Roger Hill had been shopping at a Tripler Company store in Manhattan. As he went to leave, he tried to push open the glass exit door. The glass shattered, injuring Hill’s left knee—an injury that required two operations and permanently restricted his activities.
Before the accident, a Tripler employee had locked the door because it wasn’t working properly. Hill, however, had no way to know this; the store hadn’t put up a sign or given any other warning. The problem was compounded because the door was made of ordinary plate glass, rather than safety glass.
Hill sued the Tripler company and won a $400,000 verdict.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated case. Every day, customers and others visiting a retail establishment are injured. Many times, the injuries could have been prevented if the retailer had made safety a high priority.
On a personal level, you’ll certainly feel upset if someone is hurt on your premises. Your business may also suffer in many ways, both financial and nonfinancial.
Injured customers—and their families and friends—will probably boycott your business, and they may badmouth you to others, as well.
If the injured person sues your business, your time and energy will be sapped by investigations, depositions and possible trial testimony. Even if you’re insured, you’ll have to worry about paying the deductible and the part of the verdict that may exceed your policy limits.
All in all, it pays to invest in an ounce of prevention.
When it comes to safety, every retail location is unique. Still, you can draw some lessons from recent lawsuits against other businesses. Here’s a round-up of some typical cases.
Faulty Ramp Design—Tom Domangue, a paraplegic, had just left a pizza restaurant when his wheelchair left the entry walkway and catapulted him into the parking lot. Domangue sued, claiming that his accident was caused by a poorly designed handicap ramp. He was awarded $276,000.
Awkwardly Placed Displays—John Bernard was shopping at a food store. While looking at a deli showcase, he backed into a card table that was used to display cakes and pies. In the process, he injured his neck, back and legs. His court award: over $600,000.
Planter Hazard—Jane Rubin tripped over a 12-inch high planter in the lobby of an apartment building. As a result, she suffered permanent nerve damage. After a trial, she was awarded $841,500.
Wet Rug—Luther Burton walked into a store on a rainy day and tried to wipe his feet on a rug at the store’s entrance. The rug was wet because previous customers already tracked water over it. When Burton stepped off the rug onto the dry floor, he slipped and fell, suffering a broken hip. Burton sued, claiming the store should have replaced the wet rug with one of the four dry ones available in the back room. He was awarded $99,133.
Defective Elevator—Daniel Ferberich, a carpenter, had been hired to remodel the second floor of a business building. While he was using the freight elevator to take materials to the job, the elevator plunged to the bottom of the shaft. Several of Ferberich bones were fractured. He was awarded $563,000.
Ventilation System Problem—Lelona Seele inhaled thick smoke during a restaurant fire. As a result, she developed a permanent airway disease. A grease fire in the kitchen had spread rapidly because dust and grease in the duct work had ignited. The restaurant could have prevented the rapid onset of the thick smoke by keeping its ventilation system clean. A jury awarded Seele $692,500.
Slippery Floor—Julie Huff slipped on a wet tile inside a store, injuring discs in her back. The tile was somewhat slippery when dry, and downright dangerous when wet. The storeowner had been warned of the dangerous condition. After Huff sued, the case was settled for $100,000.
The cases above are just a sampling of the many preventable accidents that have occurred on business premises.
As you may know, the law doesn’t hold you responsible every time someone is injured on your business property. You can be legally liable, however, if you didn’t use reasonable care in keeping the place safe.
You are required to take reasonable steps to find and fix dangerous conditions. If you can’t readily remove a danger, you need to give a reasonable warning or put up a barrier.
The law demands that you make your premises reasonably safe for customers and potential customers, but the list of protected people doesn’t stop there. It includes practically anyone who is on your premises for a proper purpose.
So, you can be liable, for example, if a plumber, a UPS driver or computer consultant gets hurt. Visiting sales reps and people applying for employment are also entitled to safe premises.
How can you avoid accidents? Consider these suggestions:
Make a Checklist—Create an inspection checklist that you and employees can use periodically to look for potential hazards.
Ask for Help—Ask your insurance company or a safety expert to put together a safety program for your business.
Assemble a Team—Form a safety committee that includes employees. Have the committee meet regularly to consider safety concerns.
Provide Fair Warning—Be prepared to post warning signs or to close off an area of your premises if a safety problem suddenly develops. Have signs, orange safety cones and hazard tape readily available.
Empower Employees—Tell employees to inform a manager if they spot an unsafe situation. Let the employees know that they have the authority and are expected to take prompt action on their own if a manager isn’t immediately available to handle the situation.
Clean Up Promptly—Clean up spills immediately and make sure aisles are clear. Most accidents are of the slip-and-fall variety.
Be Proactive—Keep dangerous items in a restricted area, accessible only to you and knowledgeable employees.
Incentivize Safety—Let employees know that safety is important to you. Offer cash incentives for suggestions that make your premises safer.
If someone does get hurt on your premises, there are several common-sense steps you can take to protect your legal interests. First, make sure the injured person gets prompt medical attention. Offer to drive him or her to the hospital or nearest medical clinic.
Take photos of the area where the accident happened so you can later prove what it looked like. Finally, get names, addresses and phone numbers of everyone who saw the accident and the place where it occurred. Such information can be unbelievably hard to get after the fact.
Fred S. Steingold practices law in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is the author of Legal Guide for Starting and Running a Small Business and The Employer’s Legal Handbook, published by Nolo.
Legal strategies may vary depending on the state in which you live and the specifics of your situation. See your lawyer for legal advice.