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The Legal Consequences of a Slip-and-Fall Accident

Written by  Michael Perazzo

 

Cleaning contractors know that if a slip-and-fall accident occurs in one of the facilities they maintain, and someone is injured, there is a possibility they will be called into an investigation as to how it happened and if the contractor or anyone is at fault. Because of this, along with doing your part to ensure the safety of building users, it is a good idea for cleaning contractors to be well-versed in the laws in the U.S. concerning slip-and-fall accidents.

According to the National Floor Safety Institute (NFSI), there are about eight million emergency room visits in the U.S. each year due to people that have slipped and fallen at home, at work, in a grocery store, in a restaurant or at school. When a slip-and-fall accident occurs, the victim may have to be hospitalized, may suffer temporary or severe injuries, may have to miss some or many days of work and may even be permanently injured. Understandably, if a slip-and-fall accident occurs in a commercial setting, some victims look to see if they can sue the owner of, for instance, the grocery store where the accident happened or the cleaning contractor maintaining the grocery store.

If an individual is the victim of a slip-and-fall incident, and if he or she is thinking of suing the facility where the accident occurred, or the cleaning company responsible for floor care, he or she may or may not have a case. In the U.S., the victim has to prove that an unsafe condition existed and that the defendant was negligent. He or she must also prove that the defendant knew of the situation or should have reasonably known about the unsafe condition.

Proving all of this can be difficult. As an example, let’s say a jar of olives spills in a grocery store aisle. The olives were packed in olive oil, and now that slippery oil is spread all over the walkway. A customer walks down the aisle, unaware of the spill on the floor, slips, falls, suffers an injury, and must be taken to the hospital.

So, does the customer have a case to sue the grocery store? Here are some of the issues involved that could determine if a person has a case or not:

  *   Did a store employee spill the jar of olives and fail to block the area with safety cones or fail to take other safety measures? If so, he might have a very strong case.

  *   Did the store manager know, or should he or she have known, about the spilled jar of olives? If the store manager did not know about it because the accident had recently happened in the few minutes before the fall, he or she might not have a case.

  *   However, if the store manager was aware of the spill, had adequate time to address it prior to the fall and did not promptly and properly attend to it, the odds are now in the customer’s favor and he or she might have a strong case. Note that the longer the spill is on the floor, the more likely the manager should have known about it and acted.

  *   What if the manager knew about the spill and had placed safety cones around the area? In most cases, the victim is out of luck here, so there is no use in calling the lawyer. This indicates that the store had taken reasonable steps to warn shoppers, and common sense says that he should have been more careful around the problem area.

This brings up another issue that is often discussed in such cases, and that is reasonableness.

Reasonableness as a Factor in Determining Cases

A cleaning contractor tells the following story: A major bank asked its cleaning contractor to strip and refinish the floors in its staff work areas, located on the upper floors of its building. The task was completed and the floors looked great. But a few days later, the contractor got a call from the bank. Apparently, a pregnant woman who worked on one of the floors slipped and fell. She was promptly taken to the hospital, and, fortunately, she and the baby were okay.

However, within a day of her accident, the bank’s legal department called the contractor wanting to know what chemicals were used on the floor, the name of the floor finish and if the company and its staff were experienced at refinishing floors. While the questions were reasonable, the contractor began to wonder if the bank wanted to point its finger at his company for causing the accident. This way, if a lawsuit was forthcoming, the bank could put some, if not all, of the blame on the cleaning company, thus saving the bank time and money.

Well, almost as quickly, the bank’s legal department backed off as details of the incident were uncovered. It appears this woman was not wearing shoes when the accident occurred, just socks. Further, she had been told in the past to always wear shoes due to the possibility that not doing so could lead to a slip-and-fall accident. And still further, all staff on the floors had been notified that the floors were being refinished that week and to be aware that the floors could be slippery.

In this case, reasonableness was not in this woman’s favor. She should have been wearing shoes, and she had been forewarned about the floor care that was taking place that week. Because of this lack of reasonableness, even if the woman wanted to sue, she likely would have a difficult case to prove.

Can Someone Sue After a Fall if the Floor Was Not Effectively Cleaned?

Going back to our grocery store incident mentioned earlier, and the legal issues involved, what if a store worker, aware of the spill, simply mopped the problem area? We know mops can spread as many soils and contaminants - in this case, olive oil - as they collect. And if the mop is already soiled and has been sitting in soiled water in a bucket, which often happens, it could be spreading all types of contaminants over the floor. What this means is that the very tool being used to fix the problem may actually make the problem worse.

So, in this example, even though the spill was “cleaned up,” the floor remained slippery. In fact, the attempt to clean up the problem may have even made the area more dangerous and slippery. Now does the victim have a case for a lawsuit?

According to the “Landlord’s Guide to Slip and Fall Accidents” in a rental residential building, “when a floor surface is not adequately cleaned, installed, or cared for, it may result in a slip and fall that can cause someone to get injured and launch a lawsuit that landlords can’t avoid.”

We can assume that the same would apply to our grocery store as well as many other types of commercial facilities*. To prevent this type of situation, some retailers are now using “quick response” floor cleaning systems to help ensure slip and fall prevention. Working like an automatic scrubber, these units release cleaning solutions to the floor as it is being moved over the problem area; agitation is provided by a pad behind the machine and all moisture and soils are then vacuumed up. No mops are used in the process.

As building managers and cleaning professionals, our goal is to help prevent slip-and-fall accidents, not only for the safety of building users, but also to prevent costly lawsuits.

A major step in accomplishing this is addressing spills as soon as they occur and cleaning them up using the proper and most effective cleaning equipment. In some instances, adopting these best cleaning practices may demonstrate a lack of legal negligence and ensure the health of a contract cleaning business even after a slip-and-fall accident.

Michael Perazzo is vice president of education and training at Kaivac. Previously, he worked with a major janitorial franchise, helping clients streamline cleaning effectiveness and efficiencies. He can be reached through his company website at www.kaivac.com

*Often the court will want records of how the floor has been cleaned and maintained on a regular basis as well as how it was cleaned at the time of the accident.

Sources: Slip and Fall Accidents, Proving Fault, Nolo Press

A Store’s Liability for Slip-and-Fall Accidents, by attorney Amanda Naprawa, published on “Alllaw.com”

 

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