children. The company’s representative also acknowledged that tall, skinny pieces of furniture like the cabinet pose risks of falling and that retailers, including the company in this case, are responsible for assessing the stability of the furniture they sell to determine falling risks. The representative also admitted that despite the obvious risk posed by the cabinet, the seller never tested the stability of the Cabinet, did not include any instructions or warnings to customers regarding the risks of tipping and falling, and did not include any type of safety device (such as an anchor, mount, or restraint) with the cabinet to prevent tipping and falling.
The mother’s evidence also included the results of tests done on an exemplar cabinet from which her engineering expert calculated that the force required to cause the cabinet to tip over and fall is “relatively low” and certainly within the ability of a small child. Her expert also concluded that the seller’s failure to instruct or warn customers about the risk of falling deviated from industry safety standards in effect at the time the cabinet was sold.
Based on the “composite of circumstances” presented by the mother’s evidence, the court concluded that a rational jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that the seller was aware of the dangers associated with the cabinet but failed to act. A rational jury could likewise conclude that the seller’s failure to assess the cabinet’s stability, failure to provide instructions or warnings regarding the risk of falling, and failure to include a safety device with the cabinet evince a conscious disregard or indifference to the safety of others, amounting to gross negligence under Florida law.
The case is No. 6:14-cv-1638-Orl-40GJK.
Attorneys: Mark Andrew Nation (Nation Law Firm) for Amanda White. Brian Douglas DeGailler (Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer, PA) and Jennifer Nicole Yencarelli (Wicker, Smith, O'Hara, McCoy & Ford, PA) for American Signature, Inc.
Companies: American Signature, Inc.
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