In Charlie v. Erie Insurance Exchange, the Pennsylvania Superior Court dealt with the important issue of the respective duties of a business invitee and its customer within the context of negligence claims against a bartender and his employer for causing a laundromat fire.
A fire occurred in Egypt Laundromat after a bartender from a local restaurant and pub placed several of the restaurant’s cotton rags in a dryer. Once placed in the dryer, the rags, used to clean up spilled drinks and spilled grease, spontaneously combusted, causing a fire. Erie filed a subrogation suit against the bartender and the restaurant, claiming that the bartender was negligent in drying the greasy rags in the scope of his employment, specifically by not taking the rags out of the dryer earlier.
The trial court granted the restaurant’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the bartender had no duty to prevent spontaneous combustion. The trial court analyzed the factors enumerated in Althaus v. Cohen to determine whether a duty existed. These factors include the relationship between the parties, the social utility of the activity, the nature and forseeability of the risk, and the consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor. Ultimately, the court noted that no duty existed because the defendants were business invitees to the laundromat, and the ability for the defendants to clean rags in a public Laundromat has a social value that outweighs any burden this places on the Laundromat. Further, the court noted that the possibility of rags spontaneously combusting was not a foreseeable risk as spontaneous combustion is, by its very nature, not foreseeable. And finally, the court held that imposition of the plaintiff’s proposed mandates, including requiring the use of a commercial restaurant laundry service to clean oil soaked rags, was not feasible.
Erie appealed, claiming that the trial court incorrectly labeled the defendants business invitees. Alternatively, Erie argued that the defendants were “bailees” due to the mutual benefit the laundromat and defendants received from the use of the establishment. On the basis of such a relationship, Erie claimed that the defendants owed a duty of ordinary care to the laundromat as the “bailor.”
The Superior Court rejected Erie’s argument that the trial court’s erroneous categorization of the relationship created a basis for reversing the court’s position on the basis of a duty. The Superior Court noted that all factors had to be weighed when determining whether to impose a new affirmative duty on an actor. Furthermore, the Superior Court noted that the trial court was, in fact, correct in its categorization of the relationship between the appellant and appellees, as the bailor-bailee relationship that the appellant proposed typically would require a contract between the two parties. As such, the court affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant the defendants motion for summary judgment.
Thanks to Nicole Pedi for her contribution to this post. Please write to Mike Bono for more information.