What Makes Fall Cases So Difficult?
Isn’t the property owner always responsible?
You’re shopping in a department store, slip on something on the floor and fall to the ground, fracturing your shoulder. Or you’re in a hardware store, trip over the end of a rake that’s sticking into the aisle and fall forward, breaking your wrist. You’d think each store is responsible for your injuries, right? Think again.
Fall down cases are among the most difficult of the cases we commonly see. Why? A property owner is not liable simply because a shopper is hurt by something dangerous on the floor or in the store. The property owner is not responsible unless it’s done something wrong. This means that certain requirements have to be met:
What the law requires:
1. A dangerous condition must be present
2. The property owner (or its employees) knew the dangerous condition was there
3. The dangerous condition was there for a long enough time that the property owner (or its employees) should have known the dangerous condition was there
4. The property owner (or its employees)
a. did not correct or effectively warn of the condition
b. despite having had a reasonable opportunity to do so.
Confusing? Let’s take an example:
Imagine that late one Wednesday night you’re pushing your cart around the end of a supermarket aisle and into the aisle where the dishwashing soap is shelved. A moment later, you slip in a puddle of liquid soap and you’re injured. Is the puddle of soap on a supermarket floor dangerous? Of course.
But how can you prove that the store “knew” or “should have known” that the soap was there? It’s unlikely that a store employee will confess to carelessly handling the bottle and causing the spill. In fact, a shopper ahead of you may have dropped and broken the bottle just a minute before you arrived.
To hold the store liable, you need some evidence that the soap was on the floor for a while — long enough so that store employees, who are supposed to circulate and look for dangerous conditions, should have seen the spill and taken action either to clean it up or warn shoppers like you to go around it.
So how do you prove wrongdoing?
In a case we tried on these facts, our client dragged herself up into a sitting position and took a good look around. She saw tracks from the wet wheels of about half-a-dozen shopping carts that had already been pushed through the puddle and down the aisle. When put together with testimony that the store had not been crowded that mid-week night, it was obvious that other customers had already been through the same puddle, and that the puddle had been there for quite some time. Without our client’s observations, though, no matter how serious the injuries, the store would have escaped liability.