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Dent v. PRRC, Inc.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

May 22, 2018

Karen Dent
PRRC, Inc., d/b/a Price Rite.

          Providence County Superior Court No. 13-5924 Associate Justice Richard A. Licht

          For Plaintiff: Rondal J. Resmini, Esq.

          For Defendant: Douglas L. Price, Esq. Matthew Ryan O'Connor, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


          Maureen McKenna Goldberg, Associate Justice

         This case came before the Supreme Court on December 5, 2017, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. The plaintiff, Karen Dent (plaintiff or Dent), appeals from a final judgment granting the motion of the defendant, PRRC, Inc. d/b/a Price Rite (defendant or Price Rite), for summary judgment on count one of the plaintiff's complaint, and also granting the defendant's motion to dismiss the remaining four counts. After hearing the arguments of counsel and examining the memoranda submitted by the parties, we are of the opinion that cause has not been shown and that this case should be decided without further briefing or argument. We affirm in part and vacate in part the judgment of the Superior Court.

         Facts and Travel

         On August 22, 2012, plaintiff was shopping with her husband at the Price Rite store located at 325 Valley Street in Providence. The plaintiff's husband placed two bottles of a beverage identified as Sunny Delight[1] into their shopping cart. The product was displayed in aisle six of the store, and plaintiff then separated from her husband to locate a restroom. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff returned to aisle six in search of her husband, but she slipped on a "brownish oily substance" and was immobilized. Meanwhile, a porter[2] was mopping up liquid in an adjacent aisle.[3] Coincidentally, plaintiff's husband noted that one of the bottles of Sunny Delight in his shopping cart had been leaking, and that some of the contents of the bottle had spilled out as he continued to shop.

         David Walmsley (Walmsley), a store manager at Price Rite, testified at a deposition that the Sunny Delight bottles arrive at the store in boxes and are then transported on pallets to the area of the store where they will be displayed. Also, Jeffrey Sparfven (Sparfven), a former Price Rite manager, testified at his deposition that the boxes arrive from the warehouse shrink-wrapped in cellophane and are unwrapped and inspected by a manager to verify that the quantity and quality of the items are correct.[4] According to Sparfven, the receiving manager then shrink-wraps the boxes and places them in storage until they are needed, at which point a store employee once again removes the shrink-wrap with a box cutter. Walmsley also testified that, typically, fifty boxes of Sunny Delight, with eight bottles in each box, are stacked on top of each other on the wooden pallet. According to Walmsley, none of the Price Rite employees are asked to inspect products for defects before they are sold in the store. Finally, Walmsley explained that the store's protocol for spills is: "If [an employee] see[s] something on the floor, the protocol is for them to stand at that spot until they can get [the] attention of a porter, and they stay there until the porter arrives."

         On November 20, 2013, plaintiff filed a three-count complaint against defendant; she subsequently amended that complaint in February 2016. The amended complaint consisted of five counts: negligence; breach of contract; "mode of operation"; failure to warn; and breach of the implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for use, and fitness for a particular purpose. Prior to the filing of plaintiff's amended complaint, defendant had moved for summary judgment on the negligence claim, arguing that Price Rite could only be liable under a theory of negligence if it knew or should have known that the dangerous condition existed for a sufficient period of time within which to remedy the dangerous condition, and that not enough time had elapsed such that defendant could be liable under the theory of constructive notice. The plaintiff objected to the motion for summary judgment, arguing that defendant had to have known of the dangerous condition because a porter was cleaning up the spill, and that there was no question that the bottle was defective. After a hearing, the trial justice granted defendant's motion with respect to the negligence count, stating:

"[A] plaintiff who has fallen must present evidence to prevail against the owner of the premises showing that he or she fell because of an unsafe condition on the premises of which the defendant was or should have been aware and that the condition existed for a long enough period of time so the owner or occupier of the premises should have taken steps to correct the condition * * *.
"Dent has failed to show that there was any notice given to the defendant. * * * [O]bviously it wasn't so obvious that it would call attention to somebody." (Emphasis added.)

         After plaintiff was granted leave to file an amended complaint, defendant moved to dismiss the remaining counts under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. In its motion, defendant argued that: (1) because the parties were not in a contractual relationship, the breach-of-contract claim should be dismissed; (2) mode of operation is not a cause of action, but merely a means of proving notice with respect to negligence, a count which had already been dismissed; (3) the duty-to-warn claim should fail because the court had already decided that Price Rite did not have notice of the leaking bottle; and (4) the breach-of-warranty claims should be dismissed because no sale had occurred. In response to defendant's motion, plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration of the order granting summary judgment, [5] and also moved for summary judgment under a theory of strict product liability. A hearing was held in March 2016 on defendant's motion to dismiss the remaining counts, plaintiff's Rule 60 motion, and plaintiff's motion for summary judgment.[6] The trial justice granted defendant's motion to dismiss counts 2 through 5 of plaintiff's complaint, and accordingly denied both of plaintiff's motions. The plaintiff timely appealed.

         On appeal, plaintiff argues that the question of whether defendant knew or should have known of the dangerous condition from the broken bottle is a disputed issue of material fact, and therefore summary judgment should not have been granted. As to her breach-of-contract claim, plaintiff argues that defendant has a responsibility to maintain the property in a safe manner for its intended business invitee guests. Turning to the mode-of-operation count, plaintiff argues that this Court should adopt mode of operation as a distinct cause of action. As to her failure-to- warn claim, plaintiff argues that a retailer has a duty to warn consumers of dangerous or defective conditions that it knows of, or reasonably should have known of, and therefore the trial justice erred in dismissing this claim. Finally, plaintiff contends that her breach-of-warranty claims were properly pled; she therefore asks this Court to reverse the trial justice and enter summary judgment in her favor on this count. We address these issues seriatim.

         Standard of Review

         This Court reviews a trial justice's decision granting summary judgment de novo. See Sola v. Leighton, 45 A.3d 502, 506 (R.I. 2012); Lynch v. Spirit Rent-A-Car, Inc., 965 A.2d 417, 424 (R.I. 2009). It is well established that "[s]ummary judgment is a drastic remedy, and a motion for summary judgment should be dealt with cautiously." Cruz v. DaimlerChrysler Motors Corp., 66 A.3d 446, 451 (R.I. 2013) (quoting DeMaio v. Ciccone, 59 A.3d 125, 129 (R.I. 2013)). Moreover, "[s]ummary judgment is appropriate only when the 'pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as [a] matter of law.'" Sola, 45 A.3d at 506 (quoting Plunkett v. State, 869 A.2d 1185, 1187 (R.I. 2005)). This Court has held that "complaints sounding in negligence generally are not amenable to summary judgment and should be resolved by fact finding at the trial court * * *." Berard v. HCP, Inc., 64 A.3d 1215, 1218 (R.I. 2013); see Martin v. Marciano, 871 A.2d 911, 915 (R.I. 2005).

         In passing on a Rule 12(b) motion to dismiss, "this Court applies the same standard as the trial justice." Narragansett Electric Co. v. Minardi, 21 A.3d 274, 278 (R.I. 2011). "We thus are confined to the four corners of the complaint and must assume all allegations are true, resolving any doubts in plaintiff's favor." Id. Additionally, "[a] motion to dismiss may be granted only 'if it appears beyond a reasonable doubt that a plaintiff would not be entitled to relief under any conceivable set of facts[.]'" Id. (quoting Estate of Sherman v. Almeida, 747 A.2d 470, 473 (R.I. 2000)).



         It is well-settled jurisprudence that "to prevail on a claim of negligence 'a plaintiff must establish a legally cognizable duty owed by a defendant to a plaintiff, a breach of that duty, proximate causation between the conduct and the resulting injury, and the actual loss or damage.'" Habershaw v. Michaels Stores, Inc., 42 A.3d 1273, 1276 (R.I. 2012) (quoting Holley v. Argonaut Holdings, Inc., 968 A.2d 271, 274 (R.I. 2009)). Specifically, with respect to a slip-and-fall claim, a plaintiff "must present evidence of an unsafe condition on the premises of which the defendant was aware or should have been aware, and that the condition existed for a long enough time so the owner of the premises should have taken steps to correct [it]." Id. (quoting Bromaghim v. Furney, 808 A.2d 615, 617 (R.I. 2002)); see also ...

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