Dueling Duties of Care: Pennsylvania Courts use the "Known and Obvious Danger" Doctrine to protect store owners from liability

Duties of Owners and Customers

Under Pennsylvania law, store owners owe their customers, “the highest duty owed to any entrant upon land.”   Though high, this duty is not absolute.  Owners are not insurers of their customers’ safety.  As the invitees of owners, customers must also exercise their own duty of care and look where they are going.  In Campisi v. Acme Markets, the Pennsylvania Superior Court established that a store owner had no duty to warn an invitee of the hazards created from the presence of a blind employee, if such hazards should have been known or obvious to the invitee.  Campisi v. Acme Markets, Inc., 915 A.2d 117, 119 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2006). This holding was recently affirmed by Graham v. Moran Foods, Inc. Graham v. Moran Foods, Inc., CIV.A. 11-239, 2012 WL 1808952 (E.D. Pa. May 18, 2012).

Graham v. Moran Foods, Inc. affirms Campisi v. Acme Markets, Inc.

In Graham, a customer tripped over a pallet and fell while grocery shopping at a Save–A–Lot store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The customer had been walking towards the freezer to view sale items.  To avoid collision with another shopper, the customer started to step backwards with her shopping cart. Before stepping backwards, the customer did not look to see if there were any obstacles in her way. After taking roughly four or five steps backwards, the customer tripped on a pallet on the floor. The customer had walked past the pallet on her way to the freezer.

The store owner filed a motion for summary judgment on the customer's negligence claim because the pallet created an open and obvious condition for which the store owner did not owe the customer a duty.  The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted the store owner’s motion.  In doing so, the court in Graham relied upon the 2006 Pennsylvania Superior Court opinion in Campisi v. Acme Markets for the proposition that grocery store customers must constantly be on alert when exiting a grocery store aisle.  Similarly, the court in Graham held that customers must constantly remain alert for obvious obstacles. 

In Campisi, the plaintiff was an Acme customer who had been physically injured after tripping over a blind Acme employee’s cane.  The plaintiff claimed that she was distracted by sales displays.  The Pennsylvania Superior Court declined to accept the customer’s argument that the business owner had a duty to warn customers of the possibility that a blind person, either an employee or a customer, may be traversing on the premises, or to take extra precautions when hiring blind employees.  The court summarized the customer’s argument by stating that, “Appellant essentially classifies blind people as a ‘harmful condition’ necessary to establish a legal duty.”

The Superior Court imposed no duty on the store management to warn the customers of blind or disabled employees.  Specifically, the court found that even if employment of the blind increases the risk of an accident similar to the plaintiff’s, the risk does not overcome the customer’s responsibility to avoid the known and obvious dangers present upon exiting a grocery store aisle.  Emphasizing the impracticality of the customer’s argument the court stated,  “Grocery stores attract a wide variety of customers with various handicaps, including blindness; thus, a grocery store customer should be well aware that, at any given moment, there is a reasonable likelihood he will encounter a disabled person.”

In granting the store owner’s motion for summary judgment, the Graham district court reiterated an important component of the Campisi decision.   Like the customer in Campisi, the customer in Graham asserted that sale displays distracted her attention from the floor. The court noted that customers are not relieved from their burden of exercising ordinary care because of a failure to observe and avoid an obvious condition by not looking before taking steps backwards.  Distraction caused by store owners’ signs or displays is immaterial to customers’ duty of care.  Such distractions will not excuse customer liability for injuries caused by knowing and obvious dangers. 

Campisi v. Acme Markets was heralded as a victory for store owners and for their disabled employees.  To date, this case maintains its status as a source of binding precedent, and it has been cited as legal authority in twenty three subsequent federal and state cases in Pennsylvania.

 

Please contact the attorneys at Nicolson Law Group for further information, questions and comments about this article.

The information herein is provided for consumer educational purposes only.  The statements contained herein are general statements of law, as of the date stated, and there may be exceptions that are not set forth below, or changes due to later legislative developments and/or newer case law.  The Nicolson Law Group does not suggest that any provision contained herein will or must apply to any specific issue or case.  For legal information and advice for any particular matter, you are encouraged to consult advice from one of Nicolson Law Group’s licensed attorneys.