Appeals Court Says Jury Can Infer Negligence Against Florist When a Vase Breaks

By March 1, 2013Injury Law

?Res ipsa loquitur,? or as translated ?the thing speaks for itself? is a doctrine that is well established in negligence common law. It eases the burden of proof upon a plaintiff when it can be established that an underlying incident or event could not conceivably have occurred absent some other person?s negligence. As explained in the recently published New Jersey Appellate Division case Mayer v. Once Upon a Rose, Inc., the doctrine is based upon considerations of public policy and allows a blameless injured plaintiff to obtain an inference of negligence where certain required factors are present. Essentially, the plaintiff must establish that they, themselves, were blameless, that the instrumentality causing their injury was within the exclusive control of the defendant and that the event is not one which could occur absent a negligent act or omission.

Plaintiff, Martin Mayer, a professional caterer, was setting up for an engagement party at a synagogue in Passaic, New Jersey. The defendant, Once Upon a Rose, Inc., was a florist who, through their employee, Samuel Grunwald, was providing floral arrangements for the same party. During the course of setting up for the engagement party, the defendant florist attempted to move a floral vase from one table to another. The vase was described as a tall glass square filled with bamboo and flowers extending several feet over the top and filled with water. The florist appeared to be struggling with the vase on his own, and the plaintiff ran towards him to offer assistance, allegedly saying ?you are going to hurt yourself.? As plaintiff reached his hands under the vase to assist, the glass vase shattered and shards of broken glass lacerated both of his hands fairly severely. He ultimately underwent surgical procedures for multiple tendon cuts and nerve damage. Suit was instituted by the plaintiff against the florist defendants. Plaintiff relied upon the theory of ?res ipsa loquitur? to establish negligence on behalf of the florist. The case proceeded to trial, and the trial court granted the defendants? motion for a directed verdict in their favor at the close of plaintiff?s proofs. It was the position of the trial court that plaintiff was obligated to have retained a liability expert to offer an explanation as to why the vase had shattered. Absent same, the trial court felt that the plaintiff failed to meet his burden of proof and dismissed the case.

The plaintiff appealed. Both at the trial and the appellate level, the defendant took the position that the occurrence was a ?spontaneous accident? that they could not have reasonably prevented. It challenged plaintiff?s lack of proofs regarding the actual cause of the event and took the position that the occurrence itself did not necessarily ?bespeak negligence? on their behalf.

The appellate court reversed the trial court?s dismissal, opining that it had erred in insisting that plaintiff was required to present a liability expert under the circumstances. It offered its observation that ?a jury does not need an expert to tell it that excessive pressure placed on glass can cause it to shatter.? In addition, the court felt that the other two prongs of the test were satisfied, i.e., plaintiff, himself, played no role in causing the event and the instrumentality had been within the exclusive control of the defendant up until the point of its breakage.

With some merit, defendant had argued that the possibility that the glass had been defectively manufactured should foreclose plaintiff from being allowed an inference that defendant had been the logical cause of the event. However, the trial court dismissed that position, seemingly making its own factual conclusions that the argument lacked merit based upon the testimony of the defendant that the vase had been used in a similar capacity many times prior without incident.

The appellate court concluded by noting that ?although the jurors rationally could have ruled against plaintiff on the merits,? the court felt that plaintiff had established its right to allow a jury to consider its theory. The matter was then remanded for a new trial.

The appellate decision does seem to take a fairly broad view of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine, arguably allowing the future jury to speculate about the cause of the vase?s failure. Reasonable minds could certainly agree that a vase, made of glass, could have been caused to break based upon events other than the behavior of the person carrying it. Accordingly, it is suggested that the appellate division reversal seems rather generous under the circumstances.