A seafood restaurant guest injured by flying shards of glass from a dropped plate need not prove waiter negligence in order to recover damages, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.
The ruling, in Clark v. Darden Restaurants Inc., 11-cv-1056, sinks an attempt by the owner of the Red Lobster restaurant chain to block application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.
The “uncontroverted facts surrounding the dropping of the plate indicate a lack of due care” by the defendants, U.S District Judge Freda Wolfson ruled in granting summary judgment on liability.
The accident occurred at the Red Lobster restaurant in Lawrenceville, where Darryl Clark was lunching with a friend on June 24, 2009. A server, Stephen Harrison, dropped a plate, which broke into pieces on Clark’s table.
Clark found that foreign material had become lodged in both his eyes. Harrison attempted to help and then notified his manager. Clark received eyewash from restaurant staff and, ultimately, medical attention from police and paramedics who were called to respond.
Iftikhar Chaudhry, the Bensalem, Pa., ophthalmologist who performed surgery to repair Clark’s damaged corneas, later opined “with a reasonable amount of medical certainty” that the injuries resulted from glass foreign bodies related to the restaurant.
Clark sued in federal court based on diversity jurisdiction. He resides in New Jersey, while Red Lobster is headquartered in Orlando, Fla.
Red Lobster did not dispute the facts, or that it owed a duty of care to Clark, but denied negligence.
Clark moved for summary judgment under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which allows an inference of liability if the incident “bespeaks negligence,” the injuring instrument was under the defendant’s control and there’s no indication that plaintiff contributed to the injury.
On Tuesday, Wolfson granted the motion, saying: “This is not a difficult case.” She said it is “axiomatic that a server in a restaurant has a duty not to drop a plate on the table in front of patrons, particularly a breakable plate.
“Indeed, it is well established in the law of negligence that a restaurant breaches its duty of care to its patrons in any number of similar circumstances,” she wrote, noting cases where negligence was found based on hot dinner plates, spilled coffee and the presence of glass in a serving of coleslaw.
The judge pushed aside Red Lobster’s argument, that the dropped plate was a mere accident, as “circular and unavailing; the very crux of this case is whether Harrison’s ‘accident’ was the result of negligence.”
And “undisputed factual circumstances” do show negligence, Wolfson said, noting Harrison’s testimony that he noticed the plate was somewhat slippery or greasy in his hand, had rarely dropped things before and had never even seen a server drop a plate on a diner’s table.
That testimony “demonstrates that it is significantly more probable than not that the plate fell from his hands due to some failure to exercise due care on his part or the part of the Defendants,” Wolfson wrote.
Red Lobster’s “conclusory assertion that Harrison’s conduct was only an accident is insufficient to raise a genuine issue of whether Harrison properly exercised due care,” she said.
Clark need not prove exactly how Harrison failed to exercise due care, and Red Lobster was unable to rebut any of the evidence, Wolfson said.
Clark also demonstrated the absence of a genuine factual dispute as to causation, as Red Lobster offered no “evidence to contradict this chain of events or challenge the nature of [Clark's] injuries,” she concluded.
The case will now go to trial on damages.
Red Lobster’s lawyer, William Carey of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter in Morristown, says both sides previously discussed settlement with Magistrate Judge Douglas Arpert, but to no avail.
“We are far apart,” Carey says. “We’re on a path for trial. … This [decision] does not affect the settlement talks. Damages are the major issue.”
Discovery is over and several points, such as the extent of Clark’s injuries, are still in contention, Carey adds.
Clark’s lawyer, Jerrold Kamensky of Kamensky, Cohen & Riechelson in Trenton, did not return a call.