The Appellate Division recently confirmed that a business proprietor has no duty in tort to warn its customers of open and obvious dangers in its store.
In Khutorsky v. Macy’s, Inc., (2013 WL163301) plaintiff was injured while browsing kitchen knives in a department store. The particular set plaintiff was examining was situated in a butcher block located in an unlocked glass cabinet. The department store utilized both open displays and locked displays to reduce theft based upon the value of the set.
Plaintiff removed a first knife from the wooden block, as he admitted he had done many times before, to examine it; he then replaced the first knife and selected a second. Unfortunately, plaintiff did not get a good grip on the second knife, and it fell. Plaintiff instinctively batted the falling knife away from his leg and sustained serious injuries.
The Trial Court granted Summary Judgment in the defendant department store’s favor, finding that the defendant neither breached a duty of care to plaintiff, nor committed an act of negligence proximately causing plaintiff’s injury. The Trial Court found that while a business proprietor has a duty to provide a reasonably safe premises for its customers, it has no duty to warn of “open, obvious and easily understood” dangers. In coming to this conclusion, the Trial Court cited identical outcomes in two cases involving a defendant social host and a defendant manufacturer. The Trial Court concluded that the defendant neither had a duty to lock up the knives, nor warn plaintiff of their danger, because the threat of the knife cutting its user was obvious. Moreover, plaintiff’s action of swiping at the falling knife was the proximate cause of his accident.
The Appellate Division affirmed, adding that the knife display was neither hidden nor inconspicuous. The Appellate Division further noted that plaintiff had already successfully examined and replaced the first knife without incident before he was injured.
Khutorsky is significant as it found that the department store owed no duty to its customer under these circumstances, and that any breach of its alleged duty was not the proximate cause of plaintiff’s damages, as a matter of law. As the Trial Court noted, the issue of proximate cause is usually reserved for a jury. Khutorsky illustrates when the alleged negligence of the defendant could not reasonably be considered a proximate cause of plaintiff’s damages, dismissal by the Court as a matter of law is proper.
By Erin L. Peters, Esq.