A federal appeals court has shut off a lawsuit brewed by parents against Starbucks, as judges said the coffeehouse chain is not responsible for injuries that led to the amputation of a finger from a child who was playing in the store, because the child’s parents should have prevented the injury.
The case was originally argued in federal court in Chicago because, while the incident happened in Chicago, Starbucks is headquartered in Washington state. U.S. District Judge James Zagel had granted summary judgment in favor of Starbucks.
Seventh Circuit Judge Ilana D. Rovner authored the opinion of the court upholding Zagel’s decision. Judges William J. Bauer and Diane S. Sykes concurred in the decision.
According to court documents, Lucas and Beebe Roh took their children, then ages 3 and 5, to a Starbucks at Oak and Rush in Chicago’s River North neighborhood in early 2013. As they were leaving the store, the younger of the two children began crying. His parents discovered a metal and concrete stanchion intended to corral the line in front of the counter had fallen over onto his finger. The child’s finger was amputated later that same day.
Starbucks uses a variety of methods to direct traffic in its stores; in this particular location the line was marked by metal poles with heavy concrete bases and connected with ropes. The artist who designed and built the stanchions has created similar fixtures for other restaurants, the court noted, though in most cases the heavy stanchions are intended to be fixed to the floor. Because this store did not want the poles to be permanently located, he added a removable concrete base, court documents said.
In her lawsuit on behalf of her child, Beebe Roh alleged Starbucks should have recognized the potential danger these heavy and unsecured items pose. The suit claimed Starbucks failed to safely maintain its premises, to secure the stanchion, to ensure the stanchion’s stability, to warn patrons of the risk the stanchions might fall and to realize children would not appreciate the threat posed by the stanchions.
“If there were some evidence that the stanchions tipped because they were faulty, unstable or otherwise hazardous when being used according to their intended purpose this would be a different case,” Rovner wrote. “Here, however, it was plainly evident to the Rohs that the heavy stanchions were intended to control traffic flow in the store; their failure to prevent their [children] from climbing and playing on them led to [their child’s] injury, not the breach of any duty on Starbuck’s part.”
According to court documents, neither of the child’s parents saw the stanchion fall and neither asked their children what had made it fall. Witnesses who were in the store at the time testified that the two children were playing on the stanchions, climbing on the bases and swinging on the ropes.
The court found that it was the parents’ responsibility to keep their children safe from any danger posed by the stanchions, not the store’s. To establish a property owner’s liability in a child’s injury it must be proven that the injury was foreseeable. But the court found that even if the injury is foreseeable, the property owner’s liability can be abrogated by the presence of the child’s parent, who is the primary person responsible for their child’s safety.
“We are unconvinced by the suggestion that the potentially dangerous nature of the clearly visible stanchions was somehow hidden,” Rovner wrote. “As the district court noted, it is a matter of common sense that serious injury could result from climbing on the stanchions and swinging from the ropes connecting them together.”
The Rohs were represented in the case by attorneys with the firm of Corboy & Demetrio, of Chicago.
Starbucks was represented by the Miller Law Group, of Hinsdale.