In New Jersey, a state appeals court recently ruled that a law firm was not negligent when a client fell from a chair. In May 2010, a man and his wife visited a law firm for a deposition. The husband was seated in the chair for about ninety minutes, after which time he leaned back, and fell on the floor. As a result, he suffered an injury.
The couple argued that the law firm was responsible for “maintaining the chair in a safe condition” and neglected to do so by having the chair at a low-tension setting. However, the court said that since the man had been sitting in the chair for about ninety minutes, he had adequate time in which to realize that the chair had a tendency to tilt, and to understand its tension setting.
In addition, according to a plaintiff’s expert, the chair was not defective in its design or manufacture, but the owner of the chair has a duty to reset the tilting mechanism prior to each use. The court went on to say that it would be unjust to land-occupiers and of no benefit to the public to enforce a duty on the part of the owner of the chair a duty to warn of its propensity to move in a certain way. Therefore, the negligence claim was dismissed.
I’m inclined to agree with the decision because the chair wasn’t actually defective, but only appeared to be defective to the person who was sitting in it. It is unfortunate that he was injured when he fell out of the chair, but given the fact that he was using the chair for some length of time, he had to have realized that the chair had a tendency to tilt.
In another similar case, the outcome was very different because the chair in question actually was defective. In 2003, when a man met with a personal injury attorney at a law firm in Florida, his chair collapsed, injuring him. A jury found in his favor in 2009, and awarded him $2.2 million. While the law firm was legally responsible for one-third of the total, the retailer from which the chair was purchased was legally responsible for two-thirds.
However, that verdict was reversed by an appellate court, which found in favor of the law firm because causation had not been shown. But in October 2013, that decision was reversed by the Florida Supreme Court, which reinstated a “substantial” verdict for the plaintiff, stating that causation was an issue of fact to be decided by the jury.
In support of that verdict, a plaintiff’s expert stated that an inspection of the chair should have exposed the “weak joint” in the chair that was said to be the cause of the collapse, and that businesses should test chairs every six months as a matter of standard procedure. The law firm’s expert held a different view, which was that the sole test to determine whether a chair is defective is to sit in the chair, and that is the only test that would have exposed the defect that caused the plaintiff’s injuries.
In deciding in the plaintiff’s favor, the Supreme Court said that the district court re-evaluated the evidence without permission, and used its own assessment of the evidence in lieu of that of the jury. I tend to agree with this decision also because it appears as though the “weak joint” in the chair was to blame for the chair’s collapse, and the plaintiff could not have realized that the chair had a weak joint. This case is very different from the previous one in which it is likely that the plaintiff realized that the chair had a tendency to tilt after having sat in it for ninety minutes. Thus, only the chair in the second case was defective.