Many people hear stories about prominent personal injury cases, particularly those involving slips and falls at retail stores, and assume that the victims in these claims are just trying to earn a quick buck. To help dispel this misconception, we'd like to talk a bit about a premises liability case that another attorney recently referred to our office. It involved an elderly woman making a routine trip to Walmart when the management's carelessness resulted in a tragic outcome.
While every case is different, this incident provides an excellent illustration of why premises liability cases aren't just opportunities for fast money; they provide injured people and their families a vital avenue for justice. In addition, they give business owners a strong incentive to improve their practices, at the risk of further litigation. And that benefits anyone who visits the store by ensuring their safety.
How A Simple Bunched-up Rug Led to Tragic Consequences
This case involves a 94-year-old woman who was shopping at her local Walmart. She tripped and fell on a rug at the store's entrance, which had been bumped up into a pretty obvious trip hazard, particularly for someone older and less limber. She later died from the injuries sustained in the fall.
Now, at this point, you may be thinking, "An old woman wasn't watching where she was going and trips on a carpet, then dies, probably because she was so old. How is that Walmart's problem?" Fortunately for elderly retail shoppers, the law doesn't see things this way. First off, retail establishments and other places open to the public have a duty to protect visitors against dangerous conditions. (This obligation falls under the area of the law known as premises liability.)
These dangerous conditions don't just include open construction pits in the floor or broken shards of glass. They can also include a freshly mopped floor with no signage or a poorly lit parking lot that might lead someone to trip. Anywhere there's a hazard like these, the property owner has an obligation to either correct it or warn visitors about it.
Obviously, not every conceivable hazard exposes a business owner to this liability. Suppose that an employee spills their drink, and a child slips on it seconds later while running through the aisles, spraining their ankle. In this improbable scenario, there's obviously nothing anyone at the store could have done to prevent the accident. They didn't have enough time to even find out about the spill before someone slipped on it, and so they probably wouldn't be held liable. But those situations are pretty rare, compared to the number of cases in which management claims there was nothing they could do.
In the case at hand, a jury will ultimately have to decide whether employees of the store had enough time between the creation of the hazard (whenever the rug was bunched up) and the plaintiff's injury that they should be held liable for not correcting it. But it's worth noting that the rug in question was located at the front of the store, where an employee is stationed to greet shoppers at all hours, and a security camera is set up to watch for shoplifters. That makes it pretty hard to argue that there was no way anyone at this store could have noticed and corrected the issue before it led to a customer being harmed.
One last note about the victim's age and how it affects liability. It's true that age and physical condition probably did have something to do with her dying after her fall, where a younger person might have gotten off with just some minor injuries. But ultimately, civil law is concerned with who was responsible and the consequences of their negligence, regardless of the victim's age or pre-existing conditions. In other words, defendants found liable have to "take the plaintiff as they find them" and pay compensation based on the actual harm they've caused. (This is known as the "thin skull" or "eggshell plaintiff" rule.)
Having litigated several similar cases in the past, and with strong evidence of the store's carelessness only a subpoena away, we have every confidence that we'll be able to successfully hold them accountable and obtain justice for the victim's family.