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Strahlendorf v. Walgreen Co.

Supreme Court of Wisconsin
May 1, 1962
16 Wis. 2d 421 (Wis. 1962)


In Strahlendorf v. Walgreen Co., 16 Wis.2d 421, 114 N.W.2d 823 (1962), the court recognized the defects in the privity rule in implied warranty cases and indicated that the end of the rule might be in sight, but it was reluctant to abrogate at that time.

Summary of this case from Drake v. Wham-O Manufacturing Company


April 2, 1962 —

May 1, 1962.

APPEAL from a judgment of the circuit court for Milwaukee county: WILLIAM I. O'NEILL, Circuit Judge. Affirmed.

For the appellants there was a brief by James D. Sammarco and Kersten McKinnon, attorneys, and E. Campion Kersten of counsel, all of Milwaukee, and oral argument by E. Campion Kersten and Arlo A. McKinnon.

For the respondent there was a brief by Wickham, Borgelt, Skogstad Powell, attorneys, and Kurt H. Frauen and Donald R. Peterson of counsel, all of Milwaukee, and oral argument by Mr. Frauen.

Action by plaintiffs Karen Strahlendorf, a minor represented by her guardian ad litem, and Harry V. Strahlendorf, her father, against defendant Walgreen Company to recover damages arising from an accidental injury to Karen resulting from the use by Karen's infant brother of a toy purchased from defendant.

Early in June, 1956, Karen's grandmother purchased three small plastic toy airplanes, mounted on a rectangular piece of cardboard, for 29 cents at one of defendant's drugstores in the city of Milwaukee. The manufacturer of these planes was Royal Tot Company, Inc., of New York City. Each plane was about two and one-half inches long, with a wingspan of about three and one-half inches, and was constructed a thermoplastic material. The nose of the plane was relatively blunt, as it was a simulated jet. Also mounted on the card was a small stick with attached rubber band which was intended to perform the function of a catapult in launching the planes. The card bore the picture of the head of a little boy whose age might be anywhere from five to ten years. It also showed a picture of a pair of hands, one holding the plane and the other grasping the stick and rubber band extended to the plane, to illustrate how the plane was to be propelled into flight. Taking the width of the plane to be three and one-half inches, the rubber band was drawn back from the stick to the plane a distance of less than 14 inches. The card also contained instructions describing how to launch the planes. It stated that the planes would soar approximately 1,000 feet, and that: "Your JET flies according to the direction of the takeoff and does stunt flying figures, loops, short inverted rolls, nose dives, turns, and wide glides."

The grandmother took this card with the three attached plastic planes to the home of her son, plaintiff Harry V. Strahlendorf, and gave it to her five-year-old grandson, Butchie, brother of Karen. That evening when Butchie's father returned from work, he experimented with two of the three planes for Butchie in the alley at the rear of their home. In so doing the father followed the instructions on the card. First he pulled the rubber band back only a short way and discovered that the plane would travel but a short distance and would then tumble down, not glide; nor would it go where aimed. The father then launched the two planes by pulling hard on the rubber band. Both zoomed off into neighbors' yards and were lost. The third plane was not launched at Butchie's request, but was preserved for later firing in an open field.

At the trial, the father testified that he thought the toy was dangerous and had forbidden his son to play with it. Also, that he had hidden the plane on a shelf in Butchie's closet which was beyond the boy's reach. However, the boy had retained the card on which the planes were originally attached. On August 3, 1956, Butchie somehow found the remaining plane and launching stick. He took them to the kitchen to show his six-year-old sister, Karen, how they worked. She was sitting under the kitchen window. He stood approximately five feet in front of her, and, apparently, aimed at the window expecting the plane to do a loop and come back to him. However, his mother, when testifying, illustrated the position of Butchie's hands when he released the plane. His right hand, which held the plane, was higher than the left hand holding the launching stick. This would indicate that Butchie's aiming of the plane was slightly downward. Butchie said, "Look, Karen," and let the plane go. It did not loop but struck Karen in the left eye seriously injuring it. Butchie's mother, who witnessed the accident, estimated that he pulled the rubber band back a distance of 14 1/2 inches in launching the plane.

The instant action was commenced May 29, 1958. Plaintiffs' complaint alleged three bases of liability:

(1) That defendant was negligent in selling a "dangerous weapon and an inherently dangerous instrumentality" which it should have foreseen might cause injury to minors;

(2) That defendant was negligent in failing to place a warning on the instruction card of the inherent danger to persons using the toy jet plane for the purpose for which it was intended; and

(3) That defendant impliedly warranted that the plane was safe for use by minors.

Trial was had to the court and a jury. At the conclusion of the testimony, defendant moved for a directed verdict in its favor on all issues. The court granted this motion with respect to the cause of action grounded on breach of implied warranty, but denied it "without prejudice" as to the cause of action grounded on common-law negligence. The case was submitted to the jury on a special verdict. Only the first two questions of the verdict related to liability issues. The remaining questions related to damages. The first two questions of the verdict, and the jury's answers thereto, were:

"First question: Was the defendant, Walgreen Company, negligent in selling the toy jet plane? Answer: Yes.

"Second question: If you answer question No. 1 `Yes,' then answer this question:

"Was such negligence, as found by you, a cause of the injury sustained by the plaintiff, Karen Strahlendorf? Answer: No."

In instructing the jury, the court made it clear that in answering question No. 1 the jury might consider any negligence on defendant's part in failing to give an adequate warning by label, or otherwise, and in selling an article which is not inherently dangerous but which is imminently dangerous when used as intended.

The parties filed the usual motions after verdict. In disposing of these motions the court filed an extensive memorandum opinion in which it stated: "The question of the negligence on the part of the defendant, under the circumstances of this case, was clearly one of law for the court." The court also observed that, if it had reserved its ruling on defendant's motion for a directed verdict on the negligence issue until after the return of the verdict by the jury, it would then have granted the motion. The court concluded that defendant's motion for judgment on the verdict should be granted.

Judgment was entered March 22, 1961, dismissing plaintiffs' complaint on the merits with costs. Plaintiffs have appealed therefrom.

We are confronted with the following questions on this appeal:

(1) Was the found negligence of defendant causal as a matter of law?

(2) Did the trial court err in failing to give a requested instruction on intervening cause?

(3) Should any issue of defendant's negligence have been submitted to the jury?

(4) Did the trial court err in directing a verdict with respect to the cause of action for breach of implied warranty?

(5) Were the damages determined by the jury for the injury sustained by plaintiff child so inadequate as to require a new trial?

Causation Determination.

Plaintiffs contend that the jury's answer of "No" to the second question of the verdict should have been changed to "Yes." This contention is predicated on the premise that the found negligence of defendant was causal as a matter of law. The complaint charges two grounds of negligence against defendant. The first alleged ground of negligence was the sale by defendant of an inherently dangerous instrumentality. The second was the failure of defendant to place a proper warning on the instruction card cautioning purchasers and users of the inherent danger of using the plane for the purpose intended. An examination of the trial court's instructions to the jury, given with respect to the first question of the verdict, discloses that both of these alleged grounds of negligence were to be considered by the jury in answering this question. Therefore, it is impossible to tell from the jury's affirmative answer to this first question whether they found defendant negligent in both respects, or only as to one of the two alleged grounds.

It is an entirely logical hypothesis that the jury could have concluded that it was not negligent for defendant to have sold the toy plane, but that it was negligent in failing to place a proper warning on the accompanying instruction card on which the plane was mounted. However, plaintiff Harry V. Strahlendorf, father of Butchie and Karen, testified that as a result of testing two of the three planes he became aware of the fact that they were dangerous and that the remaining third plane should not be intrusted to Butchie. This is why he hid the plane from Butchie. From this, the jury reasonably could have determined that the lack of a proper warning on the instruction card was not a substantial factor in causing the accident to Karen because the father had already been alerted to any danger such printed warning might have accomplished. This reasoning would justify the jury's finding that defendant's failure to warn was not causal.

However, even if the jury's affirmative answer to the first question was not based on a failure to warn but upon some dangerous propensity of the toy plane, it does not follow that such found negligence was causal as a matter of law. One of the dangerous propensities charged by plaintiffs was that the plane was so small and might be propelled at such great speed that it was practically invisible when traveling a distance of several hundred feet. If the jury had based its "Yes" answer to the first question on this dangerous propensity, it could well have concluded that this was not a substantial factor in causing Karen's injury in a situation where the plane only traveled five feet from Butchie's hands to Karen's eye.

The causation issue with respect to the found negligence on the part of defendant presented an issue of fact for the jury to determine, and the trial court was correct in refusing to disturb its finding.

Failure to Instruct on Intervening Cause.

Plaintiffs maintain that the trial court committed prejudicial error in failing to give the following requested instruction to the jury:

"If you answer the first question `Yes' [negligence question], then in considering your answer to the second question, whether the negligence of the Walgreen Company in selling the toy jet plane was a cause of the injury sustained by the child, Karen Strahlendorf, you are instructed that if the conduct of the grandmother in buying the plane and the subsequent conduct of the son and grandson in regard to the use of the toy jet plane ought reasonably to have been anticipated by the Walgreen Company as not entirely improbable, then you are not to regard the conduct of the grandmother, son, and grandson as breaking any causal connection you may find to have existed between the negligence of Walgreen Company and the injury to the child, Karen Strahlendorf." (Emphasis supplied.)

The emphasized words clearly interject the element of foreseeability into the jury's determination on the issue of causation. This court is definitely committed to the principle that, while foreseeability is an element to be considered by the jury in determining negligence, it has no part in the jury's decision of whether particular negligence found by it is causal. Pfeifer v. Standard Gateway Theater (1952), 262 Wis. 229, 234, 55 N.W.2d 29, and Osborne v. Montgomery (1931), 203 Wis. 223, 242, 234 N.W. 372.

With respect to the causation question, the trial court instructed the jury as follows:

"The inquiry presented by this question is whether the relation of cause and effect existed between negligence, or failure to exercise ordinary care, if found by you, and the accident. There may be more than one cause of an accident. The negligence of one person alone may cause it, or the negligent acts or omissions of two or more persons may jointly cause it as the word `cause' is used in this question. Before such relation of cause and effect can be found to exist, however, it must appear that the negligence, or failure to exercise ordinary care, under consideration was a substantial factor in producing the accident, that is to say, that it was a factor actually operating and which had a substantial effect in producing the accident as a natural result."

This instruction is substantially that embodied in Wis J I — Civil, Part I, 1500. Plaintiffs contend that this instruction did not sufficiently inform the jury on the effect of intervening or concurring negligence. However, the instruction given did inform the jury that there can be more than one cause of an accident and that the negligence of two or more persons may jointly cause it, but that it must appear that the negligence under consideration was a substantial factor in producing the accident. The fallacy in plaintiffs' contention is the implicit assumption that the question of intervening cause is for the jury. This court clarified the law on this point in Ryan v. Cameron (1955), 270 Wis. 325, 331, 71 N.W.2d 408, when it stated:

"Where intervening cause of another is interposed as a defense by a defendant charged with negligence who was the first actor, the jury is first required to find whether the found negligence of such first actor was a substantial factor in causing the accident on which liability is sought to be predicated. Pfeifer v. Standard Gateway Theater (1952), 262 Wis. 229, 55 N.W.2d 29. If the jury does find that the negligence of the first actor was a substantial factor in causing the accident, then the defense of intervening cause is unavailing unless the court determines as a matter of law that there are policy factors which should relieve the first actor from liability. Ibid. As Professor Richard V. Campbell points out in his recent article in January, 1955 Wisconsin Law Review, 5, at page 40, it is at this point that the principles of Restatement, 2 Torts, p. 1196, sec. 447, should be used by the court as an aid in deciding such policy factors."

This court adopted the principles of intervening cause set forth in Restatement, 2 Torts, p. 1196, sec. 447, in McFee v. Harker (1952), 261 Wis. 213, 219, 52 N.W.2d 381. This section of the Restatement provides that an intervening negligent act of a third person shall not be a superseding cause of harm to another, which the first actor's negligent conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about, if any one of three specified fact situations occur. The first of these, which is set forth in par. (a) of sec. 447, is where "the [first] actor at the time of his negligent conduct should have realized that a third person might so act." However, under our holding in Ryan v. Cameron, supra, it is the function of the court and not the jury to make the determination of whether the first actor, who has been found guilty of negligence, should have realized that some third person might act in the way that he did to help cause harm to another. As applied to the instant facts, the question would be whether defendant, in selling the toy plane, should have realized that Karen's grandmother, father, and little brother might act as they did. However, as a condition precedent to the trial court's being required to pass on this question, it would have been necessary for the jury to have determined that the defendant's found negligence was causal. The jury has found that it was not.

From the foregoing, it is apparent that the trial court did not err in refusing to give the instruction on intervening cause which plaintiffs requested.

Situations may arise in other cases in connection with an issue of superseding intervening cause, which will necessitate a jury determination of some disputed issue of material fact. However, once the jury has found the facts, it is for the court to determine whether the intervening cause is a superseding one which relieves the first actor from liability even though he has been found causally negligent.

Should Verdict Have Been Directed on Issue of Defendant's Negligence?

Defendant contends that it was free of negligence as a matter of law, and, therefore, that the trial court should have directed a verdict in its favor on the cause of action grounded on negligence as well as that based on alleged breach of implied warranty. Defendant is entitled to here raise this issue without filing a motion for review even though the trial court on motions after verdict did not change the jury's "Yes" answer to the first question of the verdict to "No." This is because such a change in the verdict would merely further tend to support the judgment. See sec. 274.12(2), Stats., and Pargeter v. Chicago N.W. R. Co. (1953), 264 Wis. 250, 253a, 58 N.W.2d 674, 60 N.W.2d 81. Even though the trial court did not change the jury's answer to the first question of the verdict, the memorandum opinion makes it clear that the court deemed defendant free of negligence as a matter of law.

Because of our conclusion that the jury's answer to the causation question must stand, it would be unnecessary to pass on this contention of defendant. However, we are fearful that a failure to pass on the negligence issue might hereafter be interpreted as an approval sub silentio that the mere selling by defendant of this small plastic toy presented a jury issue with respect to its alleged negligence in so doing. We are satisfied that, if there was any negligence on defendant's part, it was in failing to place a proper warning on the instruction card of the dangerous propensities of the plane.

There is no claim made here that defendant was the manufacturer of the plane. However, a retailer of a manufactured product, who is not the manufacturer, may render himself liable at common law for failure to warn of harmful propensities by label. Howard Stores Corp. v. Pope (1956), 1 N.Y.2d 110, 134 N.E.2d 63; Farley v. Edward E. Tower Co. (1930), 271 Mass. 230, 171 N.E. 639, 86 A.L.R. 941; 1 Frumer and Friedman, Products Liability, p. 457, sec. 18.02. In order to find negligence on a retailer for failure to warn, it is essential that the retailer have actual or constructive notice of the dangerous propensities of the article sold. The instant briefs do not discuss this aspect, nor do they cite authorities bearing thereon. Therefore, we expressly refrain from deciding whether the evidence adduced in the instant case was sufficient to warrant submission to the jury of the issue of defendant's negligence for failure to warn. But even if defendant was negligent in this respect, the jury has determined that such negligence was not causal.

We turn now to the alleged negligence of defendant in selling an article claimed to be inherently dangerous. Plaintiffs lay great stress upon the testimony of their expert witness, Harkness. Harkness is assistant chief engineer at the Briggs Stratton Corporation plant in Milwaukee and has studied and worked in the field of fluid mechanics and aerodynamics. He performed various experiments with a toy jet plane identical with the one which injured Karen.

Harkness testified that the plane was constructed of a thermoplastic material, and consequently was not of stable construction. Variations in shape of the plane gave rise to variability in flight. When the rubber band was pulled back a distance of 14 inches from the launching stick, the plane traveled at a speed of 33 feet per second or 22 1/2 miles per hour. A 14-inch extension of the rubber band was approximately the distance which Butchie had used in launching the plane which injured Karen. Harkness also testified that if the rubber band were extended a distance of 30 inches the plane was capable of a velocity of 133 feet per second, which is 91 miles per hour. He performed tests by aiming one of the planes at the center of a four-foot-square paper target. The results of these tests were: At a distance of six feet with a 14-inch stretch, the first impact was six inches below target; the second was one inch below target; the third was nine inches above target and five and one-half inches to the right; the fourth was 10 inches to the right on a level with the target; the fifth was 11 1/2 inches to the right and five and one-half inches low. In none of the tests did the plane do any loops.

Plaintiff Harry V. Strahlendorf testified that in his experimenting with two of the planes they did no looping or gliding. He stated that he was amazed at the speed and great distance that they flew. Thus, essentially the claimed dangerous propensities of these toy planes were their great speed and the fact that it was impossible to aim them with any accuracy because of their erratic and unpredictable course of flight.

Many years ago in Harris v. Cameron (1892), 81 Wis. 239, 51 N.W. 437, this court pointed out that many articles sold as toys and playthings for children may be converted into dangerous instrumentalities by improper use. Among the articles mentioned were air guns, bows and arrows. pocketknives, and baseball bats. The mere fact that a child is injured by the improper use of such a toy should not render the retailer who sold it liable in negligence. We deem that the instant toy plastic plane stands in the same category. It clearly was an improper use of the plane to aim it in the general direction of his sister Karen at a distance of only five feet and then launch it. Thus, the improper use, rather than any inherently dangerous characteristic of the plane, is the crucial factor.

In Beznor v. Howell (1930), 203 Wis. 1, 233 N.W. 758, it was held that a sparkler was not a dangerous instrumentality so as to subject the manufacturer and wholesaler to liability for injuries sustained by a seven-and-a-half-year-old child while playing with it on the Fourth of July. The opinion pointed out that no lack of care and skill in manufacture and no defect in the sparkler had been established. Likewise, in the instant case no defect in manufacture was shown.

It is our considered opinion that defendant cannot be held liable in negligence on the theory of selling an inherently dangerous instrumentality.

Implied Warranty.

The paragraph of the complaint, which attempted to allege a cause of action for breach of implied warranty, stated:

"The defendant, in selling said toy `jet' airplane, made an implied warranty to purchasers and persons using the same and to all persons necessarily affected by its use that said toy was safe for use by minors and others, which said warranty was breached by the defendant in that said toy `jet' plane was, in fact, a dangerous weapon and an instrumentality inherently dangerous and unsafe for such users and such persons."

The trial court directed a verdict for defendant on the ground that there was no privity between defendant and plaintiff child. Plaintiffs contend that this was error. However, irrespective of the issue of privity, the cause of action for breach of implied warranty must fail because of our determination that the toy plane is not a dangerous instrumentality. It is obvious that it was as safe a toy as an air gun, bow and arrow, or sparkler when properly used. Proper use required that the plane be launched in an outdoor open space in such manner as not to be aimed in the general direction of another child or person.

Plaintiffs make a strong argument urging this court to abandon its prior holdings that privity between plaintiff and defendant is an essential requirement of a cause of action for breach of implied warranty. This court is not insensible to the present trend in the law toward striking down the existing barriers to recovery in products-liability cases. We took a decided step in that direction in Smith v. Atco Co. (1959), 6 Wis.2d 371, 94 N.W.2d 697, 74 A.L.R.2d 1095.

A striking illustration of this liberalizing trend is found in the American Law Institute's Tentative Draft No. 7, Restatement, Torts 2d, p. 14, sec. 402A, and the accompanying notes of the reporter, Dean Prosser. This section imposes absolute liability, regardless of privity or negligence, upon a seller of defective food for human consumption or other products for intimate bodily use which are in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the consumer. The reporter's notes point out that "intimate bodily use" includes items such as hair dye, soap, detergent coming in contact with hands, permanent-wave solution, cigarettes, surgical pins for setting bone fractures, and poliomyelitis vaccine.

When this court declared by footnote in Smith v. Arco Co., supra, page 383, that Wisconsin requires privity in breach-of-implied-warranty cases, it was merely stating the then present status of our law. This does not mean that this court will adhere to this rule forever, regardless of the persuasiveness of the arguments made, or authorities cited, in favor of changing it. However, we do not deem the instant case a proper one in which to give consideration to this question.

Inadequate Damages.

By its verdict, the jury fixed the damages for Karen's personal injuries at $8,625. Plaintiffs argue that this sum is so inadequate as to require the granting of a new trial. This court adheres to the principle that the granting of inadequate damages to a plaintiff found not to have a cause of action does not necessarily render the verdict perverse. Dickman v. Schaeffer (1960), 10 Wis.2d 610, 617, 103 N.W.2d 922; Dennik v. Fox River Bus Lines (1960), 11 Wis.2d 177, 183, 105 N.W.2d 364. Therefore, we find it unnecessary here to review the evidence relating to the nature of Karen's injury.

By the Court. — Judgment affirmed.

I consider this unstable plastic toy airplane an inherently dangerous instrumentality for use by children. I find no evidence to sustain the jury's verdict that the negligence of the defendant was not causal. Certainly the grandmother's purchasing the toy and the father's hiding it was not causal negligence. The use of this toy by the minor plaintiff under the circumstances should not be considered an improper use of the plane and the cause of the injury whether the child shot the toy airplane five feet or 500 feet.

The majority opinion refuses to consider the important question of implied warranty on the ground the toy plane was not a dangerous instrumentality. I would consider and decide this question. The majority opinion is informative of the growing area of products liability but is unsatisfactory in avoiding a decision of the question which was well briefed, argued, and properly presented. In my view, privity of contract has no place in an implied-warranty case involving inherently dangerous instrumentalities particularly here where the intended use of the instrumentality was deceptively harmless to a child.

Summaries of

Strahlendorf v. Walgreen Co.

Supreme Court of Wisconsin
May 1, 1962
16 Wis. 2d 421 (Wis. 1962)

In Strahlendorf v. Walgreen Co., 16 Wis.2d 421, 114 N.W.2d 823 (1962), the court recognized the defects in the privity rule in implied warranty cases and indicated that the end of the rule might be in sight, but it was reluctant to abrogate at that time.

Summary of this case from Drake v. Wham-O Manufacturing Company

In Strahlendorf v. Walgreen Co. (1962), 16 Wis.2d 421, 114 N.W.2d 823, the writer dissented and advocated the abolition of the requirement of privity of contract in implied warranty cases.

Summary of this case from Dippel v. Sciano
Case details for

Strahlendorf v. Walgreen Co.

Case Details

Full title:STRAHLENDORF by Guardian ad litem , and another, Appellants, v. WALGREEN…

Court:Supreme Court of Wisconsin

Date published: May 1, 1962


16 Wis. 2d 421 (Wis. 1962)
114 N.W.2d 823

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