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Rieger v. Giant Eagle, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District, Cuyahoga

May 10, 2018

BARBARA RIEGER PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE
v.
GIANT EAGLE, INC. DEFENDANT-APPELLANT

          Civil Appeal from the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Case No. CV-14-821297

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT Roger H. Williams Christina N. Williams Williams, Moliterno & Scully Co., L.P.A. Scott D. Livingston Marcus & Shapira, L.L.P.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE John J. Wargo, Jr. Thomas M. Wilson Wargo and Wargo Co., L.P.A.

          BEFORE: Kilbane, P.J., Celebrezze, J., and Jones, J.

          JOURNAL ENTRY AND OPINION

          MARY EILEEN KILBANE, P.J.

         {¶1} Defendant-appellant, Giant Eagle, Inc. ("Giant Eagle"), appeals from the trial court's order entering the jury verdict in favor of plaintiff-appellee, Barbara Rieger ("Rieger"), and awarding Rieger $121, 000 in compensatory damages and $1, 198, 000 in punitive damages. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the compensatory damages award and modify the $1, 198, 000 punitive damages award by remanding to the trial court to enter an order setting the total amount of punitive damages awarded to $242, 000.

         {¶2} This appeal arises from injuries Rieger sustained as a result of a December 2012 accident in a Giant Eagle store with Ruth Kurka ("Kurka"). Both Rieger and Kurka were shopping at Giant Eagle at the time. Rieger was standing in front of the bakery counter with her shopping cart when her shopping cart was hit by a Giant Eagle motorized cart driven by Kurka. This collision caused Rieger's shopping cart to hit Rieger who then was knocked to the ground.

         {¶3} In February 2014, Rieger filed a negligence action against Giant Eagle and John Doe. Rieger amended her complaint in May 2014. In her amended complaint, she alleges causes of action for negligence and negligent entrustment against Giant Eagle. She also alleges a negligence cause of action against Kurka, who passed away during the litigation. In June 2015, a suggestion of death was filed, and the Kurka Estate settled with Rieger for $8, 500. Rieger dismissed Kurka from the lawsuit in April 2016.

         {¶4} The matter then proceeded to a jury trial against Giant Eagle. The following evidence was adduced at trial.

          {¶5} On the date of the accident, Rieger and Kurka and her husband, George Kurka ("George"), went grocery shopping at Giant Eagle. George helped his wife into a motorized cart and then parked his car. When he arrived at the bakery section, he observed his wife on the motorized cart and Rieger on the floor. He asked Kurka what happened, but she said she did not know. Rieger testified that she was standing in front of the bakery counter with her shopping cart when she was knocked to the ground. She was hit by her shopping cart, which was hit by a Giant Eagle motorized cart driven by Kurka. Rieger was not able to stand after the accident, and was taken to the hospital by ambulance.

         {¶6} According to George, Kurka had never been trained on how to operate the Giant Eagle motorized cart and Kurka had been diagnosed with dementia prior to the December 2012 accident. A Giant Eagle corporate representative testified that the safety warnings placed on Giant Eagle motorized carts were for the safety of the driver.

         {¶7} Rieger presented evidence of 179 incidents involving motorized shopping carts at Giant Eagle stores. These incidents occurred between February 2004 and November 2015 (which was three years after Rieger's incident). Of the 179 incidents, 117 of them occurred prior to the December 2012 incident involving Rieger.

         {¶8} At the close of Rieger's case, Giant Eagle moved for directed verdict on the issues of negligence, negligent entrustment, and punitive damages, which the trial court denied.

          {¶9} After the conclusion of the trial, the jury awarded Rieger $121, 000 in compensatory damages and $1, 198, 000 in punitive damages. Rieger then filed a combined brief in support of her proposed journal entry on the jury verdict and a brief in support of her motion to determine R.C. 2315.21 unconstitutional as applied. Rieger noted the parties stipulated that any compensatory judgment awarded to Rieger would be offset by the prior Kurka settlement of $8, 500. As a result, Rieger was entitled to $112, 500 in compensatory damages from Giant Eagle. Rieger further noted that under R.C. 2315.21, her punitive damages award was limited to two times the compensatory damages award, which is $242, 000. However, Rieger argued that R.C. 2315.21 is unconstitutional as applied to her case and the punitive damages of $1, 198, 000, as awarded by the jury to Rieger, should not be reduced. The trial court conducted a hearing on the pending motions.

         {¶10} Following the hearing, the trial court granted Rieger's motion to find R.C. 2315.21 unconstitutional as applied. The court found that "the [j]ury's punitive damage award of $1, 198, 000.00 is within a constitutionally acceptable range and is not excessive; and, is within the confines of the legislative purpose of punitive damages which is to deter and punish." The trial court then entered a judgment awarding Rieger $112, 500 in compensatory damages and $1, 198, 000 in punitive damages.

         {¶11} Giant Eagle now appeals, raising the following five assignments of error, which shall be discussed together where appropriate:

Assignment of Error One
The trial court erred by failing to grant [Giant Eagle's] motion for directed verdict on [Rieger's] claim for punitive damages.
Assignment of Error Two
The trial court erred by finding that R.C. 2315.21, which limits punitive damages to twice the award for compensatory damages, was unconstitutional as applied in this case.
Assignment of Error Three
The trial court erred by failing to grant Giant Eagle's motion for a directed verdict on [Rieger's] claim alleging that Giant Eagle negligently provided motorized shopping carts to its customers.
Assignment of Error Four
The trial court erred by failing to grant Giant Eagle's motion for a directed verdict on [Rieger's] claim alleging that Giant Eagle negligently entrusted [Kurka], a customer, with one of its motorized carts.
Assignment of Error Five
The trial court erred by admitting 179 incidents involving a motorized shopping cart at a Giant Eagle store between 2004 and 2015 without any showing of similarity or other indicia of relevancy between these incidents and the accident in this case.
Directed Verdict

         {¶12} In the first, third, and fourth assignments of error, Giant Eagle challenges the trial court's denial of its motion for directed verdict regarding Rieger's claims for punitive damages, negligence, and negligent entrustment.

         {¶13} Civ.R. 50(A) governs motions for directed verdict ...


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