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Premises Liability: Slips, Trips, and Falls

Business owners must remember that they have an obligation to provide a safe environment for customers, employees, and anyone else who is welcomed onto their property. Snow, ice, or rain create obvious dangers that are usually quickly addressed, but the obligation to provide a safe environment extends far beyond the bad weather months. In this regard, slip and fall injuries are one of the most common claims made against businesses, and they can be caused by numerous factors, such as the accumulation of precipitation in parking lots, sidewalks, and entryways; water spills in restrooms; the installation of slippery flooring; improper placement of product displays; or even poor lighting of the premises.

To protect themselves from liability, business owners should develop a plan for preventing such accidents. Having a plan in place that creates policies for monitoring and responding to dangerous conditions may help shield business owners from certain liability. Pursuant to Nebraska law, a business owner is subject to liability if the business owner created the conditions which caused the injury, knew of those conditions, or by the exercise of reasonable care should have discovered those conditions. By creating a plan for monitoring and responding to dangerous conditions, business owners will have a much better chance of discovering hazardous conditions before any injuries result.

The ability to limit liability by having a policy of monitoring and responding to dangerous conditions is supported by the Nebraska case of Herra v. Fleming Companies, Inc. In Herra, a customer was injured when she slipped and fell in the restroom of a grocery store. At trial, the customer testified that she was stretching to turn on the light in the restroom when she slipped and fell on a puddle of water on the floor. Though no one from the grocery store knew how long the water had been on the floor, the grocery store was able to establish that no one had reported the water on the restroom floor. Additionally, the grocery store offered testimony that the store had a policy of keeping floors clean, regularly inspecting the floors for spills, and immediately cleaning up any such spills. The Supreme Court of Nebraska held that the store was not responsible for the woman’s damages because it had a policy in place (and demonstrated that it followed such policy) to routinely inspect the store for spills and to clean any such spills up immediately. Therefore, because there was no evidence that the store created the condition, the store was relieved of liability because it exercised reasonable care by following its policy. Consequently, the mere fact that an injury occurred was not enough to establish liability.

The following practices should be part of any policy for monitoring and responding to dangerous conditions:

• Inspect the business premises and identify any potential hazardous condition;

• After identifying any potential hazardous condition, take steps to warn individuals of the hazardous condition;

• Implement a policy of frequent inspections by employees such as a “sweep log” or “inspection log” which records periodic inspections of bathrooms, hallways, and aisles for dangerous conditions;

• Install slip resistant floors in areas where ice, grease, water, or dust create slipping hazards;

• Use “wet floor” signs to warn visitors that a floor may be wet;

• Place dry mats at entryways and other places with heavy foot traffic;

• Keep gutters cleared to prevent ice accumulation on the roof of the building that may melt, drip, and refreeze in front of doors or on sidewalks;

• Beware of sloping surfaces in parking lots that may cause water to pool, and take steps to warn customers about these areas;

• Ensure that aisles and passageways remain uncluttered at all times; and

• Inspect lighting to ensure adequacy and promptly replace burned out light bulbs.

If business owners do not maintain safe premises, severe injuries to customers, employees, and others can occur and could expose the business to serious liability. By adopting a policy of frequent inspection and maintenance, a business owner may be able to reduce the risk of an adverse legal claim. In other words, a proactive attitude toward accident prevention will not only help prevent injuries, but will also help minimize potential liability of the business in the event of a slip, trip, or fall. If you need assistance with implementing a policy for monitoring and responding to dangerous conditions, please do not hesitate to contact any member of our Litigation Practice Group for recommendations.

by J. Daniel Weidner and Minja Herian