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Schafer v. JLC Food Systems

April 28, 2005

KAREN SCHAFER, APPELLANT,
v.
JLC FOOD SYSTEMS, INC., D/B/A PERKINS FAMILY RESTAURANT, DEFENDANT AND THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF, RESPONDENT,
v.
THE RESTAURANT COMPANY, D/B/A FOXTAIL FOODS, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT, RESPONDENT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. When a person suffers injury from consuming a food product, the seller of the food product is liable to the extent that the injury-causing object or substance in the food product would not be reasonably expected by an ordinary consumer.

2. A restaurant customer who was allegedly injured by an unidentified object in the food served can establish a prima facie case of negligence based on circumstantial evidence when the injury-causing event was of a kind that would ordinarily only occur as a result of a defective condition in the food product served, the defendant was responsible for a condition that caused the injury, and the injury-causing event was not caused by anything other than a food product defect existing at the time of the food product's sale.

Reversed and remanded to the district court.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Page, J.

Took no part, Anderson, G. Barry, J.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

OPINION

Appellant Karen Schafer seeks review of the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of respondents, JLC Food Systems, Inc., d/b/a Perkins Family Restaurant, and The Restaurant Company, d/b/a Foxtail Foods, in her negligence action alleging that her throat was injured as a result of eating a defective food product - a pumpkin muffin - at a Perkins restaurant. The court of appeals affirmed the district court's decision, holding that Schafer could not prove a prima facie claim of negligence because she could not identify the object that injured her. Schafer asks us to determine whether a restaurant customer can establish a prima facie claim of negligence against the restaurant where she was served without identifying the specific object that allegedly caused her injury. We reverse the grant of summary judgment and remand to the district court.

The underlying facts of this case are relatively simple and straightforward. On January 27, 2001, Karen Schafer went to a Perkins Restaurant in St. Cloud, Minnesota, with a friend and their daughters. At the restaurant, Schafer ordered a pumpkin muffin. She unwrapped the muffin and, using her fork, placed a piece of the muffin in her mouth. Upon swallowing, she immediately felt a "sharp pain" in her throat and "a choking sensation." After drinking some water and still feeling as though there was something stuck in her throat, Schafer went directly to a hospital emergency room. Before leaving the restaurant, Schafer's friend notified a Perkins employee that, as a result of swallowing a piece of the muffin, Schafer was going to the emergency room. The rest of the muffin was not saved.

At the hospital, a doctor told Schafer that she had a cut on her throat, but the doctor did not observe any object that would have caused the cut. Schafer was prescribed a painkiller and released. Two days later, she returned to the emergency room where she was diagnosed with a throat infection and was hospitalized for three days. According to Schafer, it took her about three months to fully recover. Although Schafer is not able to identify what was in the muffin that caused the problems with her throat, she speculated in her deposition that "it had to have been something sharp and hard."

Schafer sued Perkins, alleging that the pumpkin muffin was in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to consumers, the defective condition was a direct cause of the injury to her throat, and, as a result of the injury, she suffered damages in the form of medical expenses, loss of earnings, pain, disability, and emotional distress. Perkins, in turn, asserted a third-party claim for contribution against Foxtail Foods, the company that manufactured the muffin mix Perkins used to make the pumpkin muffin.

After some discovery, Perkins and Foxtail moved for summary judgment, arguing that Schafer had failed to establish a prima facie case of negligence because she could not identify the object in the muffin that caused her injury. The district court granted summary judgment on that basis and the court of appeals affirmed. Schafer v. JLC Food Sys., Inc., No. A03-779, 2004 WL 78022, at *1 (Minn. App. Jan. 20, 2004). In affirming, the court of appeals relied on Kneibel v. RRM Enterprises, 506 N.W.2d 664 (Minn. App. 1993). Kneibel involved a case in which the plaintiff had eaten barbecued spareribs served by a restaurant. 506 N.W.2dat 665. At some point, while chewing on meat from the ribs, the plaintiff heard and felt a "crack" in his mouth and reflexively swallowed the food. Id. It was eventually determined that the plaintiff had cracked an otherwise healthy tooth all the way to the jaw. Id. The plaintiff was unable to determine what object, if any, caused the cracking sensation that resulted in the broken tooth. Id. The plaintiff sued the restaurant and others. Id. at 666. The defendants moved for summary judgment, which was granted, and the court of appeals affirmed on the basis that the plaintiff's failure to present evidence identifying the object that caused the alleged harm precluded him from establishing negligence. Id. at 666-67.

On an appeal from summary judgment, we ask two questions: (1) whether there are any genuine issues of material fact; and (2) whether the lower courts erred in their application of the law. State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn. 1990); see also Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03. In a negligence action, the defendant is entitled to summary judgment when the record reflects a complete lack of proof on any of the four essential elements of the claim: (1) the existence of a duty of care; (2) a breach of that duty; (3) an injury; and (4) the breach of the duty being the proximate cause of the injury. Gradjelick v. Hance, 646 N.W.2d 225, 230 (Minn. 2002). The elements most relevant in this case are proximate cause and breach.

Schafer argues that circumstantial evidence should be available to a plaintiff in a defective food products case for purposes of establishing liability when no harm-causing object can be identified. Schafer further urges us to adopt section 7 of the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability (1998), which recognizes reasonable consumer expectations in food products liability cases. Respondents, while conceding that circumstantial evidence should be available in defective food products cases for purposes of establishing liability in cases when the harm-causing object cannot be ...


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