Second Place Scholarship Essay

Second Place – Wenxi Zhang

Wenxi Zhang

  • 23 years old
  • St. Simons Island, Georgia

After receiving a Bachelors of Arts in Rhetoric at University of California, Berkeley, I wanted to confirm that a career in the law was indeed my calling. I worked for a brief time at Cerebellum Capital, a quantitative machine learning hedge fund in San Francisco. This experience in the financial sector pushed me in the right direction, and I will be attending University of Pennsylvania Law School Fall 2016.

The Responsibilities That Business Owners Have To Keep Customers Safe While They Are On The Business’ Premises From A Legal Perspective.

In an abstract or philosophical sense, there are a few ways to conceptualize the duties or obligations a business owner has to his patrons. When these obligations are constrained specifically to responsibilities while the customer is present in the business owner’s property, these duties become more defined by the knowledge each party has or could have, as well as the circumstances surrounding any incidents. Using particular cases as springboards, three ideas will be discussed as shaping business owners’ responsibilities to customers on their premises: implied representation or assurance that premises have been made ready and safe for an invitee’s reception, the lack of obligation to protect the invitee against dangers or hazards which are obvious and apparent, and legal responsibilities on the part of the business owner when the premises or a portion of the premises is put to a use not intended by the owner.

On January 15, 1998, a court of appeals reaffirmed an earlier decision against Helen Anderson, who had alleged that Service Merchandise Company, Inc. was responsible for her injury while she had operated an exercise machine on their premises. Anderson had been on the premises for a considerable time, browsing what was available until she had finally set her sights on this particular ski machine. After several others had tested out the machine, she proceeded to operate it. One of the nuts fell off of the machine, Anderson fell and sustained an injury. In thinking on how liable Service Merchandise is for this injury, it must be considered if the premises had been made ready and safe for Anderson, for as a customer, she is an invitee1 of the business owner’s property and could legally assume that the equipment on the premises was safe to use. Service Merchandise presented evidence that it had a practice of inspecting all of its equipment, which the Court found to be adequate in showing that the business had reasonably made the premises safe and ready for Anderson’s patronage. Thus, Anderson did not have sufficient ground to hold Service Merchandise accountable for her injury.

There are additional aspects of a business’s responsibilities to their customers that are better illustrated by a different case, Forest Cove Apartments LLC. v. Wilson. In Anderson et. al. v. Service Merchandise Company, Inc., neither party had disputed that the loose nut, which was the cause of the injury, was a hidden hazard. However, a court decided that when Teresa R. Wilson, who was an independent contractor, fell from a bathroom on an upper floor in an apartment complex, she had reasonable knowledge that the fall was a possibility. While it is indeed the obligation of a business to “exercise ordinary care to keep his premises safe for invitees,2” this obligation does not extend to dangers readily apparent. Wilson had testified that she knew the floor was moist, that there was extensive mold damage, and that the material seemed ready to crumble when she had encountered it. Therefore, Forest Cove Apartments legally had no ‘superior knowledge3’ of the premises’ conditions and was not liable for the incident.

And so, if a business owner’s duties to keep a customer safe is bound by their knowledge of the premises as well as the conscious diligence taken to maintain ordinary care of the premises, what about unforeseen situations? What can be expected of a business owner when a patron is not prudent? In Langston v. Home Depot U.S.A. Inc., Elizabeth B. Langston used a display shelf as a stepping stool for support as reached. When the shelf broke, she was injured and claimed that the business should be held responsible for the incident. Yet, the business had never intended the shelf to support human weight, much less be utilized as a stepping stool. As this hazard was an unforeseen one, several courts held that there was no breach of duty in such circumstances. Ultimately, the responsibilities that business owners have to keep customers safe while they are on the business’ premises from a legal perspective depend upon many variables. Nevertheless, the foundation of these responsibilities can be described as a constant and expansive obligation. After all, if the public is invited to frequent the business, it is fair to expect to be free from harm.

1 Service Merchandise Company had invited her as a member of the public for the purpose of business dealings, constituting an invitee.

2 Houston v. Wal–Mart Stores East, L. P., 324 Ga.App. 105, 107(1), 749 S.E.2d 400 (2013).

3 Carpenter v. Capital City Club, 299 Ga.App. 265, 266, 683 S.E.2d 351 (2009)

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